Sport on TV: Public investigation deserves stewards' inquiry

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The Independent Online
They say it is only when television examines an issue which you actually know something about that you realise just how shallow, sloppy and ill-informed a medium it can be. Come to think of it, "they" are usually talking about newspapers, but having watched last week's edition of Are You Being Cheated? (C5) twice - once open-mouthed, and then a second time just to check it really was that bad - I can confirm that the rule applies just as well to TV.

This 30-minute "investigation" of horse-racing, and "how a safe bet can sometimes be anything but", was fronted by a reporter called Will Daws. At least, that's what the caption said, but there were times when you wondered if the whole thing was a spoof, and Daws was really Steve Coogan.

Take the moment when a retired policeman read out a letter that had been sent to the Sporting Life by "John Batten", a rogue bookie who absconded from Epsom with a satchelful of other people's money on Derby day two years ago. The last paragraph, in splendidly Minder-esque fashion, advised the newspaper not to "waste your time giving this to the old Bill, because I can assure you there are no dabs on it". Daws, though, seemed puzzled. "Dabs," he ventured, "meaning fingerprints?"

Yes, Will. Dabs meaning fingerprints. If they hadn't cut away, he would probably have asked who Bill was. And this was the man who was trying to find the seamy underbelly of the sport of kings. He did not stand a chance.

The general tone of the script was that betting in general and racing in particular is little better from the punter's point of view than the Vegas casinos in the days when Bugsy Siegel was in charge. But all they had was the withered old scandal from Epsom - and that, incidentally, was the first time in 40 years that a boards bookie had scarpered with all the loot - and the recent, bizarre case in which someone tampered with obscure dog results in the Racing Post. That person was quickly caught and convicted, and hardly any bookies paid out. The Sting it wasn't.

Almost inevitably, John McCririck was roped in to provide a little authentic colour. He would, we were promised, "name the jockeys who cheat the punters by not trying to win".

As it turned out, he named only one - Royston Ffrench, who rode a horse called Zaralaska rather less vigorously than he might have done at York last year. There is little danger that McCririck will receive a visit from Ffrench's lawyers, because the York stewards named him too, about 15 minutes after the race. They banned both horse and rider, which hardly makes the case a festering sore on the bottom of horse racing.

The only other angle of inquiry Daws pursued was the "premium-rate phone lines... and betting systems" which claim to give punters "a bit of an edge". Will faced the camera as gravely as his fresh features would allow. "Do these systems actually tip the odds in your favour," he wondered, "or are they just another con?"

It was at this point that we met a punter who insisted on remaining anonymous, which was possibly the first smart thing he had ever done. Mr X had paid pounds 4,000 for a betting system called the Navigater (sic), because "they promised me an income of pounds 50,000 a year".

Guess what? They were telling porkies. Will nodded as if he found this genuinely shocking. Who knows, maybe he did. The rest of the viewers merely shook their heads in wonder at such gullibility (not to mention greed). The man was painted as a sad, wronged figure, but from at least one angle, you could argue that he is quite fortunate. After all, if you are: (a) that stupid and (b) still alive in your mid-40s, Lady Luck must have smiled on you somewhere along the line.

To be fair, some good may come of the programme, which gave another airing to a pin-sharp picture of "John Batten", who has so far evaded capture, even after the case was featured on Crimewatch. As one of the punters who returned to find him gone put it, "someone must know who he is, so grass him up so that we can all share the reward money". This could be good news for any current or former employees of the Sun, for as close inspection of the photograph revealed, "John Batten" is the absolute spit of Kelvin MacKenzie.

Mr X gave little hint as to what he does for a living, but it seems very possible, likely even, that he works for the BBC, and was responsible for commissioning yet another series of They Think It's All Over (BBC1). Even in a country with 56 million inhabitants, it would be incredible if there were two people with so little common sense.

TTIAO was funny once, about four years ago, in the days when Nick Hancock was hot. Ever since, we have been following the humour down the toilet. A sample "joke" from this week's first show - Rory McGrath to Gary Lineker: "You could make a telephone directory funny ... if you rolled it up and put it up your arse." Enough said.

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