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The BBC: ‘It’s professional to cheat’

20 January 2013

3:15 PM

20 January 2013

3:15 PM

In this morning’s Observer I write about the collapse of the old notions of honour and fair play in sport, banking, politics, journalism, the law and much else.

As I acknowledge right away, hard evidence is hard to find. Football’s rules change: what was a manly tackle in the 1960s is a foul today. Yesterday’s ‘Spanish practice’ in the workplace becomes today’s criminal offence. The danger of false nostalgia is great. But you should not let the difficulties of comparing the present with the past unnerve you, and I hope I provide evidence that backs up our gut belief that standards have fallen.

If anyone doubts my conclusion, listen to yesterday’s 606 from BBC Radio 5 Live. It wasn’t available when my piece went to press, but how I wish it had been.

Fans phone 606 to give their views on the games they have seen that day. Robbie Savage, a retired footballer, remembered mainly for his foul play, and Mark ‘Chappers’ Chapman, one of those cheery, chirpy 5 Live presenters who could turn a pacifist to mass murder, butt in.

‘Guy from Lingfield’ called (21 minutes in) to protest about Savage. A Nottingham Forest player had made a mistake, and allowed a Derby County striker through to create a goal. Savage had said earlier that the Forest player should have brought the County forward down to stop the goal and ‘make up for his mistake’.

Guy, who is clearly some kind of living fossil, said the Forest player should have tried to win back the ball back by fair means or trusted his teammates to defend the goal. Professional fouls weren’t acceptable.

The ridicule poured on this naïve fool is a wonder to listen to.

Savage explained how a professional sportsman thinks. He would know that he was not going to get a red card because he wouldn’t be fouling the last man. So he should, ‘bring the guy down, commit a professional foul, take a yellow card for the team. If he does that, Derby don’t score and Nottingham Forest win the game. Simple as that.’

Guy from Lingfield made an even bigger fool of himself by refusing to agree with the professional. ‘No, no, I don’t think that’s a good attitude…’

‘I do,’ said Savage.

‘…in general for schoolchildren or other footballers, really, or for your own teammates.’

With a voice full of sneering incredulity, Savage said that his teammates would have applauded the foul (as I am sure they would). ‘It’s not cheating,’ he insisted.

‘Well it is cheating,’ said Guy.

‘It’s a yellow card, he takes a yellow card for the team…If you don’t like it, tough.’

The most fascinating part of the exchange is the reaction of ‘Chappers’. I am not one of these people who say the BBC must always uphold moral standards, although many BBC journalists do. I accept that broadcasters need to interview moral and immoral people alike to allow their audience to understand the world as it is. Savage is a fair representative of the cynical hack footballer, with more belligerence than talent, and provides an insight into how mediocre players think. Broadcast him, by all means.

But as a journalist, Chapman has a duty to ask hard questions without fear or favour. In this instance, he couldn’t think of a single hard question for Savage, because he couldn’t see anything wrong with what Savage had said.

‘Isn’t it all part and parcel of the game?’ he asked at one point. After Guy had hung up, he went on to describe his defence of fair play as ‘weird’.

This exchange is evidence. Fifty, even twenty years ago, sports journalists, in particular BBC journalists, would have condemned professional fouls, and given a hard time to players who condoned them. Now they let the players off the hook and devote their energies to damning referees.

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