12 July 2015

Government inquiry into BBC should investigate Wimbledon coverage


The Tories in Britain are revving up for an assault on the BBC. The Culture Secretary has appointed a panel, featuring leading critics of the state-owned broadcaster, and the government is letting it be known that everything is under scrutiny, including the question of BBC impartiality and the excessive size of the Corporation.

This will – I suspect – get very messy indeed. Think of all the creative types and names popular with the public that the opponents of reform will be able to muster. Expect a vigorous and well-funded effort to defend the Beeb.

The Prime Minister has long been conscious of the risk of a fight with middle England if The Archers or Terry Wogan are privatised, but Cameron’s people are reported as saying that he is particularly annoyed, as a fan of TV box-sets such as The Wire, that the Beeb has not produced a series to rival those made in recent years by the independent sector in the US and Scandinavia. Many writers and creative types complain that the tortuously bizarre BBC commissioning process is to blame for that, although the BBC can hardly be said to be without successes, when one considers Dr Who, everything by David Attenborough, Sherlock, Cash in the Attic, and so on.

There is another aspect of the BBC’s performance that the investigators should look into first before tackling the reach and role of the Beeb. I am talking – as a traditional, British two weeks a year tennis fan – about the BBC’s disappointing coverage of Wimbledon 2015.

We all makes mistakes, particularly in the media, and I am sure that a great many people worked hard to produce those programmes. Still, those in charge made some hideous miscalculations and they should be held to account.

1) The Wimbledon2day disaster. Putting on a Wimbledon highlights show for people who have been out all day should be exceedingly simple, and there was nothing wrong with the old format. You show highlights of the best matches. Someone introduces them and then maybe a few experts give their view on what just happened, although little of this is needed. The key component is the tennis, yet this year the BBC decided to rebrand the highlights as Wimbledon2day (do you see what they did there?). Even worse, they set the programme in a nearby nightclub called Gatsby’s (who goes to a club called Gatsby’s?) in front of an audience. The resulting show was horrifically embarrassing. The superb Clare Balding was trapped in the middle of this shambles, handling it as a true professional. Then, within days, there was a rethink. The audience was banished. There was more tennis. And Gatsby’s the nightclub will never be seen again, other than by groups of dads in the Wimbledon area who decide after a few pints on a Friday night that what they all really need at 11pm is to go to Gatsby’s for “cocktails.” However, although the nightclub may have gone from our screens, the Beeb kept the risible Wimbledon2day name for its highlights show. Dear BBC, stop it and don’t do it ever again.

2) Also, stop using so many cutaway shots of celebrities, coaches and relatives during matches, particularly during finals. If Roger Federer has battled his way back into an epic Wimbledon final in the second set, only to find the magic deserting him in the fourth set, we surely want to see him and his opponent even between points. Those are great sporting moments, when the agony, or determination, or sheer tiredness, are on display. That is all part of the match. We do not need to see any shots of Pippa Middleton or Hugh Grant instead of Roger Federer. We know what Hugh Grant looks like, although I must say this year Grant did look properly old for the first time (like seeing Cary Grant glimpsed in 1970 when he went backstage to see Elvis in Vegas at the end of the wonderful film That’s the Way it Is). Dear BBC, in future please focus exclusively on the tennis players and what they are doing.

3) The tennis is exciting enough already and there is no need for a U2 soundtrack between sets. This happened, the use of U2, in the men’s final this year. There was a superfluous little summary of the jaw-dropping tennis we had just seen with our own eyes a few minutes previously, with unpopular beat combo U2’s “Where the Streets Have No Name” blaring out over the top. Dear BBC, in such situations just show the players sitting there drinking Evian and eating bananas and energy bars, while contemplating the futility of existence or working out whether their coaches will allow them half a glass of wine if they win the championship

All of this needs investigating, urgently. It is the stuff we viewers really care about. We do not need an inquiry into whether a BBC interviewer beat up forensically on a government minister. Good, if they did, and my boss and friend Andrew Neil does so frequently. Ministers have hundreds of billions of pounds of our money and a lot of power over us. They should be held to account. What we do need is the BBC – if it wants to survive in some form – to just do its job with a great event as straightforwardly ace as Wimbledon.

My suspicion is that what happened this year is that persons zealously in favour of “fun”, persons in senior BBC positions, have been on a mission to jazz up the BBC’s Wimbledon coverage. This was a very bad idea.

Yet, the pressure in large media organisations to do this stuff, to appeal to youngsters (although it doesn’t), is nowadays incessant. Incidentally, being what they are, anyone internally in the Beeb who objected to such schemes will have been cast into outer darkness for the crime of being oppositional or negative. And lo, that is how large organisations such as banks, media companies and governments often get themselves into the worst messes of their own making, because someone making a good and simple point or asking a valid question (isn’t Wimbledon2day a really naff name?) is ignored or railroaded by the zealous reformers. I bet a punnet of strawberries and a glass of over-priced Wimbledon champagne that inside BBC Sport right now there is a fight going on about who messed up Wimbledon this year.

Dear BBC, the naysayers and anti-modernisers are right, this time. It’s Wimbledon. It doesn’t need jazzed up. Drop the nonsense. Show the tennis. That is all.

Iain Martin is Editor of CapX