Ken Jones: No cheers for the flag-wavers behind the microphones

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The Independent Online

In the last of his 63 years, a famously abrasive American columnist, Jimmy Cannon, made a statement about this trade that I have earnestly endeavoured to follow. Crippled by a stroke, but still hard and brave, Cannon said: "Sportswriting has survived because of the guys who don't cheer." What Cannon had in mind was the worthy principle that for sportswriting and broadcasting to have any relevance it must conform to the golden rule of objectivity.

In the last of his 63 years, a famously abrasive American columnist, Jimmy Cannon, made a statement about this trade that I have earnestly endeavoured to follow. Crippled by a stroke, but still hard and brave, Cannon said: "Sportswriting has survived because of the guys who don't cheer." What Cannon had in mind was the worthy principle that for sportswriting and broadcasting to have any relevance it must conform to the golden rule of objectivity.

The perspective of some who are occupying the press boxes and broadcasting points at Euro 2004 appears closer than ever before to that of supporters, leaving them just as vulnerable to the effect of winning and losing. This was particularly evident in the quite ridiculous excitement registered by two of the BBC's pundits, Peter Reid and Ian Wright, when Paul Scholes brought England level against Croatia on Monday. If they were embarrassed by the dubious decision to put such unseemly antics out for public consumption at the end of the programme, it was no more than they deserved.

The medium is the message. And now the message that filters through some sections of the media is all too clear. It speaks of bias and jingoism and a closer affiliation with the England team than any of the people I learned from would have permitted.

I cannot finger exactly when cheerleading began to gather pace, but Michael Owen's stunning strike against Argentina in the 1998 World Cup finals brought so many English football writers to their feet that the business of reporting football seemed to have changed beyond all recognition.

Sportswriters and broadcasters should not be subject to whim, pressures from sponsors, demands for ratings and circulation, passion for attention and other events of the day. Sport should be covered as seen, not from any personal or nationalistic leaning.

"I know that if we win some of our people are going to say, 'We have beaten the world,'" a West German journalist, Ulrich Kaiser, said amid the clamorous build-up to the 1966 World Cup final. "I hate that. I will not have beaten the world. Eleven German footballers will have beaten 11 from England to win a tournament. I will not have beaten anybody."

Those words are worth more than idle attention, but I suspect they would fall today on deaf ears. There have been many moments during this championship when the eagerness of some broadcasters to declare their unbridled support for England has been, to say the least, irritating. From the strength of knowledge and experience, the pundit's task is to strike a balanced point of view and leave the flag-waving to the fans. With the significant advantage of neutrality, Alan Hansen performs this with aplomb, his measured appraisal standing in contrast to the annoying chauvinism of Reid and Wright, his studio colleagues on Monday, who constantly brought a snort of annoyance from this quarter with their insistence on referring to Sven Goran Eriksson's team as "the lads".

The trick as performed by Hansen and ITV's leading panellists, Terry Venables and Andy Townsend, is to keep things in perspective and point out England's good and bad points, while not losing sight of the growing possibility that a team drawing confidence from the remarkable contribution made by the prodigy Wayne Rooney is equipped to go all the way.

England's supporters have been down this road before. Ever since 1966 it has been a tale of disappointment. However, there is plenty to suggest they have a squad superior to any in the tournament and out of it, a team capable of further improvement. "There is every reason to be quietly optimistic," Venables said when we spoke yesterday. "Rooney is astonishing, three of the midfield players have scored, and we [he can be excused that mildly patriotic reference] have not conceded a goal from open play."

Before the tournament, armed with information from abroad, and my own observation of televised matches, I turned a calculating eye on possibilities in betting. I concluded that England, at the near 9-1 initially available on the exchanges, were a good thing. None of the countries ahead of them on the board - France, Italy, Portugal, Spain and the Netherlands - looked remotely like value or were held to be in possession of greater immediate potential.

Italy, eliminated at the group stage, lived up to the low opinion of my informants, losing heart when the tide turned against them. Spain were Spain, promising much but again found wanting in a major tournament. Portugal just scraped through to today's quarter-final against England. France, the tournament favourites, fortunate to defeat England in their opening game, have been unimpressive. Thierry Henry scored twice against the tiring Swiss but, like Patrick Vieira, the driving force of Arsenal's midfield, has yet to play a big game.

So far, this has not been a tournament to quicken the neutral pulse. It has left me with the impression that Euro 2004 will fall into the hands of a decent team playing somewhere near to its full potential. England fit the bill, but give us a break. No more cheering in the television studios.

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