Shennan's BBC empire is striking back

`We keep reading that we are arrogant, or complacent, or that morale is at an all-time low, and it is simply not true'
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ON SATURDAY 31 July, 1999, Des Lynam returned from a two-week holiday in Spain having reached the momentous decision to quit the BBC, following an offer made a month earlier by his old colleague Brian Barwick, now Head of Sport at ITV. At 9.10 on Monday morning, at his agent's office high above London's Regent Street, Lynam took a deep breath and plunged into what he now says was one of the most daunting experiences of his life. He phoned his friend Will Wyatt, effectively the BBC's deputy head honcho, and asked if he could see him in his office, just up the road at Broadcasting House.

Wyatt - who had in the past received occasional broadsides from Lynam about the scheduling of Match of the Day, among other things - told him to go straight round then called Bob Shennan, the Head of Sport, to ask what was troubling Des. Shennan didn't know. Minutes later, Lynam arrived in Wyatt's office. "Will, in the all-time list of difficult conversations, this is up there in the top five," he said. "I'm quitting."

A little later, Shennan took a call from a shell-shocked Wyatt. Lynam had resigned, without giving his employers of 30 years a chance to slap a counter-offer on the table. In any case, the opportunity to present live Champions' League and FA Cup football was not one they could match. So Des, a BBC asset at least as cherished as the back catalogue of Dad's Army, had gone to the other side, the home of Rising Damp. Could this be confirmation that there was rising damp in BBC Sport? Shennan, 37 years old and one of the Corporation's risen stars, knew exactly what line the media would take. But he barely had time to compose his thoughts when his phone rang again.

It was Lynam, by now installed in a quiet room at ITV Network Centre, of all places. Had Shennan heard from Wyatt, Lynam enquired? Yes, he had. Shennan protested that Lynam still had nearly 18 months left on his contract, that the football season was about to begin. Lynam was unmoved. It was a decision made for himself, he said, not against the BBC.

At 11.30am, around the time that ITV unleashed a press release announcing its dramatic signing, Shennan spoke to Gary Lineker's agent, Jon Holmes. By 4.30pm, a deal had been struck, in effect making Lineker - whom the BBC had been assiduously grooming for eight years - the new face of football. "Tell you what, football's back," said Lineker, lounging in his seat at the start of that week's Match of the Day. It was an affectionate parody of Des, of Lineker's own devising. Then he sat up straight. "Was that OK? Have I got the job?" The question was purely rhetorical. "Everyone was talking about [Lynam's departure] as a calamitous ending," Shennan tells me. "But by the end of the week it already felt like the beginning of a new opportunity, which is what Des himself said it would be. Plans were firmly in place for life after Des."

The furore surrounding the departure of Lynam does, in retrospect, seem a little over the top. Just as we are entitled, as a nation, to feel slightly embarrassed by our response to the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, so we perhaps overreacted to the news about Lynam, which in some quarters was given the same import as the defections of Philby, Burgess and McLean put together. Nevertheless, whether real or perceived, the loss of Lynam was another resounding blow for BBC Sport, which had already become something of a media punchbag, lambasted for not hanging on to the FA Cup final, to Formula One, to Five Nations' matches at Twickenham, to Test cricket.

The lambasting goes on. Only last week the BBC was dealt another major disappointment with the decision of the European PGA to extend Sky's Ryder Cup contract, a contract Shennan had been gung-ho about winning back. The BBC had constructed "a comprehensive and impressive" offer, he says now. He sensed that the PGA "were agonising about which way to go". But, whether in agony or not, they went with Sky, causing one newspaper columnist to assert that with the Ryder Cup had gone BBC Sport's "last hope of retaining credibility." Shennan, I sense, would not dismiss such a remark as garbage for fear of denigrating garbage. But let him speak for himself.

We are in his spacious office at Television Centre, where I spy a photocopy of my own Independent column of a few weeks ago, gently deriding the BBC over the loss of major sporting events. The offending paragraphs are highlighted in vivid, not to say livid, pink. "It's easy to say that BBC Sport is finishing the millennium on a disastrous note," says Shennan. "But it distorts the reality. The one absolute is that the BBC will be there broadcasting sport in the next century, and you can't be certain about our commercial rivals because for them it always depends what the sales houses say. And this is still the place where everyone who makes sport wants to make sport. I can't remember the last person who left our production team ... yes I can, he went to Sky but he came back 18 months later."

Bravo, but then nobody is accusing the BBC of letting production standards slip. Quite the reverse. Its Wimbledon coverage, for instance, gets better and better. Everyone is very pleased with Lineker and Sue Barker. John Inverdale, says Shennan, is "an emerging talent", ditto Clare Balding, Roger Black and Hazel Irvine. In a way, all the media barbs add up to a backhanded compliment. The BBC is still peerless in its coverage of most sports (although Shennan admits to admiring and even "learning from" aspects of Sky's football coverage, while quickly adding that he finds other aspects "a bit gimmicky and irritating") and that is partly why we get indignant when big events go west - sometimes literally, to the Sky compound at Isleworth. And sometimes to ITV.

"Yes," says Shennan, with a sigh. "But when you start from a position of broadcasting pretty much every sporting occasion you want to, and move into a world where there is huge commercial competition, where rights fees have escalated beyond everyone's expectations, some events are bound to go. It is our job to reposition ourselves in this world. In the meantime, we still have the finest portfolio of any terrestrial broadcaster. And 20 Premier League chairmen will tell you that Match of the Day is the single most important football programme on TV. It gets six million viewers, which is more than Sky get all week."

If the BBC were to lose Match of the Day, would Shennan then acknowledge that irreversible decline had set in? He sidesteps the question with the agility of his hero Michael Owen (the BBC's Head of Sport is a Liverpool fan). "You assume that if that were to happen, we wouldn't be doing something else significant in football. The BBC will not be without a foothold in Premiership football."

Which is all very well, but not so very long ago Test cricket looked pretty sacrosanct too. Shennan is sternly insistent that the BBC's pitch to the England and Wales Cricket Board was not, as was alleged, lacklustre and complacent. "We keep reading that we are arrogant, or complacent, or that morale here is at an all-time low, and it is simply not true."

Nevertheless, morale took a hefty knock when the ECB threw in its lot with Channel 4. Shennan was at Wentworth that day, overseeing coverage of the World Matchplay golf championship. But when Mike Miller, the BBC's sporting rights negotiator, called with the unexpected bad tidings, he hurried straight back to Television Centre "to talk to the troops". He was accompanied by the heavy mob - Alan Yentob, the director of television, and Peter Salmon, controller of BBC1 - which indicates the scale of the upset. But Shennan assured the staff that BBC Sport would bounce back, and three weeks later it did, winning the contract to televise athletics. This time, however, there were murmurings that the BBC, determined to strike a blow of its own, had paid over the odds.

Shennan gives a bitter smile. "We are damned if we do and damned if we don't. We didn't offer enough for cricket, but paid too much for athletics and Wimbledon. No, the athletics deal was in the long-term interests of us both. We're not like ITV, who nicked athletics in the mid-1980s, promised it everything and then dumped it, which was the start of the sport's problems. Athletics came back to us, as other sports have, and will, because it was starved of exposure and sponsors were complaining. And our athletics coverage has brought a young, multicultural audience which maybe eclipses that of cricket."

This is a dig at Channel 4, which assured the ECB that it would expand cricket's core audience - mostly men over 45. In fact the audience profile has hardly budged, say BBC demographers, a claim I compared in my pink- highlighted column with that of a school bully shouting "yah boo sucks" after the kid who has given him a split lip. Shennan seizes on this as further evidence of inconsistency from his critics, accusing him of complacently losing cricket, then peevishly scrutinising its progress on Channel 4. He has a point. There is a streak of paranoia on the fifth floor of Television Centre, but as the old joke goes, being paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you.

For example, there has been criticism that football's forthcoming World Club Championship, which will reach us courtesy of the BBC, is an irrelevance, and that the rights were secured only because nobody else much wanted or needed them. Shennan begs to differ.

And he complains bitterly about the perception that the BBC's rugby coverage is much diminished. "They say we've lost rugby. But we have done a long- term deal for the [rugby league] Challenge Cup, and we'll be covering 90 per cent of the new Six Nations, we just don't have England at Twickenham." It's a pretty big "just," and ITV did broadcast the Rugby World Cup, but I don't want to interrupt his flow. "We did a fantastic deal for European Cup rugby, right under the noses of Sky, who use sport as a battering ram, though it's worth pointing out that four million people watched Bath v Toulouse on Grandstand the other week, while only 70,000 watch the Allied Dunbar [Premiership league] match on Sky."

He is preaching to the converted. We know that sport reaches far more people on terrestrial telly, we just want to know that terrestrial telly, and the BBC in particular, is fully committed to sport. There is certainly no doubting Shennan's commitment, and with Greg Dyke as the incoming director- general, he will soon be answerable to a well-known sports nut. That said, there are plenty of other department heads with their eyes on the Corporation coffers.

We will have to wait and see whether Dyke makes a difference. In the meantime Shennan points, with justifiable pride, to Five Live's radio coverage. Yes, Talk Radio snatched away the contract to cover England's cricket tour of South Africa, "but they made their biggest play for Premier League football and Formula One, and we kept both of them". And a weary yes, the Sports Personality of the Century (to be transmitted this Sunday at 7pm on BBC1) will indeed contain plenty of captions reading "Pictures from Sky Sports" and "Pictures from ITV Sport". "But no other broadcaster would dare try such a programme," Shennan says. "Sky wouldn't promote what they don't have. ITV only really have European football and Formula One. Only the BBC would do it, and do it with editorial rigour."

Fair enough. Now, one last question. He lost Des Lynam to ITV, and failed to woo John Francome from Channel 4. These things happen in broadcasting. So what if someone made Shennan a fabulous offer? His expression tells me that there is more chance of Eddie the Eagle being crowned Sports Personality of the Century. But of course, with sport, you just never know.