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Pun-soaked platitudes? You just got muted

Why is the general standard of commentary so underwhelming?

In the early Noughties when broadcasters still bothered to find new uses for the interactive red button, the Beeb began offering viewers of live football three audio options – the TV commentary, the Radio 5 Live commentary or the sound of the crowd. Public service broadcasting at its best and, naturally, I chose the crowd.

Now that there’s no such choice, I press mute instead. Anything to escape the reverse alchemy that invariably results when middle- aged men with lip mics share commentating duties. Tell me I’m not alone.

It’s certainly not this column’s role to do anyone out of a job – especially in these recessionary times – but surely football-watching would remain undiminished if we did away with the odd commentator or co-commentator, sometimes laughably referred to as the “expert summariser”.

Where we crave insight and analysis, we get platitudes and pre-prepared, pun-soaked soliloquies to fill the dead air. (Really, what’s wrong with dead air?)

The latter is one of the commentator’s many sins. Another is the inclination to base every comment about player or club on a preconceived notion, many of which survive for years despite all the evidence to the contrary. There’s one Sky Sports commentator –more fanboy, in truth – who covers every Barcelona or Real Madrid game in this way. If, say, Lionel Messi is having a stinker, rather than simply describing what’s going on – or better still allowing the pictures to do the work – he’ll say, “Remember the date. Messi just misplaced a pass.” Great player but if he plays badly then call it as such. We used to get the same breathlessness every time the Brazilian Roberto Carlos lined up a free kick, even when the weight of evidence of so many kicks missed was overwhelming.

And when commentators do say something vaguely controversial – as ESPN’s Jon Champion did in relation to Luis Suárez’s tendency to fall over in the penalty area – they are censured by their employer. Suárez has since admitted that he dived to win a penalty earlier this season, so the ESPN lawyers can stand down.

Sky’s reputation is partly restored by the quality of its pundits, notably Gary Neville and Graeme Souness – both ex-players (Souness an ex-manager too) with tribal pasts who have proved unfailingly fairminded on telly and happy to take on conventional thinking. Take a bow, sons, as one of their predecessors might say.

There are exceptions on the BBC too but the general quality – on both TV and radio – is underwhelming. Take the reaction on the day that Southampton sacked Nigel Adkins and replaced him with the Argentine Mauricio Pochettino, previously manager of Espanyol. Adkins was unlucky to lose his job (consecutive promotions, two defeats in the last 12 games etc) but to disregard the new manager out of hand – as Radio 5 Live pundits appeared inclined to do –was a display of ignorance. For the record, Pochettino took over at Espanyol four years ago, halfway through the season, keeping the club in Spain’s top division when relegation looked more likely. For the next three years Espanyol – one of the financially weakest teams in the division – finished mid-table.

Only this season has he failed. Pochettino’s record compares to Roy Hodgson’s at Fulham, Harry Redknapp’s at Portsmouth and Tony Pulis’s at Stoke City. Pretty good, in other words.

What 5 Live offered was an uninformed (or under-informed) instant reaction. Fine in the pub, at work or on the same network during the interminable 606 phone-in. But from expert summarisers and established commentators? On the “home of live sport”? No thanks.

Jon Bernstein, former deputy editor of New Statesman, is a digital strategist and editor. He tweets @Jon_Bernstein. 

This article first appeared in the 28 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, After Chavez

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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.