Sport on TV: United they stand for marriage made in the Sky

Click to follow
The Independent Online
As the words formed on Mark Booth's lips, they must have brought a lump to the throats of those watching. "They want to win the League, so do we," he said. "They want to win the Cup, so do we. They want to have the best players, so do we." Booth is BSkyB's chief executive and this was his tub-thumping way of saying that his company's acquisition of Manchester United was a marriage made in heaven. For one dreadful moment you imagined his homily would culminate with: "They want to conquer the world, so do we." But maybe that was already obvious.

Booth's chunky features and North American accent filled the screen (Sky News) throughout the morning and afternoon on Wednesday after the deal between the two organisations was confirmed. It was a big story and nowhere was it bigger than on the current affairs channel of the satellite broadcaster - 40 per cent of which is owned by Rupert Murdoch - which had just bought the football club for pounds 623.4m. For hours it led the bulletins, ahead not only of some item about the possibility that the President of the USA would be kicked out of office but also of the new record for the most number of home runs scored in a single baseball season.

This was possibly understandable given the perceived popularity of football in this country and the greater reality of the revenue it is beginning to generate. What mattered here, however, was not the weight the channel attached to the story but the manner in which it was reported. It could not be seen, heaven and the protectors of individual freedoms forfend, to express an opinion in favour of the takeover. Instead, it required the reporter's most important attribute - exhibiting a finer balance than Ryan Giggs beating a full-back.

Hence, we were party to Booth being questioned about the rationale and benefits of the takeover by his own employees. It must have been fun for the presenters, Simon McCoy and Fiona McDermott, knowing that they could ask hard questions of the boss and get away with it. They went into what it might mean for the fans, what it might mean for football on a broader level and whether football would ever be the same again.

The boss did a fair turn at looking ruffled. But, rough-house though it seemed, it was plain that neither McCoy nor McDermott would push Booth too far. They asked the hard question but accepted the easy answer. Booth spoke in slogans. It was not, he said, just about big business. It was a natural combination, a natural fit of a great broadcaster and a great football club, which would make both companies even better. This somewhat missed the point that Manchester United had been around for more than a century and BSkyB were nine decades behind.

Nor would anything change, Booth guaranteed, with regard to Sky's approach to the coverage of the club's matches. So the commentators would still be biased then - a waspish, though normal reaction for anyone who is not a fan of Man U, as Booth continually called the club, presumably wishing to show that his affiliation stretched back to way before the FTSE Index was created. Martin Edwards, the chief executive of Man U, was also hauled before the Sky cameras to explain himself and swiftly laid to rest one woeful misconception. He declared solemnly that he had never met Murdoch. But at least he managed to stop himself adding: "And if I thought for a moment he'd been involved I'd have had nothing whatever to do with this."

Sky's cameras dutifully asked the opinions of supporters angry about the change of ownership. "[Murdoch] might have jumped all over the rest of America and the rest of the world but he's not going to jump all over Manchester." McCoy and McDermott were both professional and unbiased enough to avoid telling the lad that he just had. But the sincere search for proper balance and perspective stayed to the end. The next day, Sky showed some highlight pictures of the game the previous night between United and Charlton Athletic which had not been their choice of live match. In the bottom right of the picture a caption read: "Pictures from BBC Sport". The pictures of that game were not the Beeb's only offering. The Commonwealth Games (BBC 1 and BCC 2) are with us for the next fortnight. The opening ceremony was too long, as all these things tend to be, but it was also full of people from 70 countries who laughed loud and smiled broadly, were clearly ecstatic to be in Kuala Lumpur, and almost to a man and woman gave the impression of being one of us.

It appeared alarmingly like they were there for sport, not business, and if some netball players looked as though they could chuck the javelin as well this made it more attractive, not less. Somehow, it was hard to imagine Mark Booth drawling that it was a natural fit.

Comments