James Lawton: Broadcasters must know their sport – but also right and wrong

Sky pair have only themselves to blame as they pay the price for sexist 'banter'

When all the machete work on the undergrowth surrounding the Andy Gray-Richard Keys controversy is done – and, heaven knows, it is no light chore – we will still have one inalienable fact.

It is that however many vengeful enemies they made in their now fallen Sky Sports empire, and whatever the rashness of Gray's decision to sue the News of the World for alleged phone hacking at a most delicate time for the parent Murdoch organisation, they ultimately have only themselves to blame.

They were supposed to be pillars of the sports broadcasting business working for a company that substantially owns football. Instead, by their own confession, they were practitioners of "lads' mag" banter, they were men not only behaving quite badly but without half a set of wits between them.

By the sound of it, the politics and the operating morality of Sky Sports is a place not so much for consenting and ambitious adults but those equipped with armour plating – especially across their backs – and, if you happen to be female, a much greater than average physical attractiveness. But this isn't the issue in the Gray-Keys affair, no more than the fact that Sky's sister organisation, The Sun, each day displays its own version of sexism in wry little picture captions detailing the philosophical leanings of their Page Three models – one day Voltaire, the next Socrates or Confucius.

So now a large army, marching in defence of the off-air, casual sexism of Gray and Keys, rages about the hypocrisy of their firing by a firm which on a daily basis flogs naked breasts with a little ridicule on the side.

Sure, there is a certain dichotomy here but this still doesn't get us away from the fact that Gray and Keys were less than careful about their contempt for the 25-year-old assistant referee Sian Massey – and the fact that its only foundation was that she happened to be female. Outstandingly fit, a qualified PE teacher, and, as she soon proved in her Premier League debut, abundantly appropriate for the challenge, Ms Massey was all of these things, but unfortunately she was also a woman.

This, obviously, invites a wider question. If Gray and Keys could be so candid and crass in the TV studio about their dismissive attitudes to a woman in football, if, as it turned out, they could, respectively, also make crude jokes directed at a female colleague and quiz Jamie Redknapp on the sexual content of an old relationship, what trust could be placed in their reactions to some of the bigger issues in the national game they covered: not inconsiderable matters like greed and cheating and wholesale shedding of professional responsibility?

If you make jokes about the grandeur of your professional life, and, in the case of Keys yesterday, talk about how the envy of media colleagues operating a lot further down the food chain has erupted in the last few days, there is probably a strong case for behaving as men of the world aware of certain of life's basic issues, rather than mere bantering blokes parading their foibles to no one's amusement more than their own.

The question is not so much whether Gray and Keys overstepped the mark but, ultimately, if they were ever truly up to it.

A certain prejudice – it has to be allowed – may be at work here. Gray's experience of football and the courage and power he displayed as a striker for Aston Villa and Everton and Scotland are not in dispute, but his style, when it came to delivering the hard comment, the biting view of a detached professional, was at times less than riveting and especially not when he speculated on how well, or not, Lionel Messi might get on against Stoke City.

Keys? His declaration, while reflecting on the appointment of Ms Massey, that football had gone mad might have been more wisely reserved for better examples, and not least his assumption that he had graduated beyond being an accomplished, publicly amiable TV frontman and had become something of a seer.

What we are not talking about are great broadcasters insulated against evidence of a deeply flawed view of certain aspects of human development, including the right of women to be judged not on the accident of their sex but their ability to do a job.

Most everyone could be similarly tarred, we are told, but what does that say about who we think we are?

Is an interest, even a passion, for sport enough to separate us from the requirements of the wider world? Is sexism less of an offence if it is directed towards a woman running the line at Wolverhampton rather than an Oxbridge graduate applying to the Civil Service or the Inns of Court or a teaching hospital?

What do we want from a top sports broadcaster, what marks him out? We want someone who knows his sport, the tradition of it, the mysteries of which are often hidden from the common view, but also one who knows life, what is right and what is wrong in it, and thus can provide some perspective, some insights upon which everyone, however ignorant, can seize.

Ultimately we want someone apparently unavailable for the moment, someone like the masterful Peter O'Sullevan, who before he became a race-caller of genius and a man admired both in and out his sport, spent part of his life rescuing victims, and recovering bodies in the Blitz. Before he learnt about horses, truly, O'Sullevan made himself familiar with the rigours and the inequalities of life.

Times, and values, change of course and Gray and Keys have enough problems without inflicting impossible comparisons. However, when Keys yesterday defended his position in a long and somewhat rambling radio interview, he talked of the envy of colleagues and dark forces at his place of work.

But then as dark forces go, prejudice and inequality are not to be discounted. Well, it was nice to think so before they came dressed up as the merest banter.

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