DJ Taylor: Sales pitch

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Several of the obituaries of David Vine, the former BBC sports commentator who died last week, noted his distaste for the celebritification of the trade.

He was particularly irked by an edition of Ski Sunday in which large amounts of on-piste action were abandoned in favour of the spectacle of Heston Blumenthal being given a skiing lesson. All this raises the interesting, but rarely debated, question of what the public wants from its TV and radio sports pundits. Most people would probably plump for a combination of professional expertise and conversational suavity, and yet this isn't always on offer from, say, the retired footballers rolled out to ornament BBC's Match of the Day. For every Alan Hansen, pictured right, there is nearly always some impresario of the bleeding obvious keen to remark that as Chelsea are two points behind the leaders a win will assure them of top spot.

Over in radio-land the situation is in some respects even worse – not so much on account of the presence of ex-players adjusting to a new life-style, but because the cult of personality winds through the proceedings like loosestrife through a hedge. It is not, for example, that Radio Five Live's Alan Green is excitable, or opinionated, or that he has a habit of yelling "Will you look at that? What does he think he's doing?", when the listener has no idea what is being looked at or what the misbehaving player is up to. It is simply that his self-presentation often ignores the basic requirement of a soccer commentary, which is to tell the listener where on the pitch the ball is and what is likely to happen to it.

Occasionally, the BBC seems to wake up to these deficiencies – there was a marvellous moment back in the 2006 World Cup when somebody noticed that the website was crammed with complaints about John Motson and Mark Lawrenson's cross-talk. In most cases, though, self-aggrandisement is assumed to go with the ratings.

Local radio, conversely, is nearly always that much more forensic. I spent last Tuesday night listening to BBC Radio Norfolk's coverage of Norwich City losing miserably to Charlton Athletic. Naturally, much of the analysis was obscured by huge gusts of pro-Norwich bias. What was lacking, on the other hand, was self-importance and the thought – almost inseparable from national sports coverage – that the person commentating on the game is just as significant as the people taking part.


Staying with the BBC, the playwright Sir David Hare could be heard at the National Film Theatre earlier in the week lamenting the corporation's lack of imagination. "It's an organisation that has lost its nerve," he told his audience, noting in particular that commissioning editors "don't see fiction as something people are interested in watching". Of all the complaints worth making about the BBC at the moment, the most obvious has to be the terrible state of BBC 2. Eyeing up last Sunday's schedules in advance of Match of the Day, I discovered a kind of televisual Sargasso Sea made up of darts tournaments and a hagiographic account of the career and accomplishments of Sir Alan Sugar, in which Fiona Bruce simpered at her subject across the breakfast table of his executive jet and puffed his own BBC TV programme to the skies while asking no question that might have caused him the slightest inconvenience.

Come Thursday it was wall-to-wall snooker (no doubt David Vine's hovering shade was appeased) and celebrity cooks. In contrast, BBC 4, routinely criticised in its early days as a waste of the corporation's resources, has suddenly transformed itself into a cornucopia of documentaries about progressive rock, Maureen Lipman doing her Joyce Grenfell impersonations, and a decent-looking series on the history of British fashion. The most natural solution to BBC 2's awfulness is this: simply replace it with BBC 4. This would restore the ancient tradition of having one mainstream and one highbrow channel and save a great deal of public money into the bargain.


There is a fairly good chance that the Government's backing for a third runway at Heathrow Airport, news of which broke on Thursday lunch-time, will go down as its great symbolic calamity. You got the feeling, in the announcement's aftermath, that no one in the country's upper administrative tier quite understood how disillusioning this is to all us Labour Party members who, having welcomed the climate change propaganda of the past few years, can't see how it squares with a couple of hundred thousand extra planes clogging the skies over west London. The most predictable thing about the agitation of the past week has been the sight of trade unions lining up with business leaders on the pro-expansion side. No doubt about it, a bigger Heathrow will bring jobs by the bucket-load, but it will also materially impair the lives of hundreds of thousands of ordinary people in ways in which union leaders really ought to have the nous to comprehend.

The second most predictable thing was the news that a group of activists including the actress Emma Thompson, the impressionist Alistair McGowan and the LibDem MP Susan Kramer, have clubbed together to buy a strip of land in the vicinity with the aim of frustrating future development. The word "middle-class" is nearly always a term of abuse these days – in last week's BBC 4 prog-rock spectacular the late John Peel could be found writing off the fan-base as "middle-class twerps". On the other hand a trawl through recent English history suggests that practically every enlightened measure of the past half-century, from the repeal of capital punishment to Roy Jenkins's homosexuality law reform, had its origins in bourgeois lobbying. Only the radical middle classes can save us.


Book of the week was Susan Sontag's Reborn: Early Diaries 1947-1963 (Hamish Hamilton £16.99). Not only does this account of the distinguished American critic's formative years give a whole new meaning to the adjective "self-regarding"; it also raises the question of whether there ever was a literary diarist who didn't write with one eye on eventual publication. Sontag's son David Rieff, who "they were written solely for herself", but somehow this is as difficult to swallow as the idea that Evelyn Waugh's mournful descriptions of family life ("The presence of my children affects me with a deep weariness and depression" etc) were only compiled for their author to chuckle over in retirement. No writer, it might be said, ever composes a line without having some kind of audience in mind.

At the same time, this awareness of the phantom reader brings its own problems. Twice a year, perhaps, motivated by the thought that my life is so boring that it needs to be irradiated by chronology and that, additionally, one's old age isn't going to pay for itself, I start keeping a diary. It is always a disaster, ruined either by show-off self-consciousness ("Met A S Byatt in the London Library. We talked of signification") or floor-level domesticity ("Dog has diarrhoea"). Perhaps the solution is to follow the furrow ploughed by the late Auberon Waugh in his Private Eye diary and make most of it up ("Obsessed by the fear that my affair with Salman is a mistake .... Gordon rang to offer a peerage. I declined.") Not quite at the level of Sontag's gush on the anguish and urgency of life, but certainly something for future generations to ponder.


Another by-blow of the recession is that graduate recruitment prospects are in free-fall, according to the High Flier research group. Apparently, overall vacancies for this summer's crop of university leavers have declined by 17 per cent, while graduate entry appointments in the financial services sector have halved. This reminded me of the chart I kept during the last great graduate recruitment slowdown of 1982/3, which listed all the jobs I failed to get in the six months after leaving college. They included traineeships at half-a-dozen publishers, apprentice reporter on the local newspaper, deputy verger of Norwich cathedral, assistant editor of Scouting Weekly, tea-boy at The Spectator and a whole lot more besides.

The psychological fascination of this enforced sojourn at the parental home was the way in which your estimate of your capabilities soared and plummeted from one day to the next. One morning you might be applying for a junior lectureship, the next trying for part-time work in a bookshop. This summer's crop of graduates, of course, are some of the first beneficiaries of the Government's expansionist higher education policy, seduced into universities not in the belief that education is an end in itself but by the assumption that a degree will get you job. I wonder how they will all vote come the general election.