Tuesday, March 03, 2009

British Ballsless Corporation

It says something about the poverty of political journalism in Wales, and indeed the recent introspection of the meeja hor brigade, that I've had more calls from the press about the University Challenge saga that I wasn't involved in and haven't written about (namely three) than about the controversial council meeting I was involved in and have written about (namely zero).

Of course, when the subject of discussion was just the meeja hor reaction to Gail Trimble I really didn't want to write about it; anything I could say as an alumnus of the defeated university and as one of her predecessors as brainbox of the series would have sounded like sour grapes, and in any case if I want commentary on the proclivities of the modern news media I'll happily get it from Private Eye rather than trying to produce any of my own.

But then the whole thing turned into Corpusgate and I started getting phone calls (not least from BBC Radio Gloucestershire, on whose air you can hear me expounding at around the 2hr50 mark in this programme) and it struck me that, as one of the few people who knows something of what the Corpus team will have experienced over the last six months, I should put what I know on the record.

Unlike the egregiously inaccurate Starter For Ten, the actual University Challenge process starts with applications and auditions around March/April (making this year's furore doubly problematic because it comes at exactly the time teams will be forming up and down the country). The show is then filmed over three weekends; the first round in June, the repechage and second round in July, and the quarter-finals, semi-finals and final in October.

That filming schedule is necessary because the series is broadcast in the autumn and winter, or at least was; in 2006 the series ran from September to May (I should know, I appeared on both the first and last shows!), but that's crept backwards recently so that this year it was July to February. Broadcasting the show during the academic year when the student bodies can get excited about it is only natural and entirely sensible, but it does leave you with the fundamental problem that contestants are being recruited in one academic year to appear in the following one. For that issue, the application form has the following to say for itself;

Students taking their final exams... will not be eligible unless they intend to return to the same university/university college to study as post-grads.

Now this is the rule that allowed me to compete in 2006; when the first round was filmed in June, I had applied for and been accepted onto my MSc course but had not had my final exam results and thus was not conclusively guaranteed of my place. Of course, I got my Desmond and went on to get the Masters as well, so I was fine. Without the evidence that the Beeb had, we cannot know how they interpreted Mr Kay's intent and it's a row the barrack room lawyers can have to their heart's delight.

At the most fundamental level, I absolutely agree with the Manchester team themselves (and if you haven't seen their appearance on BBC Breakfast, do take a look at it) and wouldn't wish to editorialise their sentiments about the decision that's been taken in any way; I fear it's unavoidable that I will do so and I can but apologise to them in advance for that.

Regardless of the rights and wrongs of the decision that was taken in this case, I can't help but feel that Auntie backed herself into a corner and got burned as a result. It would be perfectly easy and perfectly clear for the BBC and Granada to have an eligibility rule like age-level football does, namely that if someone qualifies at the start of the process, they qualify throughout the competition even if they cease to meet the original criteria later on. Instead, the rule they have reeks of ambiguities and to no readily identifiable purpose.

What's more, as this evening's coverage testifies, those ambiguities have been alive and well for a number of years. The Beeb may be considered unfortunate that Kaya Burgess, a journalist on The Times, was not only a contestant on this year's series but one who broke the same rule herself, leading to the digging that uncovered two more cases of victors with ineligible team members who are probably the tip of the iceberg. But having had the same rule in place since the series was revived in 1994, when the Beeb span the Gail Trimble story into acres of press coverage and record breaking ratings (5.3m, as opposed to 3.1m who watched me three years previously) they were begging to be hoist by their petards, and so it was.

Most of all, though, I feel terrible for Gail, who despite being a blameless bystander in this saga was prominently featured, on her own no less, on several front pages today (indeed, that little example of Fleet Street dicklessness was the final straw in my determination to blog on the matter). As I know from my seven months between winning in the studio and winning on the screen, the initial catharsis of victory turns to an agonising wait for the climax of brief national acclaim. To have that moment snatched away almost as it happens must be heartbreaking.

And let's make no bones about it, both she and her team deserve it. While I may not buy the hype of it being the best final ever (I tend to prefer my team's win by ten points, but I'm understandably biased), the statistics don't lie; the Corpus team scored more points than any in the Paxman era and Gail herself almost certainly took the series and single game records for starters answered.

Ultimately, however, the politician in me reflects that this is yet another step in the BBC's relentless self-immolation, a process itself based to some extent on rules with no real purpose being applied too late. I hope the name suggested in the title (as shamelessly stolen from Bill Simmons) doesn't become real, but it's getting there, and coming from Wales, where the television news battle will soon likely as not be between the English-language Beeb and the Welsh-language one, it's a terrifying prospect.

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