Sport on TV: The tawdry, the batty and the simply deeply dippy

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The Independent Online
FOR THIS observer, the most disturbing aspect of a turbulent, giddy week has been finding myself in complete agreement with Boris Johnson, the Telegraph's raving Tory Boy who famously complained about being "stitched up" on Have I Got News For You last year.

The blond bombshell stole the show on Monday's Newsnight (BBC2), as the piranhas were circling round Glenn Hoddle wondering whether to have the England coach fried or boiled.

"Why is his opinion about reincarnation any more offensive than lots of other religious opinions?" Johnson asked with that air he has of a man completely at a loss with the modern world. "All kinds of things in Islam and Hinduism and Buddhism are distressing if taken to extremes. I see no difference between the persecuting of Glenn Hoddle for his wacko views about reincarnation and persecuting Salman Rushdie for upsetting a load of Muslims ... We expend a huge amount of Government money to protect Rushdie, and when poor old Glenn says something about reincarnation, the Prime Minister goes on television and sacks him." Boris may be bonkers, but he's dead right on this one.

It is important to realise that as much as anything else, the Hoddle affair is a story about how the mass media operate. In another, simultaneous incarnation, I am sports news editor of this paper (a grand name for what used to be known as copytaster). If one of our reporters had filed the Times interview that started all the trouble, would I have read through it, picked my jaw up off the floor and scurried round to the news desk squealing, "Hold the front page! Hoddle's gone mad!"?

Call me a load of old rubbish at my job, but it's unlikely, especially given the fact that he was saying nothing he hadn't said before. I'd have probably just laughed it off as batty old Glenda inserting his gifted foot into his less than gifted gob again. And there the offending paragraph may have remained, buried in an otherwise unexceptionable piece - unless, of course, one of the ever-watchful tabloids, never afraid of reheating old stories, plucked out the offending paragraph and slapped it on their cover in 36 point.

Once the story had appeared, and the rest of Fleet Street's finest had donned their bovver boots and steamed in, it was partly a tale of Downing Street agendas and partly one of Hoddle, having dug his own grave, jumping in and starting to fill it in around himself.

Tony Blair's tawdry little role in all this has to do with the Government's determination to bypass the lobby correspondents, who ask awkward questions about politics and policies, in favour of the hugs and kisses favoured by regional press and lowbrow television. Which is why he was mouthing off on This Morning on Monday in the company of Judy Finnigan and Richard Madeley. As football writer Brian Glanville put it at breakfast time on BBC1 on Wednesday, "Why does the PM appear on a dumbed-down programme like `Punch and Judy' anyway?"

Once the PM had weighed in (with the usual slew of dropped aitches and glottal stops he reserves for appearances on ITV), saying that it would be difficult for Hoddle to keep his job, the England coach's position began to look fragile.

The truth is, the Government couldn't keep their hands off the story. On Monday, Margaret Hodge, Minister for the Disabled, was the first Cabinet member to call for his sacking, and she faced a scathing Jeremy Paxman on Tuesday night, a few hours after Hoddle had gone.

"I didn't ask for him to be sacked," she averred. "So you didn't," Paxman replied, "at two o'clock on January 31st, say that it was inappropriate for him to stay on?" Get out of that.

As she gabbled about agendas and watersheds, Paxo, in a performance that evoked his famous stuffing of Michael Howard, when he asked him the same question 14 times, the TV terrier tried to get Hodge to admit the fact that Hoddle had been sacked for his beliefs. He failed.

It has to be said, though, that Hoddle wasn't sacked merely for having a batty philosophy, but because one aspect of that philosophy gave offence. Let's face it, although we profess to enjoy freedom of speech in this country, its parameters are strictly limited, especially for public figures. As Polly Toynbee in the Guardian put it, as quoted by Glanville: Hoddle is "a victim of the new intolerance that puts a gag on everyone in the public eye, allowing them no views outside an ever-shrinking net of well- censored platitudes."

Which wasn't what we got from Eileen Drewery's appearance on Wednesday's Channel 5 News. If we had been in any doubt as to the deleterious effect of her mumbo-jumbo on Hoddle's stewardship of the England team, it was banished by her deeply dippy performance.

Hoddle never said that the disabled were being punished. No, we all choose our karma. "We choose to come back how we wish to come back - that may be as a poor man or a rich man," she said. "We come back for experience - sometimes you come back, if you want to, as a disabled person because you have an opportunity, against all the odds, to have faith in God." Right then. Are any bookmakers taking bets on Drewery for the next England coach?