Sport on TV: Condemned man exposed to a vulture culture

In his engraving The Idle Apprentice, William Hogarth recorded the details of a public execution at Tyburn in the middle of the 18th century. There is the condemned man arriving on a wagon, sat upon his own coffin, an assortment of hawkers selling drinks and souvenirs, a preacher or two, and a 1,000-strong mass of self-righteous ghouls and gawpers.

Hogarth would have found the spectacle of Glenn Hoddle's dismissal very familiar. It is true that nobody actually died at the Lancaster Hotel on Tuesday (although a security man's attempt to eject an interloping fan fell somewhere between common assault and attempted murder). But in most other respects, the pulling power of someone else's misfortune does not seem to have diminished since the distant days when - with all due respect to Eileen Drewery - we used to burn witches.

The trial which preceded the execution was not much of an improvement on the standards of 250 years ago either. How would you fancy this jury sitting in judgment on you: David Mellor, Tony Banks, Margaret Hodge, the boss of the Nationwide Building Society, Boris Johnson (who didn't seem to know the date of the England v France match), Vanessa Feltz, and of course the sage of the sofa himself, Richard Madeley. And that's just a selection, since every presenter with 10 minutes to fill and some ratings to boost fell upon Hoddle with a whoop of delight.

Vanessa (BBC1) found space for "Hoddle - Should He Go?" between such items as Win A Divorce, Match The Mutt and Sexy Chefs. Richard and Judy (ITV), meanwhile, were so delighted at having persuaded Tony Blair to put on the black cap and pass sentence on the England manager that they played the whole interview again later in the week. Even Newsnight (BBC2) found the lure of the scaffold impossible to resist, and ran lengthy analysis and discussions on three successive nights.

But to appreciate the sacking in all its dubious glory, Sky News was the only place to be. The schedule was cleared, and their people were in position from early on the appointed day. Lunchtime was the scheduled slot for Hoddle's neck to be stretched, and the newsreaders were almost dribbling with anticipation.

Yet one o'clock came and went, with no sign of Hoddle even being hung, far less drawn and quartered. Throughout the afternoon, Sky's reporter at Lancaster Gate was filing regular live reports, regardless of the fact that there was absolutely nothing to report. Behind him, the hacks and snappers glanced at their watches and waited for the trap-door to open. When it finally did, there was certainly a spectacle to behold, although it was provided not by Hoddle or David Davies, but the ranting fan and the cameramen who surrounded him like rats at a dustbin.

At which point, of course, it was time for the post-mortem examination, which from most angles looked rather more like a spot of corpse-kicking. Eileen Drewery was on Sky within the hour, defending her man with as much pious arrogance as those who had condemned him. "Do you think he's suffered from his association with you?" she was asked. "No," Drewery replied. "I think he's suffered from his association with the press." Exit one messenger, feet first.

Nothing, though, quite plumbed the depths like Thursday Night Live (ITV). When those 18th-century Londoners retired to the ale-house to discuss whether the condemned had "died well", it probably looked something like this. They had even tracked down David Icke to offer his thoughts.

The concept of reincarnation was introduced by reference to a woman who believes she was once Mary, Queen of Scots, and had, at the request of the producer, dressed up in the full Elizabethan monty. Icke then got into a shouting match with an audience member who wanted a little more evidence than a deranged woman in a ruff. "If you're not careful, darling," Icke told him, "you might come back as yourself." His reply - "Or your hairdresser" - was the only bright moment of the evening.

The instructive point in all of this is that while Hoddle said something truly stupid, which anyone on pounds 350,000 should expect to cost them their job, the sight of so many dubious characters lined up against him made you wonder if he was as guilty as he seemed. And in the end, it was difficult to decide what was the week's most depressing moment. Was it the sight of seasoned football reporters calling for the return of Terry Venables, as if there is no middle ground between the religious fanatic and the used car dealer? Was it Hodge's double-talk, or the fan getting throttled?

Or was it perhaps the coverage on BBC News 24, the cable station with viewing figures in the low teens? The obscene cost of News 24 is partly responsible for the lack of decent sport on BBC1 these days. So what happened when they handed over to their reporter on the spot just minutes after Hoddle's sacking? She called him Glenn Haddle.

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