The football commentator Andy Gray was yesterday sacked by BSkyB from his £1.7m-a-year job following the emergence of a succession of recordings in which he could be heard making sexist comments – prompting speculation that he is being punished for suing Rupert Murdoch's News Corp, the company's largest shareholder.
The satellite broadcaster said that the former Scotland striker had been fired as its star football pundit after the discovery of "new evidence of unacceptable and offensive behaviour". A day earlier Gray, 55, had been taken off air after the leaking of a conversation between him and fellow presenter Richard Keys in which the pair mocked a female assistant referee and Karren Brady, the vice-chairman of West Ham.
A second leaked clip, involving Gray and football reporter Andy Burton, contained further comments about the female official, Sian Massey, 25.
The new evidence, a third clip posted yesterday on the website YouTube, dated from last month and showed Gray in the studio before going on air, lewdly asking his co-presenter Charlotte Jackson to tuck in a microphone near his waist.
The scandal coincides with a legal action being brought by Gray against News Corp, which is the largest shareholder in BSkyB and is controversially bidding to take complete control of the broadcaster. Gray claims that he was a victim of phone-hacking by the News of the World, one of Mr Murdoch's British newspapers.
One source close to Mr Gray yesterday described the sacking as "retribution". One colleague said: "This has been done from the inside. The whole thing is murky. I don't want to sound like a conspiracy theorist but Mr Murdoch is in town and Andy Gray is suing."
Mr Murdoch is currently in London, as his bid to buy out BSkyB faces probable referral to the Competition Commission. Mr Murdoch is said to be furious at the damage to News Corp's reputation by the long-running phone-hacking scandal. Mr Gray is one of a series of figures from the worlds of entertainment, sports and politics who are suing the publisher based on claims that their voicemails were unlawfully intercepted by the newspaper.
The explanation for the leaked clips of Gray could be more straightforward. Gray, a product of the football culture of the Seventies and Eighties, had upset other colleagues with his dressing-room-style banter. The freelance political journalist James Macintyre was alerted to the clip with Ms Jackson by a Sky employee and encouraged to bring it to further attention.
But conspiracy theorists pointed out that Keys, 53 – who telephoned Ms Massey to apologise for his remarks - had not been sacked. In the first leaked recording, ahead of last Saturday's Premier League game between Wolverhampton Wanderers and Liverpool, Keys said: "The game's gone mad. Did you hear charming Karren Brady this morning complaining about sexism? Do me a favour, love." The comments of the two Sky presenters have provoked widespread criticism from within the game of football.
Ferocious treatment was meted out to Gray by the News International titles, usually highly conscious of their corporate loyalties. News of Gray's sacking was stridently broken by his colleagues at Sky News yesterday. They reported a statement by the Sky Sports managing director Barney Francis, who said: "We have no hesitation in taking this action after becoming aware of new information."
The Times, another News Corp title, also gave the story great prominence. On the same newspaper's website yesterday, there were readers who felt they weren't being told the full story. "I can't help but think, with Keys staying, there is a distinct whiff about the whole episode," commented Nick Dixon. "Gray has obviously ruffled the feathers inside Sky HQ and they wanted him gone." It's a reasonable conclusion, but the question is: whose feathers?