A Question of Sport
Around a decade ago, still with the naive belief that a Scots-speaking ‘ned’ from the South West would be given any sort of opportunity amidst the rampant prejudice of Gaeldom and its cultural environs, I sat in the audience of Cunntas. Some current politics, wind farms, the avoidance of any in-depth debate on land reform; thus went the BBC Alba (or, rather, its BBC 2 Thursday nicht precursor slot) formula. And so to the turn of the ever-affable and slightly boyish Gilleasbuig MacDonald, who had a beef with the state’s support of his beloved shinty. Following some predictably stagnant establishment-speak from the presenter about being outward looking – which invariably partners any suggestion that we promote our own culture – came the Sgitheanach’s closing statement: If we don’t look after it, who else is going to do it?
Nothing hugely profound or complex, perhaps, but absolutely everything which embodies the pragmatic approach normal countries have to managing their own cultures. But of course, Scotland is far from a normal country, and it is to be suspected that even if a move were made to prioritise football or golf in the school system – sports which have achieved that all important nod of cultural acceptance from the outside world – it would be subject to the obligatory period of feigned introspective concern by faux internationalists in red rosettes mouthing off about narrow-mindedness and opening our arms to the world. Phrases, it must be added, which many of them barely understand or deliberately use out of context for political ends.
But back to the BBC. Clearly, it is on our state broadcaster that a huge amount of the responsibility for the promotion of sport falls. With this responsibility – and this is something of which its less intellect repellent employees are perfectly aware – comes great control. Despite the incursion of Sky, it still has the power to influence the popularity and public perception of a sport, and can even kickstart the fortunes of those which perhaps lack the glamour to develop organically. Snooker, oft considered the realm of the crook and gambler before BBC sanitisation in the 1980s, eventually came to enjoy a huge increase in popularity, and the era of million pound sponsorship and clean-cut superstars. Likewise, other less high octane sports, such as darts and green bowling, benefited immensely with BBC 2 coverage.
Despite holding Richard Corsie personally responsible for my heart rate plummeting to around ten beats per minutes one evening in the late eighties, this isn’t always a bad thing. Naturally, no one west of the Clyde knows the rules of rugby, if indeed there are any. The televised Six Nations, though, not only exposes us to a new culture, but gives an opportunity to hail abuse at a whole new demographic of wax-jacketed city types from Aberdeen, or wherever Morayfield is. The more recent prominence given to women’s football and that which athletics will receive in the summer are further examples of how a sport’s popularity need not, and in these cases should not, translate into the volume of coverage it receives in the media.
In the main, however, the output of BBC and Radio Scotland’s sport content is a disservice to the nation’s sporting heritage, failing both to reflect its diversity and give those less popular the prestige imbued by regular media coverage. Worse, English Premiership scores are frequently given headline priority over those of the SPFL, and its highlights, although produced south of the Border, have always been far more frequently aired over the years than those of our domestic league.
By doing so, the BBC effectively acts as an advertising agent for the EPL and its wearisome, and for the majority of its existence erroneous, self-aggrandisement as ‘the best league in the world’. Yes, the Premiership is superior to what’s on offer in Scotland, but by this rationale, Spanish and German highlights should be made available and given headlines. Not only that, the junior game in Scotland would have no support whatsoever. The crux of the matter is that German and Spanish results are not culturally relevant, and although the argument could be made that the English game is, in no way should it be prioritised over our national league, or for that matter our regional and minority sports.
Despite the consecration of the EPL by some, the feeling generated by the fever-pitch levels of attention given to an England team departing for the World Cup is one of bitterness, which, on a purely football-rivalry level, is perfectly normal. The irony is that England are perfectly entitled to craw about their World Cup victory, any nation would do exactly the same, and rightly so. The problem is that it is actually broadcast in Scotland, something akin to RTL Nederland beaming in a grinning Franz Beckenbauer live from the Brandenburg Gate to talk of the World Cup this summer, and expecting Jan and Thijs in Groningen to graciously wish Duitsland good luck.
This sporting genuflection extends beyond football. So used to the Anglo-centric spin has the population become, it is rarely questioned beyond the odd grumble into a pint of Saturday afternoon heavy that the cricket score of two countries, neither of whom are Scotland, should be given significant airtime, while results from the furious rivalries of junior football are not. But there are more cricket grounds in Scotland than there are football, some argue. As well as this being utter nonsense, it’s as good an argument as any for coverage of local Scottish cricket, not the English national team team.
Much in the same way as the education system (correctly) normalises Shakespeare via formal study while Robert Burns is a tartan swathed funster wheeled out in January, by keeping the Camanachd and Scottish Junior cups an annual showpiece, the BBC subtly maintain their cultural obscurity. Scottish sport, then, is the Other, which after decades leaves a youth which is as likely to wear a Chelsea top as they are that of their home town club. The use of language is also significant, the league to many now being a referral to the EPL, not Scotland’s domestic top flight.
Call it parochial, inward looking, or small minded – I’ll take that over imperialist – but shinty, junior football, curling, and for that matter newer sports such as mountain biking, have more cultural and geographical relevance to the nation than the Norwich v West Ham result, and deserve wider and more in-depth coverage than that which they currently receive. In any case, wall to wall Premiership news is a mere button’s click away for those who care.
Although it still kowtows naively to protocol by giving too much precedence to cricket and the EPL in headlines, it is via Gaelic media that Scottish sport finds its most accurate and diverse reflection, which may in part be in due to BBC Alba and Radio nan Gàidheal’s roles as half national, half local broadcasters. Shamefully, it is only BBC Alba which currently shows any live – or as live – as the case may be, SPFL fixtures. Saturday morning’s Spòrs na Maidne on Radio nan Gàidheal regularly covers all manner of the more esoteric of our sports, shinty being the most notable, and the consistently excellent Derek Murray on his evening Siubhal gu Seachd mixes the latest news from the Western Isles’ fitba league with infectious humour. Even with only the most tenuous of links to the Hebrides, I find this infinitely more appealing than another tired rehash of the Premiership.
Whether it transforms into a true state broadcaster post September 18th or maintains its current structure, the BBC in Scotland must surely reassess its outlook on how it delivers news and coverage of the nation’s sport. In a country of five and half million people, a state broadcaster must be more agile, more aware of local cultural nuances and sports, and promote them accordingly. The top tier of football, a game Scotland gave to the world, should not be relegated behind those of a nation which has the gall to misappropriate this invention and record a European Championship song about it.
While a line should be drawn firmly under live caber tossing, there are a host of minority Scottish sports which are worthy of more coverage. From somewhere, BBC Scotland must find the cultural confidence and open-mindedness to broadcast Kilbirnie Ladeside versus Auchinleck Talbot to a shocked Morningside audience, and to realise the only Ashes that should be heard of are from the clatter of the camain.