Brian Viner: It's sad, but Sky pair's real crime was to be caught saying what many think

It's dispiritingly likely that Big Ron's odious racist comments, much cited this week, would have raised a chuckle had they been issued in a different setting
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The Independent Online

Premier League football and the TV show QI are among the current enthusiasms of my 15-year-old son, and it was a recent edition of QI that introduced him to the old philosophical teaser, "if a tree falls in the forest and there is nobody around to hear, does it still make a noise?"

If celebrated brainbox Stephen Fry can't answer that one, then nor can I. But I can apply it to the storm that broke over the greying heads of Andy Gray and Richard Keys, following their ineffably sexist comments about assistant referee Sian Massey. Let's leave out of the equation the evidence of Gray's other act of crass sexism, the invitation to his colleague Charlotte Jackson to tuck a microphone pack down his trousers which, compounding the Massey business, yesterday cost him his job.

Instead, let's focus on the Massey story and ask ourselves what exactly is the crime here? Is it the holding of the conviction that women have no place in the overwhelmingly male, testosterone-fuelled world of Premier League football? Or is it simply being arrogant or plain daft enough to articulate it in the presence of recording equipment? And what, for that matter, is the story? That sexism is endemic in the world of sports broadcasting? Does Benedict XVI also veer towards Roman Catholicism?

Whatever, had it been an outbreak of swine flu rather than piety in the newsrooms of the nation's media outlets this week, then staffing levels would have been decimated. Some of Britain's most influential sports journalists were indignantly swinging the boot at Keys and Gray before yesterday's news came to light, that Gray had "previous". Yet I wonder how many of them have ever given vent to an opinion, a prejudice even, that might have damaged their careers had a nearby microphone picked it up? I know I have.

None of which is to defend the remarks about Massey, still less Gray's offensive behaviour towards Jackson last December. In Massey's case, it is quite plainly the ability of an official that matters, not the sexual organs, and to suggest otherwise is, aptly enough, complete balls. All the same, I have been troubled by the noise of the furore. After all, the British have an impulse to side with the perceived underdog, and before Gray's dismissal the radio phone-ins – like it or not, a pretty accurate barometer of what Middle England is thinking – were registering at least as much support as contempt for him and Keys.

Their Sky paymasters, meanwhile, should ask themselves whether, after all those blokeish sessions at all those bars down the years, they were truly unaware which way Gray and Keys swung, sexual equality-wise? If they had no idea, if they believed that their main football presenter and chief pundit were paragons of progressive thinking, then I can see why they have shown a red card to one, and a yellow card to the other. But if they knew, then why haven't the pair been warned long before? Sexism's not like pneumonia. It doesn't develop over a couple of wintry months.

No, Andy Gray's most sackable offence is to be caught on microphone and on camera, which is also how Ron Atkinson was undone. It's dispiritingly likely that Big Ron's odious comments about Marcel Desailly, cited by quite a few commentators this week, would have raised a chuckle, rather than a P45, had they been issued in a different setting. In broadcasting, and not a few other industries, nobody censures sexism and racism until they're aired in the wrong place at the wrong time.