Why is the BBC's women's football coverage so patronising?

5 July 2022

12:59 AM

5 July 2022

12:59 AM

Be honest, how excited are you about the women’s European football championship? The BBC – which will broadcast every game of the tournament that starts on Wednesday – clearly expects you to be very excited indeed. But is the BBC in danger of overhyping women’s football, and doing it and the players a disservice in the process?

Our national broadcaster has form here. The coverage of the women’s World Cup of 2019 was similarly comprehensive and exhaustingly upbeat. Decent games were ‘wonderful’, mediocre games ‘good’; and ways were found to describe stinkers in some way or other positively. There were few poor players, just disappointing performances by hugely talented individuals. No expense was spared in the coverage: BBC Breakfast host Sally Nugent even popped up in Lyon to report on the fallout of England’s semi-final loss to the USA.

But what is disturbing is that it isn’t always women’s football itself that seems to get BBC executives so energised, but the gender politics at play. The BBC’s 2019 World Cup coverage was incorporated into their ‘Change the Game’ campaign, that was launched to initiate a discussion on how women’s sport is viewed. The event was trailed with an aggressive rap video by ‘Ms Banks’ which begins with the word ‘RISE’ in flaming letters and includes lines like ‘get into the zone, more than chromosomes’ and ‘going harder than all you brothers’.

This time the tagline is ‘We know our place’ but the tone is identical with the same glossy montage of images, including the signature women’s empowerment pose (unsmiling athlete with crossed arms staring menacingly, daring to be disrespected). ‘We know our place’ is the repurposing of ‘a phrase that is so often used to suppress women,’ according to the BBC website. For some of those who work at the BBC, female athletes are sporting suffragettes, whether they want to be or not.

But does the BBC know its place anymore? Its purpose is surely to report the news, which means covering sport (a form of news) on the basis of the level of interest in it, not using it as a vehicle to drive societal change.

Even if you do believe the BBC is justified in championing and promoting rather than just covering women’s sport, their implicit claims of prejudice, which may well once have been true, are far more dubious now. It’s true that women’s football hasn’t reached anywhere near the level of popularity or commercial power of the men’s game. But is sexism to blame? Or is this just a result of the simple rules of the marketplace?

Men’s football fans have a plethora of high-quality options to choose from: the English Premier league, Spanish La Liga, Italian Serie A, the Bundesliga in Germany, plus the Champion’s League, Euros, World Cup, African Nations, and South American championships.

Each of these tournaments has a history as rich and deep as folklore. Every men’s tournament is the continuation of what may be more than century-old story layered with tales of legendary players, matches, teams, memories of glory and controversy, and charged with ancient enmities, all of which adds immensely to the attractiveness of the spectacle. That the relatively young professional women’s game struggles to break through and compete with that offering may not be fair, but it isn’t proof of prejudice.

Of course, the men’s game is routinely overhyped by broadcasters too, but not for the purposes of fighting the culture wars. With the men’s game, however much of a positive spin is put on the product, curmudgeonly panelists like Roy Keane or Graeme Souness tell it how it is. Their refreshing old-pro candour can be more entertaining than the action itself. But don’t expect much of that cynicism in coverage of the women’s Euros.

I was so despairing of the BBC’s objectivity during the 2019 World Cup and the relentless sunny optimism that when I was invited on to BBC radio to preview the Japan vs Scotland game, I declined. I knew my view – that the tournament so far had been mediocre, that both teams were poor, and that, as far as I could tell, nobody in Japan was especially interested in the event, even with a recent World Cup win to their credit – would be about as welcome as a Jimmy Savile reference.

None of this is to denigrate the women’s game. This Euros may be a marvellous, thrilling affair that transfixes the nation, though more likely it will be the usual tripartite division into the good, the bad (usually just boring) and the ugly (by which I mean controversial and fractious).

But however, it turns out, we should pay the players the courtesy of being honest about it. We should rightly celebrate the good, but call the rest out for what it is, just as we, more or less, do with the men. That would represent true equality. Anything else would be…disrespectful.

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