Women's sport sold down the river only a month after Olympic high

What should be a blockbusting qualifying fixture for England's women footballers will be played at a time and place that guarantee it will be ignored.

The London Olympics catapulted women’s football into the spotlight. More than 70,000 fans watched the GB women’s team beat Brazil 1-0 at Wembley, eclipsing a 92-year old attendance record for a women’s game in the UK.

This huge turnout suggested the British public had finally cottoned on to the fact that women can play football and that it's worth watching. It was impossible for the media to ignore, even with plenty of competition from other Olympic events. Many hailed the Games as a new dawn for women's football.

But now, just over a month since the end of the Olympics, that dream appears to be over.

Today, the England women’s football team plays its final qualifying game on the road to the 2013 European championships. If this was the men’s team, it would be a blockbusting fixture at prime time on the hallowed turf at Wembley.

But this is the women’s team we’re talking about. The match takes place at the 11,000-seater Banks stadium, home to League One Walsall. And guess what? Kick off’s at 5pm, when everyone is still at work. Even if you live in Walsall, chances are you won’t be able to make it.

The game will be shown live on BBC2, which is progress. But according to research by the Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation women's sport receives less than five per cent of sports media coverage, despite the fact that other research they’ve done shows 61 per cent of fans want to see more women’s sport in the media.

When I complained during the Olympics about the lack of coverage of women’s sport outside of the Games, and said there was never anything in the press to tell me when England’s women’s matches were on, people dismissed my comments and said that with the internet there’s no excuse for not being able to find out. They also said if no one makes the effort to go to women’s games the media won’t cover them.

So I promised myself that when the Games were over I’d look up the first England women’s match and go to it with my daughter. When I found out where and when it was I had to laugh. If I hadn’t, I’d have cried.

Football matches at impossible times mean fewer people will be able to go. When no one turns up, the male-dominated sports desks of our national newspapers will say: “Look, no one’s interested, why should we write about that?”

Media coverage equals role models, and this is particularly important as when they leave school girls are only half as likely to play sport as boys.

A keen footballer as a child and teenager, I understand the sexism girls and women come up against. I played in my primary school 11-a-side team and the girls’ 5-a-side team. The girls’ team made something of a local name for itself thanks to an inspirational and forward thinking teacher (Mr Matthews, if you’re reading this, thank you) who made it his mission to turn us into footballers. We dominated the local primary school league for years, winning the Trevor Brooking Cup on many occasions. I still have a photo of me shaking hands with the former England player as he presented me, as team captain that year, with the shield.

But all that changed when I started secondary school. None of the local schools had girls’ football teams. For a couple of seasons I played for a team on a local estate but the encouragement and the role models just weren’t there. Add the influence of society’s expectations of what teenage girls should be and do, and eventually I gave it up.

The lack of encouragement I faced as a young teenager in the late 80s should be a thing of the past. It’s not just about the media. Sports bodies need to do much more to promote women’s sport and more investment is essential to convince girls that sport is as much for them as it is for their male peers.

But the media can take a lead and stand up for women’s sport and sports fans. It can push UEFA to take a more ambitious approach to timetabling women’s games so more people can go and watch. It’s not too late to harness the enthusiasm and excitement of the Olympics and Paralympics. I really hope the Walsall fixture is a hangover from a bygone age, something already set up that they couldn’t rearrange, but I’m not convinced. Unless we start to see women’s football at high-profile venues around the country and prime time kick offs soon, an opportunity will have been lost and another generation let down.

The Team GB women's football team. Photograph: Getty Images
Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder