The dark side of television

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The Independent Online
EVEN the most forbearing of critics can be goaded into protest by television's incessant reiteration of the gospel that sport should be laid bare.

What I have in mind is the programme shown earlier this week on Channel 4, purporting to be of public service. With Graham Taylor's absurd and well-rewarded collaboration, it set out the notion that management of the England football team is a short cut to dementia.

Graham Taylor - The Impossible Job unquestionably was riveting television, but it raised an issue that the sporting authorities, especially the Football Association, would do well to address.

Providing a suitable base for media prying ought not to be the primary objective of co-operation in sport, nor is it necessarily an indispensable part. In other words, and I believe for the greater good, there are areas that should remain strictly off limits. You may think this an elitist point of view, but no matter.

In order to reveal fully the harrowing effects of frustration on Taylor, even if this was not the original object (they were betting each way), the makers of Channel 4's programme required access that, understandably, none of his predecessors would have permitted.

For example, there is the memory of Alf Ramsey's caustic response when a red-blazered representative of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation thrust a microphone at his face during a tournament in Montreal. 'We're giving you 10 minutes of CBC time,' the radio man said, confidently. 'Oh no, you're not,' replied Ramsey without breaking stride.

Over the years, television keeps coming up with tricks it employs in the cause of what directors justify as realism. Taylor's neurotic reaction to impending failure in Rotterdam was real enough, but in lots of cases the realism is phoney.

Once there was a documentary about Manchester City when Malcolm Allison was in the manager's chair. It made much of Allison's extravagant style and built up to a game against Crystal Palace at Maine Road. Cameras and microphones were installed in the dressing-rooms to record faithfully proceedings at half-time and after the final whistle. Inevitably, this had an inhibiting effect. The swearing was muted, which was not how I remembered things.

There is a need to restrain television, as the British Boxing Board of Control sensibly did when prohibiting interviews in the ring. As a result of selling out to television, this has become increasingly difficult for football, although there are plenty of insiders who find its persistent demands irritating.

The cameras creep ever closer and frequently stray from the action to focus on the coaches and managers. I do not know what this will lead to, but it is a disturbing trend and one that should be faced up to aggressively.

Now, it is normal for television to be with the FA Cup finalists, capturing every flicker of mostly boring activity. This strips the game of essential mystery. Perhaps something can be done about this, maybe not. But the words of a famous sportswriter, long since retired, come back strongly.

In his youth, he travelled on ocean liners to report championship boxing in the United States. On returning home, people would ask him about Joe Louis and, later on, Rocky Marciano and Sugar Ray Robinson. When the questions stopped, he knew why.

'I couldn't tell them anything they didn't know already,' he said. 'Not only had they seen the fights on television, they had heard the fighters speak and been introduced to their thoughts. Without having to climb out of their chairs, they were experts.'

This is not to make a case for the printed word, merely to wonder whether the people responsible for progress in sport might benefit from interrupting their crowded schedules to appraise the probability that they will never be able to feel entirely safe with television.

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