TV's babbling gobbledegook of drivel and cliches

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The Independent Online

Of all the various qualities Johnny Miller brings to golf punditry, the most attractive is candour. Miller, a five-times major winner, has the most winning disposition and manner imaginable. But it is candour that sets him apart from most other sports broadcasters. "Chose the dumb option," Miller recently said on American television when a leading figure on the US Tour went from rough to water.

This took me back a bit, to an afternoon in Manhattan when the ailing New York Jets came under the caustic scrutiny of their great quarter back Joe Namath who stated that nothing short of a complete overhaul could restore his old club's fortunes. "They need to change the management, the coaching staff and most of the players," Namath said on television. "That's going to make me unpopular? So what? I've been hired to give an honest opinion."

Ideally, a broadcasting team should have a commentator who can supplement the picture with a clear narrative in unhysterical English, and a colour man who can interpret what is happening in plain English. Both of them would add levity when possible, inject notes and sketches on personalities when appropriate, and keep any eye out for the mad doings of people on and off the field. They would not belabour you with statistics and they would know when to shut up and let the action tell the story. Perhaps we will live to hear it.

That kind of performance would in the long run be the best possible promotion for sport. Unfortunately, these days television and sponsors prefer the hype of "jock" interpreters, who, with rare exceptions, infect the experience with their gobbledegook. What you usually get from them is a combination of the broadcasting and sports mentalities, which is like crossing a second hand car salesman with a professor of Sanskrit. He talks a lot and you don't know what he is talking about. The television mentality shills for sport by apologising and ingratiating itself with the viewer at every turn. The "jock" mentality retreats behind jargon and cliché, and doesn't have the training or inclination to conduct a coherent interview.

"Are you disappointed?" a well-beaten British athlete was asked at the World Athletics Championships in Edmonton.

As Miller and a handful of others continue to prove, there is some daylight out there. Remarking on the two-shot penalty Ian Woosnam incurred for carrying a club too many into the final round of the Open Championship last month, Peter Alliss did not find the Welshman blameless. "Look after your kit and it will look after you," he said. "Clearly, Ian wasn't in the Army."

Richie Benaud's stature in cricket broadcasting was established from the moment he first sat behind a microphone. When Benaud, a trained journalist, was asked if the run-up of a patently mediocre Australian medium-pacer brought back memories of Ray Lindwall, he said, simply: "No, it doesn't". When another former Australian Test player turned commentator, Jack Fingleton, passed judgement on a dismissal being technically analysed by a battery of BBC Radio commentators, he said: "Played a bad shot".

Today, people covering sport on television see so many "remarkable" and "courageous" things happening that the English language is debased to a duffle bag of clichés and adjectives: "great" turns are followed by "terrific" runs. Worse, many of the recruits from professional games-playing have wrought havoc in the land by spreading the mystique of strategy, formations, focus, momentum and goodness knows what else. In recent times they have not babbled so much about cunning patterns because instant replays have shown that some of these mysterious pass routes generally consisted of a guy running to the far post, throwing up his hands and yelling for the ball.

Most professions and clans, of course, have their own special language. The medical profession talks one tongue and the City another. These private tongues serve as a sort of stockade, giving insiders – and those who have come to imagine themselves as insiders – a cozy sense of belonging, mystifying outsiders and keeping them outside.

Distortions and a gift for humourless non-stop overstatement of the obvious can turn the toothless tigers among commentators and pundits into parodies of themselves. They are not there to supplement the event, they are there to supplement themselves.

This, apparently, is good showbiz. So is the screeching of monkeys in a zoo, although the monkeys have the sense to screech monosyllabic screeches.