Mind the gender gap

The British press has widely turned on Andy Gray and Richard Keys for the sexist “banter” which now sees them out of their jobs at Sky Sports

Following the leak of videos that showed some archaic opinions being expressed in the Sky Sports studio, Richard Keys may have hoped that a generous sprinkling one of the most overused buzzwords of recent times would aid his acquittal. In a now notorious interview with Talk Sport, Keys claimed to have “enjoyed some banter together” with assistant referee Sian Massey, apologised for his “prehistoric banter” and, using attack as the best form of defence, pointed out that one of his most vocal critics Rio Ferdinand was guilty of similar “dressing room banter”.

No one was impressed. The unsparing treatment of Keys and Andy Gray in every paper was quite comforting – even the Sun‘s arch-defender of “male banter” Ian Wright thought Gray “had to go”. The depth of the pundits’ unpopularity was reflected in headlines including A game of two halfwits, Keys to the door and Soccer sexist is given a red card. But it was the sheer volume of comment dedicated to the sexism controversy that proved what a perfect storm this was for the papers and Sky Sports itself.

In the Telegraph a bullish Allison Pearson wanted to draw a line between “lighthearted sexist generalisations” and real discrimination, pointing out that “football remains an intensely masculine arena, a field of dreams in which the domesticated male, feeling downtrodden at work and home, can let his atavistic, very unmodern self off the leash”. Meanwhile, the Independent was keen to push the theory that Gray was “being punished for suing News Corp” in the phone-hacking row.

Tabloid depths were plumbed with rumours that reporters had been dispatched to Massey’s ex-boyfriends in the search of “raunchy shots” and that Gray’s mother had been approached for an interview. Meanwhile, the Sun hypocritically juxtaposed editorials on Grays’ “toe-curling sexual suggestions” with philosophical quotations from their Page 3 girls. The paper also saw fit to begin its coverage with a front-page sexist pun of its very own, placing the headline Get ’em off alongside a personal picture from MySpace, apparently “snapped at a party”.

The Mail was in its element, publishing a raft of articles explicitly designed to annoy their implacable foe, the trendy lefty. Columnist Giles Coren posed as a victim – “While sexism from men is the outstanding social crime of the modern world, women can say absolutely whatever they like about us” – before wading deeper into the realm of self-delusion: “British men are like white people were in Nineties South Africa or young Germans after the Second World War. We are expected to go through a period of atonement for the sins of our fathers.”

In the light of the FA reporting that they had received an unprecedented number of calls from women about becoming match officials, there was some analysis of what the row really meant for women in the game. In the Telegraph Jim White believed it had been a “traumatic week for Sky… it is impossible that Britain’s foremost sports broadcaster can emerge from this unchanged”, pointing out that the “not-so-subtle undercurrent of sex has long been used by the broadcaster to sell its output”. If only Sky were forced to change.

Female F1 reporter Lee McKenzie claimed in the Express “It’s what you know, never how you look” and that “gender is irrelevant” in sport broadcasting. But, at the same time, “sources close to” Charlotte Jackson – the “middle-class teacher’s daughter” who was the recipient of Gray’s attentions – claimed that she was “happy to use sexy photoshoots as a ‘launch pad’ for her television career”. And, going back to 2008 when the short-lived Setanta was launched as a rival to Sky Sports, a “Sky insider” implored the “hosts” on his channel to “get tarted up”. “All our girls are perfect – but we can all have our off days.” Appearance is obviously important.

Contrary to White’s claim that this was a difficult period for Rupert Murdoch, the ultimate victor in this row was Sky Sports itself. The channel has been able to get rid of some unpopular and stale presenters, claim the moral high-ground and dominate newspaper headlines for a week. While the company worked quickly to address the explicit sexism of Keys and Gray the implicit sexism of their presenting style is unlikely to change.

White concluded his criticism of Sky with a recommendation that Helen Chamberlain replaced Keys in the studio. Yes, that Helen Chamberlain, who made her name on Soccer AM with its Soccerettes – female fans who indulge in innuendo-filled football gags. But, of course, we could always just dismiss that as a bit of harmless banter.

From WSC 289 March 2011