'Dark Forces' at Work - or TV's Very Own Taste of Bigot-Gate?

Article excerpt

Byline: Lara Gould SHOWBUSINESS EDITOR

MANY people have fallen foul of microphones being left on - none more notoriously than former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who was caught out last April branding voter Gillian Duffy 'bigoted' as he sat in his ministerial Jaguar, unaware that he was still being recorded.

But was the row that engulfed Sky TV last week and ended the careers of Andy Gray and Richard Keys a case of It'll Be Alright On The Night spun out of control or - as Keys has alleged - 'dark forces' at work to remove two men who had outlived their commercial usefulness? Certainly there are many who would subscribe to the 'dark forces' theory. Sky is not like other media and emphasis is on news and entertainment.

The entire company, which last week posted pre-tax profits of [pounds sterling]467 million, was built around its monopoly of Premier League football coverage, which enabled it to launch and develop its highly lucrative subscription business model.

This means that within the hierarchy of Sky it is not popular family channels such as Sky Movies or flagship channel Sky One, or indeed 24-hour news channel Sky News (which loses [pounds sterling]30 million to [pounds sterling]40 million a year), which hold the power - but Sky Sports.

It is an oft-repeated phrase at Sky headquarters in Osterley, West London, that Sky Sports 'pays the bills round here', with one Sky insider telling The Mail on Sunday this week: 'The view is that without Sky Sports there is no Sky.' Since its inception in 1991, no one has been more powerful in the Sky Sports pecking order than Andy Gray and Richard Keys - two of the highest paid pundits in sport.

They came into the channel at the very beginning and, over that 20-year period, had built up salaries that put them on a par with the professional footballers on which they were paid to comment. Gray, a former Scottish inter national, and Keys, a TV presenter who started his career at breakfast TV channel TV-am in the Eighties, had also built up a loyal faction of powerful backers, including Andy Melvin, head of football at Sky Sports.

Together they presided over a Sky Sports newsroom where we now know bullying behaviour and sexist banter were the order of the day - every day.

But in recent years, Sky's position had been changing.

As its profits grew, Rupert Murdoch - the media mogul who owns newspaper titles The Times, The Sunday Times, The Sun and The News of the World and a 39.1 per cent share in Sky - decided he wanted to bring Sky TV fully into his business empire.

To do that he had to prove to the Government and regulators, concerned about one man owning such a large chunk of the UK media, that the various outlets already under his control, from Sky News to The Sun and The Times, were genuinely independent of each other.

At the same time new faces had started to arrive, including Sky Sports managing director Barney Francis - a moderniser brought in to head up the channel in July 2009 - and Jeremy Darroch, who was appointed as Sky's chief executive in 2007.

Both men recognised that football was changing. It was no longer the sole preserve of men. …