I’m a life-long cyclist which, when I started in the late 1950s was more like being a member of a secret cult. It was virtually impossible to be out riding without some bystander shouting ‘your back wheel’s catching up with your front’ or ‘hey, Reg Harris’ Beating dogs off with my pump was common-place. I remember vividly the sense of wonder when in 1965 I think it was, BBC Look North showed 30 seconds of the Milk Race (Tour of Britain) on the evening news as the stage finish that day was at Sunderland, my home town.
Imagine then my pleasure, bemusement, resentment (all three emotions actually) when in 2008, the BBC discovered cycling due to Team GB’s success at the Beijing Olympics in the velodrome. This success was followed up in 2012 with a similar medal haul on the track at the London Olympics plus the added bonus of Bradley Wiggins becoming the first Brit to win the Tour de France. Cycling, opined the BBC, was the new golf and to be a MAMIL (middle aged men in lycra) was de rigeur. Even Alan Sugar was declared to be a devotee, allegedly keeping a top-of-the-range bike at each of his many homes and a personal trainer to ensure he did it right. I’m sorry if I sound cynical, I’m not, really I’m not.
It seems however that the Beeb’s love affair with cycling was short-lived. Despite a huge increase in the number of regular cyclists, proliferation of cycling ‘sportives’ (mass participation bike rides with closed roads) and continued success in both track and road racing, the BBC’s enthusiasm seems half-hearted at best. Last month Chris Froome won the Tour de France for the fourth time and there have been a host of other successes. However if your name isn’t Brad (sorry Sir Bradley) Wiggins, Mark Cavendish, or Laura Kenny (nee Trott), or if it’s not an Olympic sport, it seems the BBC has decided that the British public really aren’t interested.
While it reported daily updates of the Tour de France on its website, the BBC only sporadically mentioned what was happening during its 21 stages. By way of comparison, their coverage was a bit like reporting only some England matches or even just the first half in a major football tournament and not mentioning how other teams are progressing. My impression is that the BBC is paying lip service to its cycling coverage, that if there hasn’t been a British stage winner, it’s not news.
I think BBC’s reporting of cycling speaks volumes about the nature of the BBC. It’s an extremely conservative organisation. It likes tradition which in sport means football, rugby (union), cricket, athletics and the Olympics and of course, the dwindling number of sports for which it still has the TV rights, e.g. snooker. The second reason comes down to personalities. The BBC loves creating iconic figures for the public to worship – think Jessica Ennis-Hill, Mo Farah and, dare I say it, Chris Hoy. How popular the sport is with the general public is neither here nor there, it’s simply that the chosen ones are potent and wholesome representations of British patriotism. And this is an area where British cycling simply doesn’t cut it now that Brad Wiggins with his rock star image has retired. Chris Froome has never been a contender on BBC Sports Personality of the Year (SPOTY). This is important to the BBC who like to promote popular figures. In fact the BBC website, commenting on Froome’s fourth Tour victory headlined the article, ‘‘Is Chris Froome Britain’s least popular sportsman?’ Born in Kenya to British parents, Froome grew up in South Africa and now lives in Monaco. Apart from the 2014 Tour de France which started in Yorkshire and the 2012 Olympic Games, I don’t think Froome has ever raced in Britain. He certainly doesn’t demonstrate any great affiliation to the UK. Add all this baggage to a quiet, reserved demeanour and it’s easy to see how he simply doesn’t fit the BBC’s cut-and-paste image of the All-British hero.
This obsession with promoting Britishness has always been a part of the BBC’s agenda, whether through dramas or documentaries and pageantry. However, the trend seems to be increasingly jingoistic. Nick Clegg put his finger on the probable reasons when, writing about Brexit, he observed ‘The more you lose your grip, the more you hold on to what you know. It is a sure sign that an institution is in steady decline when it fixates on past glories. A belief in the traditions of the past often masks discomfort about the challenges of the present’
The BBC seems to be making a rallying cry to encourage a sense of patriotism, whether through sport, nostalgia for past glories or commemoration ceremonies. Perhaps because, like Nick Clegg, it sees that the best days of the UK are behind it. One definition of fundamentalism is ‘radicalisation as a result of one’s beliefs being challenged’ As Britain’s status as a World Power is increasingly called into question, that sense of Britishness is being radicalised. In this new Britain we must support the flag, buy the Poppy, support Help for Heroes, dream of ‘Empire 2’ and watch the ‘Great British Bake Off’, in fact the ‘Great British anything…’ And the BBC is their biggest cheerleader.
So there you have it, while my family were probably grumbling that I was spending far too much time watching the Tour de France on TV and not enough on the grandkids, I’m sure you’ll now agree I was actually doing serious political research.