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Do me a favour, love: sexism at Sky Sports

An insider lifts the lid on boorishness and misogyny at Sky Sports.

So Andy Gray is toast. His job as a Sky Sports football pundit was already hanging by a thread after a recording emerged of him swapping off-colour remarks about a female linesman with colleague Richard Keys. Then came the 12-second YouTube video showing Gray waving his crotch towards his female co-presenter, Charlotte Jackson, and asking if she would tuck his mic in. "Charlotte, can you tuck this down here for me, love?" Sky announced his departure soon after.

Barely had Gray's face returned to its normal colour after learning that he'd been sacked than an off-air video appeared showing Keys asking pundit Jamie Redknapp about a girlfriend. Keys refers to the woman as "it" and asks Redknapp if he'd "smashed it". Enjoying the moment, he quips: "Mind you, that's a stupid question. If you were anywhere near her, you definitely smashed it. You could have gone round there any night and found Redknapp hanging out the back of it." Keys's sacking, at the time of writing, seems likely.

The speed at which more and more revelations are stacking up is astonishing. Isn't it odd that as soon as incontrovertible proof of Gray and Keys's attitudes first emerged, the floodgates opened? Someone on the inside has a grudge to bear - and access to incriminating footage. (When I worked at Sky Sports and messed up, a producer would say "one for the Christmas video".) But who? The list of suspects is long: in the past two decades, the pair have upset as many people as they've watched football games.

The sexism of Keys and Gray was clear back in 1998 when the pair sniggered like school boys as they introduced highlights of the Women's FA Cup Final. Until now, though, it would have taken a brave person indeed to speak out. That's because Sky Sports holds such a dominant position in the world of sports broadcasting.

Sky's reach is not just domestic; its footage is viewed internationally. It has working relationships with ITV (Champions League), BBC (English Premier League) and the American network ESPN. If you fall out with Sky, you can fall out with everyone. Hence I am not putting my name to this article.

But how did the channel get into a state where its top presenters felt so comfortable expressing such crude opinions? The answer lies in its management structure, and how the football department is kept sacrosanct, separated from the rest of the output.

The football team is led by Andy Melvin - a brilliant producer/director who has virtually re-invented the way the game is covered on TV. He's often compared by his staff to Malcolm Tucker, the foul-mouthed yet gifted spin doctor in The Thick Of It. Melvin certainly doesn't care what people think of him. As I once heard him say, "I'm not here to win a fucking popularity contest."

In the days when ITV was hiring staff for the launch of its digital channel, Melvin was keen to retain the services of ex-Spurs forward Clive Allen as a pundit. The pair reached a compromise on a salary, but Allen made the mistake of going to his agent. The agent phoned Melvin to see whether the deal might be improved. Melvin was polite, and asked the agent to get Allen to phone him. When Allen did, most of the words flying out of Melvin's mouth began with either "f" or "c". Allen was out of favour from then on. Melvin's vision of how football should be televised has been realised through Richard Keys, an experienced journalist who came to the channel from TV AM, and Andy Gray, who'd enjoyed a successful playing career. They were later joined by Geoff Shreeves, and the three have supported each other with ruthless efficiency. They in turn have been protected by Melvin. One Sky insider described the three as "bombproof" - at least before this week.

The practical effect of their dominance is that few Sky producers wanted to work on Super Sunday, despite it being the channel's flagship football programme. That's because what Keys, Gray and Shreeves decide goes. Not the producer. For example, while presenting a European Championship Qualifier between the Faroe Islands and Scotland in 1997, Keys was caught off-air talking to a producer who had asked him to do a few on-air promos - short advertising spots for future games. "Nay promos, can't be arsed . . . that's it. Daft little ground-silly game. Fuck off." Sky later apologised, and explained that Keys was at the end of a six-hour shift. He didn't apologise.

I've seen Keys berating production staff with a stream of invective down the years; I've seen one researcher pushed close to the edge. The man eventually left Sky Sports, confiding to me he couldn't take its "bullying culture".

It's telling that when, in May 2009, Sky Sports' managing director Vic Wakeling announced he was retiring after 15 years at the helm, Andy Melvin wasn't chosen to replace him. Many had assumed he was a shoo-in, but his abrasive style was not universally popular, and instead Sky turned to the genial Barney Francis to replace Vic. In practice, Barney was in charge of everything but football and the Melvin/Keys/Gray/Shreeves team rode on.

Ultimately, to denounce Keys and Gray for their unpleasant comments is just dealing with the effects, rather than the cause of the problem. For a start, if Sky Sports is serious about eradicating sexist views, it needs to look carefully at its policy of hiring glamorous female presenters for spurious duties. It hardly encourages a culture of respect for women.

Many years ago I watched in horror as a female presenter struggled with a cricket story and froze when she came to the letters "LBW" on her auto-prompt. She said: "Smith was out lubuwu" and looked quizzically at the screen. Another female presenter once called Wolverhampton's ground as "Moulinex".

I've worked in sports broadcasting for many years, and Sky remains at the forefront of some of the best coverage that exists. I have also witnessed there one of the worst reactionary cultures and some of the basest conservative thinking ever. Let's hope the former wins out.

 

The author is a sports broadcaster who has worked for Sky Sports, among others.