Sport - Jason Cowley on the loss of good sports broadcasters

Gunnell is less culpable than the BBC Sport execs who put her trackside

The former BBC sports presenter Sally Jones is seeking to return to broadcasting. Sally who, you might ask? In her "super-confident days of the Eighties", she wrote recently in the Daily Telegraph, "I breezed through assorted media jobs: BBC news trainee, Central TV presenter, reporting for ITN, dashing off jaunty newspaper columns, then becoming the BBC's first woman sports presenter on Breakfast News and at the Seoul Olympics". Oh, right, that Sally Jones. It's useful, as Philip Larkin once wrote, to get that learnt.

I'm probably not alone in having only a dim recollection of this Mrs Jones. She disappeared from our screens in the early 1990s after swapping "the high-profile Kensington lifestyle for a rambling place in the Warwickshire countryside". As you do. She was newly married, and "desperate to be there for the children full-time, as my own passionately hands-on mother had been, and I opted out of the media".

Today, she is in the process of opting back in. But things are difficult for the first woman sports presenter on Breakfast News. Where once, nicely spoken public school girls like her had the freedom of Broadcasting House, other, more exotic creatures now roam the corridors - such as "giggly, blonde twenty-somethings, adept at concealing all traces of intelligence beneath a veneer of chumminess and an impenetrable regional accent".

Jones's lament about her struggles to find work is of special interest because of its fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of modern sports broadcasting: it is not that she is too old or posh to interview, say, Tim Henman at Wimbledon; more that she is not a well-known former sportswoman herself. If, this summer, you have followed coverage of the World Cup, the Commonwealth Games or, most recently, the European Athletics Championships, you will understand the calamity that has befallen sports broadcasting in this country.

The art of a good sports broadcaster is to combine journalistic scepticism with a certain verbal facility. But very few of today's sportsmen-turned-broadcasters are any good at all. To watch Gary Lineker lead a half-time discussion during the World Cup was to watch the televisual equivalent of a group of mates bantering aimlessly in a pub. There was no journalistic edge, little real insight or sense of confrontation, and, as ever, the English language was wilfully mangled.

The sportswoman who has been most exposed in her new role as the BBC's trackside interviewer is Sally Gunnell. Her lack of journalistic acumen is astounding. Last Friday evening, in the immediate aftermath of the women's 800m final, she had the opportunity to secure the scoop of the championships as she interviewed Kelly Holmes, beaten into third place by Jolanda Ceplak of Slovenia.

Blond-haired Ceplak had destroyed her rivals with a display of glorious, uninhibited front running. Holmes was pleased with her bronze medal, but clearly awed by the ferocity and strength of Ceplak, with whom she shares an agent and regularly travels. Unprompted by Gunnell, Holmes said: "At least I know I did it fairly and cleanly." I waited for the follow-up question: "Are you suggesting, Kelly, that the winner isn't clean, that she didn't win fairly?" Instead, Gunnell merely congratulated her old friend, adding: "Yes, you did, Kelly, and what a great run." Or something equally bland.

Later that evening, Holmes repeated her remarks to a journalist. This time, they were followed up; Ceplak was forced to deny she had ever taken performance-enhancing drugs. The burnish on her medal had begun to fade, and Gunnell had missed her story. But she is less culpable than the celebrity-fixated executives of BBC Sport who put her trackside in the first place. Bring back Sally Jones: she at least knew what she was doing.

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