Bowled Over

By Vestey, Michael | The Spectator, March 18, 2000 | Go to article overview

Bowled Over


Vestey, Michael, The Spectator


Kelvin MacKenzie's cage was so rattled last week that he fell off his perch, beak-- dived into the sand and could only gnaw dementedly at the cuttlefish bone. He'd just heard that talkSport, his independent speech radio station, had failed to secure the rights to broadcast ball-by-ball commentary of the English domestic cricket Tests, Although he bid more than the BBC, the England and Wales Cricket Board, the ECB, preferred the BBC's breadth of coverage to his own offering.

In fact, I almost fell off my own perch when I heard the announcement on Radio Four's PM programme. I had not expected the BBC to win this battle as MacKenzie, largely backed by Rupert Murdoch's empire, is prepared to pay over the odds for any sport if he can beat the BBC. Until now, the Corporation had shown a somewhat desultory interest in keeping Test Match Special on radio and cricket on television, losing the latter to Channel 4. MacKenzie had already outbid the Corporation for ball-by-ball commentary of overseas Tests and I thought he would do it again. Financially, of course, he should have done as he offered 0.5 million to the BBC's reported L5 million.

I say 'reported' as the BBC likes to keep these things quiet for its own mysterious reasons. When Jenny Abransky, the director of Radio, was asked on PM how much had been offered, she declined to say, as if it were none of our business as licence-fee payers. Having fluttered back on to his perch, MacKenzie, his beak quivering like a bow-string, uttered some rot about the Establishment deciding talkSport's money wasn't good enough, at the same time wondering if it was because they 'didn't talk like a peer of the realm', a reference to the ECB's chairman Lord MacLaurin. The man behind the success of Tesco hardly strikes me as a Lord Emsworth figure with a distaste for commercial radio.

He was clearly swayed by the BBC's sudden and unexpected aggression and commitment to keeping TMS. The BBC's director-general, Greg Dyke, led the negotiations, itself a sign of a new determination. I believe that under his predecessor John Birt, who wasn't particularly interested in radio, the BBC would have allowed talkSport to buy Test coverage. There were a number of BBC executives who would have happily lost TMS if they could have found a decent excuse. …

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