The Last Word: Auntie's fall from grace is shameful

Handing over Grand National reins without so much as a fight shows the BBC's priorities are all wrong

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The Independent Online

Was Clare Balding gagged? Were the BBC embarrassed? Maybe they even kept away Sir Peter O'Sullevan from the live coverage like a feminist being denied the microphone at a bachelor party. Yet however strenuously the corporation masked the passing of an era, this was the day they turned their back on the Grand National.

"Good riddance," many will say, after witnessing the death of the Gold Cup winner, Synchronised, and According To Pete. Fair enough. I have reservations, myself, at humans enjoying a spectacular where animals routinely perish. But that is another argument. The BBC haven't walked away from the National – indeed, from the whole of racing – because of any concerns of safety or sensitivity. They have done so because of their increasing apathy to sport.

So, as far as the BBC were concerned, they went over the Melling Road, negotiated Becher's and ran around The Elbow for the last time yesterday. After more than half a century, the world's most famous race switched its home to Channel 4. It was a significant – maybe even "historic" – moment which deserved proper recognition, but instead they essentially chose to ignore it. All we got was one line from Balding followed by an inadequate montage at the end of the programme. Most had turned over or off by then.

But then, any red-faced shame in Shepherd's Bush or Salford is entirely justified. David Coleman summed it up best. In yesterday's Racing Post, the veteran presenter, who fronted the BBC's Grand National coverage for almost 25 years, let forth on his former employer. "I think it's the BBC's fault," said the 86-year-old. "I think they've just given it up. I don't think Channel 4 have had to fight to get it. It's a bloody disgrace."

In an Aintree hospitality tent, the man known as "The Voice of Racing" would have muttered "hear, hear". When it was announced the BBC were pulling out of televising the National and Royal Ascot and The Derby and, thus, racing, the old boy was apoplectic. "I have spent my lifetime lamenting the BBC's lack of interest in a sport that is woven into the fabric of the nation," said O'Sullevan. "There are people in their ivory towers at the BBC who have made a serious miscalculation over this decision."

No doubt those said suits peering high up from ivory would dismiss the two rants as emotive hogwash from dinosaurs who don't understand the modern trade. That's what arrogant accountants always claim. In truth, there isn't much to understand. Put simply, the BBC has other priorities.

Say for instance, their website, which has seen them plough tens of millions into the sport pages.

How about the Beeb doing what they were put there for and showing live sport, instead of merely covering live sport? I have no wish to see sports journalists at the website lose their jobs but the fact is that the website has helped close down the local newspapers where these sports journalists once worked.

It may seem radical, but why not invest this money in buying the rights for racing or for golf, or for all the other sports from which they are withdrawing? The BBC don't need to concentrate solely on broadcasting live F1, Six Nations, Wimbledon, The Open and, dare we forget, the Olympics. If they put sport higher up the pecking order than, for instance, brain-sapping reality shows there would be enough scope in the budget to return their portfolio to a respectable level.

"Who cares?" goes the majority response. Channel 4 is only another button on Freeview and those damned adverts are just part of life now.

Balding will be scooped up byChannel 4 and hurrah say all of us, because she is emerging as the British broadcaster of her generation. Yet this isn't a debate of the employment of an individual but something far more important and wide-reaching.

The BBC, because of its promotion capabilities, nets more viewers for sports than any other channel. And as a "public service" provider it has a responsibility to beam sport to as large an audience as possible.

But the Beeb don't look at it like that. They prefer to wash their hands of the liability and instead point the finger of blame at the sporting bodies who see on the bottom-line short termism of the contract and not the big picture of greater participation in their sport.

Granted, there is culpability. But that doesn't mean the blazers aren't charged with the mission of doing all they can to persuade these bodies to sign up with the BBC.

I have it on good authority that the BBC went into the recent negotiations with the European Touroffering exactly nothing but theexposure to continue screening the Scottish Open and the BMW PGA Championship.

Like Coleman says, "they aren't even putting up a fight". They are in the mindset of resignation – and resign many of them should unless they divert more of their funding in sport's direction. Ms Balding for Director General, I say.