Why sportswriters don’t do War Games

I had to stifle a wry smile during the verbal joust on Sky News last weekend, ahead of the Bahrain F1 Grand Prix, when anchorwoman Anna Botting was politely berating a spokesman for the autocratic Gulf state, asking why they had barred a Sky news crew from the country (to cover the real story of the riots and repression, maybe?).

‘We already have over 400 foreign journalists here,’ replied the kaffiyeh-clad Arab, whose name I didn’t quite get, though it sounded like Sheikh I Been Had a Bad Hair Day.

‘But they’re sports reporters,’ insisted Anna.

‘That makes them journalists,’ shot back the sheikh, whose media training clearly hadn’t included a tutorial on how to deal with uppity, Western, female TV news presenters.

For the record – and speaking from experience – Anna’s rather obscure point was absolutely correct.

ANNA BOTTING: No news is bad news

Way back in the mist of time, in my days as a sports exec on a national daily paper, I remember a sportswriter being despatched to Australia with the Great Britain Rugby League team. As misfortune would have it, their plane – presumably a turbo-prop – landed in Beirut, slap bang in the middle of one of the regular, local, internecine punch-ups.

Keen for a Page One story to justify the headline, ‘GB SPORTS STARS TRAPPED IN WAR ZONE,’ I waited patiently for our man on the battlefront to file a (hopefully) drama-packed account. And when he finally managed to touch base, his normally placid, Lancashire bonhomie betrayed real dread.

‘Bloody ‘ell, Hugh, I can see a tank comin’ round the corner and…bloody ‘ell, it’s just blown a bloody great ‘ole in a block o’ flats,’ he yelled.

‘Jack (not his real name),’ I shouted down the line. ‘Give me everything you’ve got. You’re the only Western journalist there and you’re sitting on a pretty big exclusive. So file as much as you can and don’t hold back.’

Within a half-hour I had five sheaves of copy and, with high expectancy, sat back to read Jack’s tale of war-torn terror.

His story began along the lines, ‘Alex Murphy’s injured knee is causing concern to Great Britain Rugby League bosses, who fear the star half-back may miss the opening Test against the Aussies…’

And so it rambled on until the final paragraph, which reported, ‘The players are hoping for a swift exit from Beirut tomorrow, as there’s a civil war going on.’

So Anna was perfectly in order to point out to the sheikh that there are – to use a sporting metaphor – horses for courses. And, while motor sportswriter may know everything about the aerodynamics of a Ferrari’s mudguard, by the same token the BBC’s John Simpson doesn’t do ladies hockey internationals.