Broadcast news – BBC coverage of African Nations Cup

BBC coverage of the African Nations Cup fails to excite, reports Tom Davies

If there was a hint of desperation in the way the BBC hyped its first foray into covering the African Nations Cup, two years ago, there was at least a sense this year that it’s beginning to grow into the job. Of course, any broadcaster is hostage to the quality of the event and the 2002 ANC was a grim, joyless tournament whose dullness the Beeb couldn’t quite bring itself to admit, whereas Tunisia 2004, though patchy, greatly exceeded its predecessor for excitement and unpredictability.

There was a little more honesty this time round. Main frontman Garth Crooks may continue to be one of the nation’s leading exponents of the bleedin’ obvious, but the coverage was boosted by a sufficient number of pun­dits with knowledge of and a connection to African football. Former Nigeria defender Stephen Keshi impressed as co-commentator and England-based African pundits such as Efan Ekoku generally seemed to know what they were talking about, even if the latter’s rather wooden delivery style let him down.

Indeed, there was something of a comforting throwback to more sober times in the dry, stilted punditry. Unburdened by the forced, pally personality-cultism of Hansen, Lawro and Stubbsy, the panel had to fall back on just talking calmly about the football.

Perhaps this style would have been found wanting had the Beeb shown proper live games, as opposed to the wasteful as-live broadcasts shown on BBC3 several hours after they had been on Eurosport. There was something to be said, though, for staying away from the television until the BBC3 broadcasts began, as games on Eurosport sounded as if they were being covered from the inside of a phone booth, stripped of all atmosphere.

If there was one area in which the Beeb did lapse into cliche it was in the opening credits, which laid on the “natural rhythm” stereotypes fairly thickly. One can only be thankful that Ireland’s joint bid for Euro 2008 failed, as programme trailers would almost certainly have shown an old bloke in a pub playing a tin whistle next to a Guinness-quaffing priest.

This was probably as much as Rod Liddle wanted to see of the ANC, though, since he used the highlights of the opening match as the basis of a column in the Times on January 31 as offensive as it was ignorant. The tournament, the former Today programme editor opined, was rubbish. No one wanted to watch it, the standard was below Conference level and the decision to broadcast it was born of a patronising “political correctness” (which he just stopped short of saying had “gone mad”).

“Does anybody here care a toss about who wins the African Cup of Nations, given that most African teams are crap at football?” asked Liddle. “No, of course not – and nobody at the BBC would argue for a second that this was the purpose behind the coverage.”

Liddle went on to ridicule the presence of Rwanda in particular. “In previous years, we’ve witnessed Rwandans engaged in a sport with which they’re palpably more familiar – genocide… the Hutus and Tutsis seemed quite adept at genocide whereas they’re absolutely shite at football, so where does this leave us?” Marvelling, perhaps, at his daring and witty juxtaposition of the very serious (mass killing) and the trivial (football)? Or just wondering who on earth commissioned this drivel?

Liddle’s been churning out this cynical, self-consciously controversial crap for a couple of years, previously for the Guardian. The main purpose is to show what a free-thinking maverick Liddle is. Rod’s a Millwall fan and a bit of a geezer, see, and once boasted about upsetting opposing club officials by swearing in the directors’ box (well, haven’t we all?).

It’s particularly unfortunate that this piece should have appeared around the same time as the Hutton Report, over which Liddle, the man who employed Andrew Gilligan, had – rightly

From WSC 206 April 2004. What was happening this month