The Last Word: Politicians must dig deep to save the crown jewels

Instead of cutting grass-roots spending by 20 per cent Parliament can solve free-to-air mess by coughing up

Any issue which can induce sympathy for a cast list ranging from Rupert Murdoch to Dougie Donnelly to little Johnny at No 73 who wants to be the next Freddie Flintoff just has to be complex, and so is this "free-to-air" saga which has re-hit our screens. It will be such a gripping thriller as it is hard to spot the villains from the heroes. Even as far as Mr Murdoch is concerned.

Quite rightly it has already been widely accepted that no blame should be attached to the panel – led by David Davies and including Donnelly, Eamonn Holmes and far more worthy members such as Angus Fraser and Hope Powell – charged with updating the list of "Sporting Crown Jewels", first protected for terrestrial consumption in the 1996 Broadcasting Act.

The rather thankless task facing Dougie and Co was, in the words of the still insufferably smug Davies, "to look beyond the interests of any one sport and assess the events that have special national resonance in the modern age". They duly kicked out the Rugby League Challenge Cup final and welcomed in The Ashes. Predictably, the insult was taken like a Lottery win and the compliment like free membership into the Let's Keep RBS Afloat Club. The argument will proceed to rage until the panel's recommendations are either implemented or rejected.

The battle lines have already been drawn. A number of sporting organisations will be fighting their corner, although it is the protestations of the England and Wales Cricket Board that will continue to attract the most headlines. That is appropriate enough, as their opposition sums up the entire ethical mess.

On one half of the debate are those money-obsessed blazers from Lord's, backed by Sky, that veritable sporting Darth Vader inexorably extending its empire by denying Britain's underprivileged the few bright spots in their otherwise bleak existence. And on the other half is the ECB warning of the dire effects the financial downside would have at grass-roots level. Little Johnny may very well be inspired by watching Flintoff's deeds, but when he ventures outside to emulate his idol the only cricket equipment available might be of a vintage only Barney Rubble would recognise...

Here, most definitely, is one of those unwinnable, unsolvable quandaries. There is no ideal solution. After all, we can't have it both ways. But we can, we really can. All it would take is for Parliament to take sport, and the responsibility for their funding of it, seriously. But the politicians have consistently refused to add any sausage to all that "inspirational" sizzle.

Indeed, so entrenched is this two-faced attitude in Westminster that the sporting authorities don't even bother to highlight this grotesque hypocrisy any more. In fact, the politicians themselves do not acknowledge these crocodile tears – not even when they're spewing forth out of their own body.

Take Tessa Jowell's words when The Ashes on Sky furore first flared up a few years ago. "Critics of the ECB's decision have to answer one simple question," said the then Secretary for Culture, Media and Sport. "Where else could that money for the grassroots game come from, if not from the selling of those TV rights?"

Well, the critics might just have been minded to pose the radical viewpoint that the Government could have provided the money. Yes, you know, that elected representative body which got in partially on the promise that it would get the youths off street corners and on to sporting fields to do something worthwhile and, more importantly, healthy with all that energy. Surely Jowell could see that?

She probably could, but as she was in the process of being moved over to become Olympic Minister she probably decided it was a good time to thicken the smokescreen still further over who should be paying for what.

Funding for grass-roots sport has fallen by more than 20 per cent as the Government continues to redivert Lottery cash to foot the monstrous Olympic bill. That's £120m less a year to develop the sporting dreams of the little Johnnies of this country. And all in the name of "inspiring the youth to play sport". Therein lies the absurd insincerity at operation; therein lies the truth of the lack of qualified coaches and adequate facilities at local level; and therein lies the reason why, in this "free-to-air" storm over the forthcoming months, Parliament will have no right to give the ECB, the Scottish Football Association or whoever any moral lectures about "the bigger picture".

It's thanks to them that the ECB have to develop the playing of, and the interest in, cricket in this country with barely any financial assistance, so it's thanks to them that the ECB require the TV rights bidding process to achieve the necessary finance. To them it's a game of survival. The politicians should enter the row with substantive answers and the only answer with any substance as far as they're concerned would be to raise central funding to cover the shortfalls. But they would never do that, now would they?

Believe it, this "Crown Jewels" hoo-ha will be typical of Parliament's shameless wish to make grand sporting gestures only when it involves sport paying for it. Stump up or shut up. Or preferably both.

Letter of the week

James Corrigan writes about Gaël Kakuta: "Remember an 18-year-old boy is an innocent victim." If I'd been called a boy when I was a hulking 18-year-old, I'd have smite that person! Like Kakuta, I was hundreds of miles from home, forging a new life for myself. Eighteen-year-olds aren't as frail as some think, and I had the time of my life, as I'm sure Kakuta is. The only difference being I was earning £45 per week. I'm pretty sure he is more comfortably off. Let's not patronise teenagers – 18-year-olds are adults not children and more resilient than some think.

GUV 111 (website)

Have your say

Do you agree or disagree with James Corrigan? Email your thoughts about any article in The Independent on Sunday's sport section to the editor m.padgett@independent.co.uk

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