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The Olympics on BBC1 - review

Rachel Cooke loves the TV coverage of the Games (one presenter excepted).

My deep love for the Olympics always takes me by surprise: this wasn’t, let me tell you, how it was supposed to be. I think of school sports day and want to weep. Sheffield was then redder than a baboon’s bottom, with the result that all had to have prizes. And so it was that when Sebastian Coe, our only famous former student, came to dish out the cups, I found myself receiving from his hand a certificate that celebrated that I’d come fifth in the 400m.

“How many runners were there?” he asked, as the applause rang out (the clapping did not cease for 20 minutes; it was like being at a meeting of the Chinese Communist Party). “Er, five,” I said. Ten minutes later, we had to go through this humiliation all over again, when a disbelieving Coe compelled me to admit that I’d come eighth in the shot-put out of a field of, yes, eight.

With sudden love, though, there comes something else. Something darker. The more Olympics one watches – and I watched an awful lot; I have a carpet burn on my thigh, due to a heavy fall on the sprint between my desk and the television – the more the irritations grow. Occasionally, this tips over into pure loathing. I refer, naturally, not to those taking part in the games, but to those covering them.

When the BBC vowed that we would “never miss a moment” of London 2012, they didn’t inform us that many of these moments would
be delivered by the presenter John Inverdale, a man who reminds me strongly of a World of Leather sofa, being so burnished, so strangely unyielding and always too squat for the space he is inhabiting.

Inverdale can make most things seem boring and usually does. Worse, he seems bored himself. On the second Monday of the Games, when things were not going too well for our athletics team, his conversations with Michael Johnson et al were gilded with a loathsome Partridge-like irritation, as if it were not Dai Greene and Holly Bleasdale who were having a bad day, but Inverdale himself. “The steam-roller seems to have hit a speed bump,” he said, as though he were at the wheel of a shiny new Prius and stuck in traffic on the M40.

Olympics Tonight, Gaby Logan’s chat show-cum-round-up, managed the rare feat of being both unmissable and unendurable. If you’d been out, you had to watch it. But no sooner had the theme music rolled than you felt like rending your garments.

This wasn’t wholly the distractingly well-groomed Logan’s fault – though as the days rolled by, I did find myself wondering each evening how she would top the outfit of the night before. No, she is super knowledgeable and one of the few people on this earth who is able to keep a conversation going with Amir Khan for more than 35 seconds. But, really. Whose idea was it to play Spandau Ballet’s “Gold” every night, while a famous sportsperson moved the arrow northwards on a Blue Peter-style “totaliser” in the shape of Big Ben? And why, at the sound of it, did Logan start with the disco arms as if she was on a hen night? No man would have done this. Sorry but they wouldn’t.

A few critics have had a go at Jake Humphrey, who presented from the velodrome and other places. I quite liked him. Basically, he had two jobs. One was to explain the omnium to people like me (sounds like a brand of waste-disposal unit). The other was to make Mark Cavendish, who sat beside him in the commentary box, feel better.

I don’t know if he was entirely successful when it came to Cav, though it’s just about possible that his references, made roughly every five minutes, to Cav’s failure to pick up a medal were the idea of the British cycling team’s psychologist. But when it came to the omnium, he had no less gravitas than Ian Thorpe who, I swear, told Gary Lineker one evening that in swimming events: “Look, there is water in every lane.”

Perhaps you’re wondering who I did like. The answer is: pretty much all the commentators. Why, I wonder, didn’t Logan et al have these experts – Garry Herbert and Dan Topolski at the rowing; Mitch Fenner and Christine Still at the gymnastics; Chris Boardman and Hugh Porter at the cycling – in their studios more often? These are the people who bring the Olympics alive and we love the sound of their voices, whispering and calm one minute, clanging with emotion the next.

Like everyone, I adored Clare Balding, too, a woman whose every utterance seemed a rebuke to a BBC that, in 2010, failed to renew her contract. Not only is Balding better prepared than any other BBC sports presenter (Gary Lineker, like our football team, was winging it and it showed; Sue Barker seemed strangely sleepy). She is also a lot less vain. Some people want to be on television for its own sake; it is being on TV that is important to them. Not Balding. It’s the sport she likes and the people who do it and the screeds of stats – and this sincerity puts everyone who comes within a six-mile radius of her at their ease. Medal winners, you may noticed, tend to kiss her, not the other way round. Now I really think about this, if Balding were to ask me about coming eighth in the shot-put, I might, even now, consider taking it up again. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 13 August 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The New Patriotism

Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.