Thursday, January 27, 2011

Replays from every angle

"Sky Sports is not inherently sexist. It is something that is a leftover from when we started."

Apparently, that was something of an apology, an explanation by Sky Sports' Richard Keys on talkSPORT of why he and fellow Sky football presenter Andy Gray had a less-than enlightened conversation about female assistant referee Sian Massey. The conversation was meant to be off-air, but somehow a recording made its way into the public domain.

As last weekend unfolded, additional evidence surfaced of Gray and Keys demonstrating behaviour that Sky would come to deem "unacceptable". By Monday, Gray had been sacked and by Wednesday, Keys had fallen on his sword, figuratively speaking. You might say "who cares?": after all, this is just a juicy media story - the perfect media story, actually, combining celebrity, sex and salacious scandal. It has, however, unleashed two separate debates. Firstly, the issue of sexism. Ironically, Sky can be credited with the modernisation of televised football and probably football itself.

When, in 1991, Sky successfully bid £474 million for the rights to broadcast the inaugural four seasons of the Premier League, it not only bid way over the top to secure those rights (leaving fellow bidders trailing by some considerable margin), but established a pattern that Rupert Murdoch's media interests would replicate elsewhere. David Hill, the ebullient Aussie who masterminded the Sky bid for the Premier League, went on to do the same for Murdoch in the US, where he was the architect of Fox Sports hijacking NFL American Football coverage from the CBS network using the exact same tactic.

Sky brought a brash new approach to live football coverage, turning its Sunday afternoon broadcasts into "destination TV", and introducing another American institution, Monday Night Football, to British audiences. Keys - a refugee from TV-am - and the ex-Everton and Scotland forward Gray were installed as the faces of Sky's football coverage, presenting a more laddish appeal than the BBC or ITV style, and clearly targeting Bloke At Home or Blokes Down The Pub.

When the Premier League rights came up for renewal a few seasons later, Sky - once again - pitched up a whopping bid to retain them, somewhere in the region of £700 million. Move on to the next renewal, and their [successful] bid exceeded £1 billion. With each successful bid, Sky consolidated its influence over the Premier League. The notion of football matches kicking off at 3pm on a Saturday or 7.45 on a Wednesday evening disappeared for good, as the broadcast schedule started to dictate the fixture list.

Money talks, clearly, and by now you'll be making the connection between Sky's dominance of football coverage, the money it has been prepared to pay for it, and the money sloshing around the Premier League itself. All those mansions in Cheshire and Surrey, WAG holidays and the parade of blingmobiles parked outside club training grounds have been funded largely through television revenue.

Sky not only revolutionised football financially, but also the football debate. It innovated where rivals like the BBC and ITV had not. Sky introduced 13-camera match coverage, generating multiple angles from which to see every goal, every tackle and, significantly, every disputed decision over and over again. This saturation created armchair referees and saloon bar linesmen, unsolicited second opinion and unprecedented pressure on the actual match officials getting every decision right. Barely a weekend goes by today without a referee's judgement being called into question over some disputed penalty, red card or offside decision, all thanks to the greater availability of media.

It's ironic, then, that this week's kerfuffle is the result of unguarded moments being caught on camera and on audio. Neither Keys' or Gray's behaviour comes as a shock to anyone who knows their reputations. A long-standing media rumour suggested that Roger Mellie, Viz comic's foul-mouthed and profoundly misogynist "Man On The Telly" was strongly based on Keys' somewhat 'earthy' vernacular. Gray's iffy history with women has been lengthily documented by the tabloids this week, and I can certainly concur that when I worked at Sky, I regularly witnessed Gray acting the star and in particular, chatting up anyone in a skirt, which must have been hazardous for some of his fellow Scotsmen.

Whatever your view of their behaviour, Keys and Gray's departure has certainly been accelerated by the apparent ready availability of audio and video material of the duo being boorish. Arguably, their behaviour has been no different to anything else witnessed in a pub on a Saturday night, but that doesn't make it any more acceptable for Sky who, as a modern employer and publicly traded company, must maintain a spotless reputation as an organisation of the highest ethical and moral standards, and a positive, inclusive place to work. This, of course, doesn't reflect the fact that Sky has appeared to have an editorial policy of promoting female presenters of the "phwoar" variety for its sports, news and entertainment channels, clearly aimed at appealing to the 18-35 year-old male who represents the bulk of their target advertising audience. That, by the way, is not a sexist comment. Just take a look at Sky's presenter roster.

The issue of whether a woman can be an assistant referee or even the 'man in the middle' (yeah, I know...), shouldn't even be in question. The interchange between Keys and Gray about Sian Massey may have been Neanderthal, and may have been no different from conversations going on in every pub since this issue first surfaced, but it's irrelevant. If Massey is good enough to boss the line, then she's good enough. End of discussion. A match official's chromosome content shouldn't really make any difference (and I'm going to swerve clear of that rabbit hole about men and women in sport in general).

What truly is murky is why this has become such a media storm in the first place. Why so much content has been released to the press, ironically condemning Keys and Gray to trial by video replay. The conspiracy theory doing the rounds is that, with Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation looking to wrest total control of British Sky Broadcasting (despite his dominance, Murdoch has always been a minority shareholder), Sky could do without any reputational diversions. As it is, there have been all sorts of hints and suggestions over David Cameron's relationship with various Murdoch executives, as well as the disastrous way Vince Cable was removed from the process to approve the  takeover.

Knowing the individual reputation of the two presenters involved, it was probably only a matter of time before something like this happened. Television stations - like newspaper offices - are notoriously leaky sieves, and the release of video of Gray being lewd towards a female presenter didn't have to travel far to reach the surface. 

Perhaps Sky were even looking for a reason to change anchors of their football coverage? It's been 18 years since Keys and Gray first came on air, heralded by Simple Minds' Alive And Kicking, and until this week, pulling in £2.3 million a year in salary between them would have made them easy targets for change. As I know from my own experience, when there's a target on your back at Sky, someone will find a reason to pull the trigger. The trouble is that Keys and Gray made that reason just too easy to find.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Alone again, naturally

The science fiction premise that the universe is broadly populated by a multitude of alien species who, rather conveniently for script writers and costume designers, speak English and have the full earthly complement of limbs, heads, eyes and mouths, has for years been dutifully accepted as harmless entertainment.

However, in the real world - this one - the question still remains: are we truly alone? Planet-sized intellects like Stephen Hawking less than helpfully conclude that, based on mathematic probability, it would be unlikely for life not to exist somewhere in the cosmos. Well, thanks, Professor H, I feel so much better informed now.

So at risk of leaving sensitive Trekkers (remember, they're never "Trekkies") sobbing into their pints of Romulan Ale, news reaches this galaxy that, most probably, we are the only living residents of, well, anywhere. According to a leading Harvard astrophysicist, the continuing mission to seek out strange new worlds - sorry, I'll stop doing that - the ongoing effort of the scientific community to identify new planets is drawing a big fat blank when it comes to identifying other places where life might be supported.

Picture: NASA
News, two weeks ago, of the discovery of an "Earth-like" planet only 560 light years away (pack up the car and program the TomTom, kids, we're off!) was hailed as a stroke of brilliance by the Nasa scientists who found it circling around the star Kepler-10. The excitement grew from the fact this planet is about 1.4 times the size of our own and was a "bona fide rocky world", which shouldn't be confused with Sylvester Stallone's next theme restaurant.
Unfortunately, despite also being something of a "missing link" between all the other gas-filled saunas in the universe and our own, gradually decaying orb, Nasa's finest were brought crashing down by the reality that, with a surface temperature of 1300-degrees (Centigrade, not that it makes much difference if you were planning a holiday), the chance of it supporting anything more than an oven glove was nigh on impossible. Sadly, says Harvard's Howard Smith, every planet so far discovered circling around stars has been profoundly uninhabitable for any form of complex or even simple life. 

That said, star gazers have only found 1000 or so planets so far: given that there are between 200 billion and 400 billion stars in our galaxy alone, and that the universe is, according to someone with an enormous tape measure, 14 billion light years across, you do wonder whether Hawking's mathematic probability has a point. Even if he's just guessing - and who's to say he's not - we're in similar territory to the comment oft-heard on the streets of Manhattan: "There's bound to be a Starbucks around here somewhere." And, nine times out of ten, there will be.

The American research institute SETI - the Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence - was largely founded on the basis of an equation, by astronomer Frank Drake, that took into account all sorts of factors (such as how fast stars formed and how many were likely to have planets) to arrive at a likelihood that 'out there', something or someone might be living. Drake believed that there are as many as ten planets in our neck of the celestial woods which could be habitable by intelligent life. Well, at least someone's thinking about it.

Meanwhile, while sci-fi conventioneers continue to dress up as Klingons, and dispossessed individuals still camp out in the high desert of Nevada in the hope of seeing alien spacecraft doing doughnuts in the Area 51 car park, it would be nice to think that a little more time, effort and research could be put into addressing what the intelligent life on this planet has been up to since it pitched up just 200,000 years ago - a mere 4 billion years after Earth was formed.

Perhaps there are aliens out there, looking through telescopes right this minute, and saying to each other - in English, of course: "Nah, too hot. And getting warmer. It could never support intelligent life."

Friday, January 14, 2011

A Paris Love Affair

In The Sopranos episode Cold Stones, Carmela Soprano and her best friend Rosalie Aprile take flight from northern New Jersey mob life by jetting to Paris.

Meandering the boulevards, musea and churches, Carmela gushes uncontrollably about the city, its signature architecture, its culture, its squares, its bridges - just about everything one comes to think about the self-style City of Light. For Carmela, it's a spiritual awakening, the realisation that there is another life outside her marital car wreck of lies, evasion and deceipt.

While most of us are not seeking such contrast to a life in organised crime, it's hard not to wax as lyrically. For some, Paris is a noisy, traffic-clogged migraine waiting to happen, frustrated by indifferent waiters and made hazardous by streets peppered with dog poop. For others - and here's to whom my subs get paid - it's an intoxicatingly beautiful city, by turns prompting curiosity, swooning and shear enjoyment just to be out and about.

Spend anything more than a business daytrip to the city and you'll quickly become taken in by its charm and knowing beauty: every neighbourhood invites you for an hour, for an afternoon...forever, ensnaring you with the escapist prospect of living in one of those small but airy, big-windowed apartments, with the smell of freshly-baked bread wafting up from the boulangerie below.

If this already smacks of cliché it's because Paris is almost unreal; like a Vogue cover model, it can be too attractive. Stroll down another of Baron Haussman's perfectly planned streets and you're not only confronted by a the bewildering, myriad corner brasseries in which to drop in for a livener, but also an ambience as unique as your fingerprints. 

The thing with Paris is that even though you know what you'll get when you turn up, you still can't feel dissatisfied. It's like a theme park you never tire of revisiting. It's all there for you, waiting as you walk through its gates - the Seine, the Louvre, the Champs Elysées, the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame and the royal palace. All these landmarks are within one open-topped bus ride of each other, a Universal Studios tour without rubber sharks.

No city can offer the same scale of overwhelming drama in its vistas as, say, Yosemite, but the grandeur of the buildings lining the Seine and the almost audaciously ornate architecture surrounding the Louvre and the royal palace (despite its inherent anachronism) will leave anyone in a state of awe as gape-mouthed as any other world wonder.

Now, before you think I've been retained by Nicolas Sarkozy himself to big up his capital city, let me state that I still hold affection for my native London: I'm proud to have grown up in its leafy suburbs, proud to have worked in its choking midst, and proud to have spent some of the most enjoyable days of my life in its music venues, restaurants, art galleries and all the other places the make visiting and living in London such a rich experience. And, while I'm at it, I still hold candles for Amsterdam, New York and San Francisco, the other cities I can enjoy unconditionally. Paris, however, holds different currency. In overhauling a medieval city - some say for the better, others for the worse - Haussman's renovation worked wonders in creating a city for its people.

There is, though, more to the appeal of Paris than urban planning alone. London is comparable in bustle, New York equal in vibrancy, and Rome, Vienna and Prague in architectural interest, but what all lack - and Paris has by the bagload, oversized, WAG-style Vuitton bags - is romance. It flows through Paris like the Seine itself; it is alive in the character of every street, every street corner, and every street corner cafe.

It is also, surprisingly, more laid-back than you might expect. Of course, being on the Metro at 8.30 in the morning carries its proximity and claustrophobia issues, and by laid-back, I don't mean the way Madrid, Barcelona or Milan ooze chilled-out cool. But there is a subtle, even gentle manner to which Paris carries itself: at 11am on a Monday morning, when the office-bound in most other metropolises would be cursing the mountain weekend e-mail clogging up their inboxes, the Parisian is in a bar quietly sipping a thimble of coffee, perusing Le Figaro or conversing with a neighbour about national politics. Or Carla Bruni.

Its tempting to scoff at such apparent reluctance to take gainful employment seriously. Or show fear at the sight of gangs of wealthy, elderly (and almost exclusively) women marauding through the 8th arrondissement on shopping trips, all Gucci sunglasses and Prada handbags. "Haw," you might say, "these are just actors, hired to manage the expectations of gullible American tourists".

It would generally be wrong to look at Paris only through rose-tinted RayBans. It is not totally the chocolate box cliché it might think it - and  apparently, I - would like to think it is. Driving is mostly easy, but there are times when you can't help hearing the voice of Alec Guinness intoning: "Use the Force, Luke", as you squeeze between  taxis hell-bent on competing for your lane, regardless of you actually being in it.

Not all of it is so attractive to look at, either: the downright ugly 'grand arch' of La Defense, not to mention the neighbouring mountains of steel that house this district's ghetto of banks, corporate HQs and management consultancies are, thankfully, a sideshow, a mere reminder that big business needs big buildings in which to make big money. 

Straddling la Périphérique are edges to the city that have grown tougher in recent years, with racial and social tensions venting themselves periodically and the far-from cosmopolitan French melting pot boiling over. 

Then is also the French propensity for industrial militancy; a day's journey into, out of, or across Paris can swiftly be irritated by wildcat strikes breaking out over the most trifling of issues. But even being the capital city of post-industrial Europe's most unionised economy cannot detract from the copious reasons Paris is rivalled by a scant few and probably bettered by none. 

Paris has mastered the art of intertwining modernity and classicism. The Louvre extension, with its remarkable glass pyramid (and, now, its own subterranean Apple Store), exemplifies this perfectly. Throughout the corporate Parisian landscape, offices sit behind traditional street façades, hiding the cleverly incorporated modern architectural designs within- the use of natural and artificial light.

It is a wonder anyone gets any work done at all in Paris. There's a cafe, bar or restaurant on just about every square meter of real estate, and from petit-dejeuner until last knockings, they all seem to be full and bustling. Again, temptation makes you think that it's all an act, but it's not. Parisians really do make time to enjoy the finer things in life.

Paris isn't a city, it's a novel that engages you and won't leave you alone. It is the most enriching cinematic experience you will ever pass through a box office to see. As you witness that Parisian strut - a combination of elegance and indifference - you realise you're not walking through a living museum, and you're not even looking at a place, but you are watching the most well-rounded, multi-layered and intrinsically fascinating character ever written. Perhaps that's what's drawn writers, poets, philosophers and intellectuals of all shades over the decades to its dens of discourse. I know I can't wait to get stuck in.