Select Committee on a National Plan for Sport and Recreation
Corrected oral evidence: National Plan for Sport and Recreation
Wednesday 13 January 2021
Members present: Lord Willis of Knaresborough (The Chair); Lord Addington; Baroness Blower; Baroness Brady; Baroness Grey-Thompson; Lord Hayward; Lord Knight of Weymouth; Lord Krebs; Baroness Morris of Yardley; Lord Moynihan; Baroness Sater; Lord Snape.
Evidence Session No. 5 Virtual Proceeding Questions 32 - 39
I: Martha Kelner, Sports Correspondent, Sky News; Ed Malyon, Managing Director, The Athletic.
USE OF THE TRANSCRIPT
This is a corrected transcript of evidence taken in public and webcast on www.parliamentlive.tv.
Martha Kelner and Ed Malyon.
Q32 The Chair: Welcome formally to the first meeting of the National Plan for Sport and Recreation House of Lords Committee 2021, and a particularly warm welcome to our two witnesses this afternoon: Ed Malyon, managing director of The Athletic—you are very welcome, Ed, and thank you very much indeed for making the time; and Martha Kelner, the sports correspondent for Sky News. Martha, you are extremely welcome too. We are delighted that you can join us.
We only have 55 minutes for this session, so we will whip through as quickly as we can.
We are particularly interested in this whole issue of how we create, develop and ask the Government to support a much more active lifestyle for people in this country. Never, at any time, has that been more important than it is during and following this pandemic.
I would like to ask both of you, but starting with you, Martha, what you think the role of the media and journalists is in sport and recreation. What should the role be, beyond reporting results and politics, of high-profile sports and sporting events?
Martha Kelner: First of all, thank you for having me on the session today to share a few of my opinions. It is a difficult one, is it not, because as journalists, journalistic organisations, TV stations and newspapers, you are selling a product? Newspapers have to sell; TV stations have to sell subscriptions. Is it our duty to promote participation and diversity? I think that it probably is. I think there is a balance to be struck between doing journalism that is in the public interest and doing journalism that interests the public. Often, they are not completely the same thing. If anything, this pandemic has served to highlight the fact that we should not be thinking about sport just as an elite endeavour. We should not be thinking about sport as just about winning trophies and medals. We should also be thinking about the role that sport plays in the community.
This pandemic has served to highlight the importance of the role that sport will play in the recovery from the pandemic. Speaking to sources and contacts of mine, they really want to reinforce the fact that, with the public health and mental health crisis likely to ensue from this pandemic, sport can be front and centre of that recovery. Journalism needs to reflect that and needs to show diversity in order to inspire people to get off the sofa and get out.
There is a duty of sports journalism, but there are also market forces at play. We still have a duty to cover Premier League football and elite sports such as the Olympics and rugby.
Q33 The Chair: Martha, five years ago the Government produced its report Sporting Future, which was bemoaning the fact that particularly women’s sport and minority sports—things that are high participation but regarded as minority sports—very seldom appeared not simply on television but in media articles at all. I suspect that five years on we are no better off, or do you think we are?
Martha Kelner: I think we are slightly better off. There is still a long way to go. It is that market forces thing that I was talking about before. I used to be a newspaper journalist before I moved into TV. Our online articles were doing a lot better when they were reporting what a Premier League football manager was saying as opposed to reporting on a women’s football match.
I think it is changing. If you look at the newspaper coverage, the Daily Telegraph has a specialist women’s sports supplement. Most of the newspapers now have a dedicated reporter for women’s football. Sky Sports News, which is obviously what I know best, has dedicated women’s football reporters and a women’s football show, so I think it is heading in the right direction.
I agree with you that there is still a long way to go, but I think that the popularity of sport and the participation of women’s sport will also have an effect on what we cover. It is all very interlinked. Certainly, I feel that strides are being made.
The Chair: Let me bring you in at that point, Ed, on the same question. What is the role of the media and journalists in sport and recreation in promoting an active lifestyle?
Ed Malyon: Martha pretty much hit the nail on the head, in that there are these market forces at play. The journalism and media industry are changing fundamentally. Five years ago, most newspaper websites were free to read. Now we have a lot more subscription business models. What does this mean? It means that there are more stable revenues if you have a subscription model, but you are not as beholden to trying to chase the stories that are going to get the highest amount of traffic.
Most media companies always try to balance the stories that they know will do extremely well—for example, covering Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal, their transfers and things like that. Frankly, stuff that a lot of these journalists want to write—the deep, interesting stories—exist across the spectrum. They exist in minority sports as well as in the Premier League.
There has always been that balance, working within the media industry. At both the newspapers I worked at before, it was the same thing. What we have, I guess, is a responsibility, and it is a bit like a consumer packaged goods company deciding that it needs to focus on its recycling and how it thinks about the environment. Companies that cover sports have a responsibility to an extent to cover these stories from across the spectrum, which will portray the country’s sporting identity more accurately. That said, if there is still the biggest demand for Premier League—"market forces” was the term Martha used—fundamentally, the commercial incentives are to cover the things that most people want to read about.
It is a balance. In the UK, the BBC, which is a public service broadcaster with that remit, helps to give visibility to many of the sports that otherwise struggle. With Olympic sports across the BBC, it takes a lot of that burden off newspapers, because they are still obviously shackled by the commercial realities of the industry, which has got much harder over the last couple of years.
Q34 Lord Krebs: I have two very brief questions to Martha, but Ed may wish to come in as well, which relate back to Lord Willis’s opening comment. We are interested not just in sport in the technical sense of playing a game of football, tennis or whatever, but also recreational activity.
First, do you think the fact that you are called sports journalists defines your brief too narrowly? Should you not be sport and recreation or sport and activity?
Secondly, if you are interested in writing stuff that would encourage the wider population, who would never think of taking part in sport but might think of walking or cycling as a form of activity, to become more active, or people who are inactive to take up those informal kinds of recreational activity, what sorts of stories would help?
Martha Kelner: On the first question of whether we should be considered sports and recreation journalists as well as sports journalists, perhaps some of the things we are talking about—encouraging participation by going out for a run or a bike ride—sometimes fall down a crevice between sports journalism and health journalism. So maybe that is something that we could think about. In my role, I do sports news and elite level sport, touching on recreation, but maybe that is something that we can look at.
Ed Malyon: There is the problem that it falls between health and sport. Equally, there is an element of news to a lot of the sport stuff that gets reported. If Manchester United beats Liverpool, that is news, and we are reporting that because it is a thing that has just happened. It is much harder to report on people going out running, for example.
The Chair: It is. Before I move back to Lord Krebs for the second question, can I say, Martha, that the internet clearly plays an increasing role in everything we do? I think sport and recreation is no different from that. Do you think that journalists’ own profiles, which are very high in lots and lots of sports, could have more influence, although I accept that in the case of the spat with Leeds United a couple of weeks ago it can be very dangerous as well? Should you be doing more in using your own profiles?
I have the same question to Ed. There are people like Phil Hay, who will be a great loss to Yorkshire journalism. He was noted because he had his own views. They were his views that were coming across; it was not just the institution.
Martha Kelner: If we are looking at having views on sport, it is sometimes a very dangerous thing, as Karen Carney has proved. To put your head above the parapet can be difficult, particularly for female journalists and journalists from diverse backgrounds. When giving your own opinion, you sometimes get shot down and the abuse is quite horrid on social media.
As to using our profile to encourage participation, that is something that journalists do. Certainly, I see a lot of people on Twitter who have huge followings trying to encourage that. I do not know whether that is necessarily their role as sports journalists. I do not know whether that is something that you could necessarily call upon them to do, but where they can have a positive effect I am sure it is something that people would like to do.
The Chair: I am going to miss you out, Ed, because we are desperately short on time. Lord Krebs has a second question.
Q35 Lord Krebs: Quick sympathies, first, to Lord Willis, our Chair, for the Crawley Town result. I am really sorry about that.
However, turning to the important matter of the question, as Lord Willis said in his opening statement, we have been hearing a lot about the impact of the pandemic on the sports sector. I would like to put this question to Ed first, but I am sure that Martha will have something to say.
Can you give us your take on what the impact of the pandemic has been on the sports sector, narrowly defined, and if you have any views about the wider recreational sector? Do you think that is a long-term impact or a short-term blip? Are there any particular clubs or sports that have been particularly badly affected and others that have fared better?
Ed Malyon: Certainly, having team sports at an amateur level just kind of disappear is a huge thing for millions of people around the country who were playing Sunday league football or rugby. The entire cricket season was effectively wiped out last year. There was virtually no sport that was not affected.
At the end of the day, the pandemic has been a disaster for everyone. I hope we can use it as an opportunity. There is more awareness, let us say, of the ways in which you can practise individual sports. I am not completely au fait with the rules, because I have been in America the whole time, but in the UK you could exercise outside the house for a certain period.
“PE With Joe”—the Joe Wicks thing, where you stream a workout on YouTube—became immensely popular. It would be unthinkable before, for example, for a Government to send personal trainers into the houses of millions of people. Now, via technology, that is possible. I wonder if, in the future, government investment into these sorts of things might be more into streaming fitness classes—maybe aerobics, Pilates or yoga—rather than focusing on funnelling people into team sports. It is not that I think team sports will not bounce back and be great—I look forward to team sports coming back—but there is more of a focus on individual fitness and well-being right now, because, fundamentally, when we are in lockdown it is the only thing you can do.
Martha Kelner: This latest lockdown has certainly brought renewed devastation to grass-roots sport. The most recent evidence we have of that is Sports England’s Active Lives survey, which showed that three million adults are not doing any exercise at all now as a result of the pandemic. It has been devastating.
In the summer, there was a slight uplift in the amount of activities people were doing because they were able to get out. Lockdown had been lifted and the weather was good. Now we have gone into dark, winter days, and it is not so easy to motivate yourself to get up and go for a run.
It is hard to pick which sports have been worst affected, because all sports have been devastated by this, from the elite level to the League One and League Two football clubs, which rely on match-day income. There are also sports that sometimes fall under the radar. Netball is one that comes to mind. It had made huge strides in having a home World Cup in England in 2019 and a Commonwealth gold medal in 2018. Then, all of a sudden, it is faced with the situation where no one can play netball—it is often an indoor sport—and it is left with a really uncertain future.
The Chair: Thank you. I move on to Baroness Morris of Yardley.
Q36 Baroness Morris of Yardley: If that is the impact of the pandemic, those are quite dire consequences. Looking back, do you think that the Government could have done anything to prevent some of that, or do you think they have done as much as could have been expected, given the state of our knowledge over the last nine or 10 months?
Ed, do you want to start, as we have just heard from Martha?
Ed Malyon: It is really hard to know, because you do not see pandemics coming. In terms of public health preparedness, I think the US and the UK were tabbed in 2019 as two of the most prepared countries in the world for a pandemic, and they have had two of the worst outbreaks in the world. So it is fairly hard to put hindsight on to any of these sorts of policies.
Could we have continued team sports at an amateur level in any way? I do not think so. With what we know, certainly those early months of March, April and May were about understanding the virus and how it transmits. I think we had to lock everything down.
The continuation of elite sport in June showed that these things are possible. The fact that we can only really do it when there are millions and millions of pounds at stake suggests that the right decisions have been made with regard to shutting down amateur sport. It is obviously not what anybody wants; I think we can all agree on that. We would love people to be out there playing on Hackney Marshes every weekend, but right now I can see no alternative to shutting down sports, except for the ones that can afford to pay millions to test and trace regularly.
Martha Kelner: The one thing that the Government did well initially was to allow people to go outside of the house during the initial lockdown—and in fact now. They marketed that very specifically as a period for exercise, which some other countries have not done. They have not formally said that that hour is for exercise. I think that is one good thing that they have done.
If we are looking at the way that they have coped with this crisis, at elite sport level what I am hearing from visiting lower league football clubs is that they feel there has been a bit of a stop-start nature to government policy. In October, they were unofficially told to get ready for a return to having one-third of their stadiums full. That then fell by the wayside when the second lockdown happened. They poured a lot of very valuable resource and expense into getting the stadiums ready for that.
There was obviously also this toing and froing between government and the Premier League as to who was to bail out the lower league football clubs, which caused a lot of confusion. It wasted quite a lot of time, in the opinion of some of those lower league clubs, who still have not quite had the resolution that they were looking for. That has been a problem.
Just to beat the old drum again, it really is this issue of the hard-to-reach communities. It is not so much the people who are already active. We talk about Couch to 5K, but one thing that community groups want to emphasise is that it is as much about getting from the couch to the front door as it is getting from the front door to 5K. I think they want to make sure that that is a focus of our recovery from this pandemic. As we have seen, this virus has its worst effects on people who are not physically well and are struggling with things like obesity.
Baroness Morris of Yardley: I have a quick follow-up question. You both referred to this. If things change, and if the Government fund online physical activity into people’s homes, or they do more about the couch to the door rather than to 5K, does that affect your jobs? I was thinking about what you said in answer to the first question, in that you would like to do that kind of reporting but there are commercial pressures.
I do not expect you to have thought about this a lot, but could you see a situation where those changes in the way the Government act, or whatever, would give you an opening to do your job in a slightly different way if that is what you wanted to do?
Ed Malyon: It depends on what the government measures would be. As I say, Joe Wicks is the shining light of this stuff with these digital classes. Every public health and sporting measure which the Government could have done before, whether it is getting footballs out there or putting up basketball hoops, has some sort of logistical burden, and this has very little. It is a very small digital footprint, and it is not expensive to do. Any home with a broadband connection, which is most of the homes in the UK now, can receive or watch any of these things. I do not think that would dramatically change the reporting on elite, or even amateur, sport, but if that encourages more people to be interested in active lifestyles and in health and well-being, that is good.
I read one report—I cannot remember the source of it, I have to say—where only 50% of Generation Z identify themselves as sports fans. There could be a paradigm shift in this generation, perhaps caused by the pandemic—it is one of those things we do not know—of people moving away from team sports and more to individual active well-being.
For us, there will always be that interest in elite sports. We will continue to cover that. For me personally, it is only a good thing if everyone is getting out and being active. Fundamentally, it is good for the nation and the UK. In particular, the pride of the UK is the NHS, and this is a public health thing. We have to put in policies that will take the pressure off the NHS, and no more so than after a pandemic.
Baroness Morris of Yardley: Martha, did you want to add anything to that?
Martha Kelner: Ed has basically covered it, but I do not think it will necessarily change the appetite for elite sport and elite sport coverage. I do not think it would change our jobs in that way. Like Ed, I do think it is a different offering. I know that young girls in particular prefer to exercise in private in their own homes. I have friends who say, “Actually, it’s been nice to have the fitness class delivered to my bedroom”. It is another way to get people active, and that can only be a good thing, but I hope that people return to outdoor exercise more as and when they can.
The Chair: Before we leave this question, one of the most startlingly positive things that has happened over the last few months during the pandemic is Manchester United’s forward Marcus Rashford’s meals for schoolchildren campaign. He, I think, demonstrated what a leading sportsman, in this case, could actually do to motivate people to do things at every level, from the lowest level to the highest level. Is there a way in which sports journalists could encourage and report more of the good things that footballers, athletes and swimmers do, who have a community that they could engage with in that way? Are we missing a point here?
Martha Kelner: If anything, this last year has evidenced the huge power of the athlete voice. First and foremost, as you mentioned, we have had Marcus Rashford. Athletes have the ability to mobilise huge audiences.
The Chair: It is massive.
Martha Kelner: Marcus Rashford has now forced two government U-turns and there is the latest movement on school meal packages. The effect that he has had has really been phenomenal.
In terms of sports journalism reporting those sorts of stories, absolutely. Marcus Rashford has been a stonkingly good story for the sports media: this idea that you have a 23 year-old footballer who is changing government policy. Any more of those stories that we can get would be sensational. Footballers are taking a lead on this. You have Raheem Sterling, who is speaking out on issues of race in football and, as he said, a lack of diversity in the FA. We will be reporting more and more on athletes using their voice in that way.
Just recently, there was an example of a women’s basketball team in America that seemed to change the course of the elections in the Senate race in Georgia. The athlete voice has been a huge thing. I am sure it is something that we will be reporting on for a long time to come.
Ed Malyon: Indeed. I can only see it becoming a growing part of news cycles, to be honest, because the activist athlete—as they would call it in America—is becoming a bigger thing. In the 1990s, when Michael Jordan was huge, he famously did not take a stance on things because it was deemed not good for his commercial outlook. In the 2000s, it was more about sportspeople becoming celebrities and just famous. This generation of sportspeople is looking for a cause. A lot of them are throwing their weight and significant wealth behind causes. They all have enormous platforms. You talked about sports journalists using their platforms for good, but I think that sportspeople using their platforms for good will have far more influence.
I would say that a lot of readers come to sports journalists as a conduit for information only. They do not come for lifestyle advice. Whereas if Marcus Rashford or Harry Kane were to tell you, “I think this is a great idea. You should be doing this”, people would be far more likely to listen. It is a great thing for us that we have Marcus Rashford in our country. Hopefully, this upcoming generation of young players with a social conscience means that we will have a lot more of these stories to report.
The Chair: That is a positive note. We will move on to Lord Addington.
Q37 Lord Addington: My question is: where has elite sport—we can bring governing bodies in on this as well—done its best to support grass-roots and amateur sport? Where are the people who have done that best or, indeed, worst? Could you give us your view on that? Where have they taken on their responsibilities to make sure that their base is preserved and functions? It is under pressure from social functions such as individual activity. Where has that been best preserved, starting with Martha?
Martha Kelner: I will just give you one obvious example that I can think of. This has been a year where individual sportspeople have stepped up as much as sporting organisations. Let me quickly reflect on what obviously the Premier League, which is the richest sporting organisation in our community, has done. It is sometimes easy to target the Premier League and the Premier League clubs for what they have not done. As I have been going round and reporting, a lot of the clubs have turned over their stadiums for vaccination or testing centres, or indeed for centres from which food parcels have been dispersed.
There are obviously always calls for the clubs that are spending hundreds of millions of pounds on transfers to do more. I think that is where some of the individuals have stepped up. Boxing is one sport that missed out on the £330 million sports winter survival package. Boxing was not included. I know from the reporting that I have done that boxing is a sport that really engages underprivileged individuals. It keeps troubled youths out of the criminal justice system or rehabilitates those who have been in the criminal justice system. It really does do that. Whatever your views on elite boxing, it gives them an outlet and a discipline. That was missed out in the sports winter survival package. Anthony Joshua—clearly one of our most high-profile sportsmen—gave a six-figure sum to local boxing clubs that were in danger of shutting down. From a pure headline point of view, he did an amazing thing.
I know that athletes gave up their time to do online lectures. Casey Stoney, the Manchester United women’s manager, gave online seminars on leadership to try to help the next generation of female football managers. I know that Greg Rutherford gave up his time for Sport England. There have been examples of where people have contributed from elite sport to the grass-roots sports level.
Thinking of football clubs here, there have also been occasions when they have contributed to the community by giving out football packages. The fact that fans cannot go to stadiums has removed a major part of some people’s support systems. For a lot of fans, going to a match on a Tuesday night or on a Saturday afternoon is a major part of their week, because they rely on those other fans for their support and to support their mental health. One thing that the EFL has done is to introduce these online counselling sessions almost, where fans can speak and talk about the match but can also support each other, because this is clearly an incredibly turbulent part of everyone’s lives. Those are just a few examples of where people have done things well.
Ed Malyon: Martha has given a very comprehensive answer. I do not know that I can add too much more. I would say that one of the policies I have enjoyed from one governing body to help the grass-roots of sports in recent years was the FA, which released an app solely aimed at Sunday league footballers that helps people pay their fees on time. It helps people select the team. It helps people stay organised.
They went out and listened to Sunday league footballers and did surveys. They found out what these people wanted at the grass roots and they gave it to them in a simple technological solution that ended up being very useful. It has had widespread adoption. Obviously, that is on pause right now, but that is the most immediate example to me of someone from the elite giving to the grass roots at a governing body level.
Lord Addington: Just to follow up on that point, I was asking about making sure the grass-roots structures survive and that people are playing. I was really thinking about adults playing sport as opposed to schoolchildren, whom you have more control over because they are at school and they have parents behind them. So that is a good example.
Do you think that idea of a structure of forming a club to get a regular team going should be encouraged? Would you say the elite level should be more involved in that? Let us face it, there is a limit to how many people go jogging or wild swimming. Perhaps both of you could comment on that.
Ed Malyon: Most sports fans would agree that the elite needs to pay more to grass-roots level. I think most people would like more investment going in at the bottom. If people want the Premier League to fund football leagues at grass-roots level—five-a-side leagues, for example—I would not be averse to something like that. Obviously, we have to have the facilities in place, and it will be an expensive thing to do. The Premier League or the FA could afford it, but they have very different priorities. The FA is looking to build but does not necessarily have the same funding as the Premier League, whereas the Premier League does contribute to grass-roots football but does not have a responsibility to do so.
Martha might know more about this.
Martha Kelner: I would say that the Premier League and the FA do work together on community programmes. Most sports contribute towards grass-roots participation and community-level sport. I know that the FA and Premier League are working on the quality of the pitches. Most people who have seen or played on grass-roots pitches know that there is a real problem with the quality of the pitches, with pitches freezing over and that sort of thing. They are working to try to improve the quality of those.
It is an incredibly difficult time for elite sport as well. The Premier League will probably not get an overwhelming amount of sympathy, but while fans are not there these clubs are still losing the equivalent of £100 million a month.
The RFU has been bailed out by government in the sports winter survival package, because somewhere around 80% of its income comes from Twickenham, which has been shut for the best part of a year. It is a trickle-down effect. My concern is that there might be more of a resistance in the future to giving to grass-roots and community sports projects, because those elite-level clubs are still recovering from the financial effects of this pandemic.
The Chair: Martha, Sport England clearly has a role to play, and you probably came across it more when you were working as a print journalist. Did you feel that its performance pre-Covid was as effective as it could have been? Do you have any thoughts about how we could get that funding to grass-roots sports better than is currently the case?
Martha Kelner: It is really hard to judge. Sport England has had some brilliant initiatives, both in targeting disabled people or older people and getting them moving. We obviously had the highly publicised This Girl Can campaign, which I think had a major effect on girls’ and women’s participation, although it is hard to know exactly how much of an effect it had beyond the effect that the advert had, which was hailed as one of the great sport advertising campaigns.
From speaking to people at lower-level community sport and to sport-for-development sector people, I would say that they want to see more targeted funding. You get Sport England allocating this funding, but perhaps you do not know quite how or where it is being spent, or whether it is being spent in the best way. One thing a few people have mentioned to me is this thing called play space funding, where you look at an area and work out what funding is best for that area by speaking to the people who live and operate in that area instead of just flinging money about in a way that is unaccountable.
One of the best examples of an organisation operating in the sport-for-development sector is the Ebony Horse Club. I am not sure whether you have heard of it. It is a horseriding thing in Brixton. It is not a place that you would usually associate with horseriding, but it is basically an arena in the centre of four tower blocks. It clearly gets kids out of the house. There is a fee to pay, but often they waive that fee because it is targeted at particularly deprived, cash-strapped communities. One of the girls who attended the Ebony Horse Club is a woman called Khadijah Mellah. She became the first hijab-wearing woman to win a major horserace in Britain. I just think that showed the effect. She is then inspiring the next generation, but she came from one of those initiatives.
Lord Addington: That is a terrific story. It reminds me of the use of horses in Dublin on some of the huge council estates, which are very prevalent.
Ed, obviously your organisation began in America, and you see an awful lot more of this in the States than we do here. Have you come across it or interfaced with it in any way?
Ed Malyon: In my experience, America invests far less at the grass-roots level. It is more about elite sport there. In England, we have the National Health Service, and there is an incentive to use taxpayer money to reduce the burden on it by decreasing obesity and increasing participation in sport. Obviously, the health system here is different and it does not have that.
My big thing with Sport England, relevant to your question to Martha, is more to do with the sports that get allocated the money. According to the Active Lives survey, basketball is the second biggest participation sport among children and young adults, but it is receiving a sixth as much of the funding as lacrosse, I think, and way less than badminton, which has a far lower participation.
I wonder more about the allocation of money to certain sports. There are obviously good schemes going on in specific places, but the issue is how we can broaden that out and reach the lower-income families. A lot of that will be whether we can put up basketball hoops in neighbourhoods where there is not much space for a playing field. That is a big difference in encouraging social activity.
The Chair: Thank you very much indeed. We move on to Lord Hayward.
Q38 Lord Hayward: I want to ask a question about diversity and inclusion. Before I do, can I acknowledge that we have two members of the Committee, Lord Moynihan and Baroness Grey-Thompson, who played an enormous part at the Paralympics in 2012, which probably did more than anything else to achieve inclusion of protected categories within society?
In journalism, what is being done to improve the diversity of coverage in sport and the diversity of the workforce covering sport? Do you think there are ways in which this could be speeded up?
Martha Kelner: I think that diversity in journalism is improving. It has clearly been a problem and still continues to be a problem. When I first started out, I would often go to press conferences at football matches and I would be the only woman. You would ask a question and immediately everyone would turn round, because these were male spaces and they wanted to know who was asking the question.
That is intimidating in itself, and in the past that has put girls off being involved in sports journalism. Clearly, there is also a separate issue to do with the ethnic diversity of journalism. Looking at football, you clearly have a sport that, at its very highest level in the Premier League, has around 30% of players from black or ethnic minority backgrounds. That is certainly not reflected in the diversity of sports journalists and has been a problem in the past.
Organisations are definitely working to improve that diversity. There are scholarships for female sports journalists. I feel that there is a real drive and recognition by editors that they should have more diversity, not just because it looks good but because it makes the product better. You want journalists who are able to reflect what you are reporting on. I think there is a genuine drive to change.
As to how it could be sped up, it is things like high-profile sports editors and editors for TV stations actively appealing and saying that they want more diversity. I do not know whether quotas are the right way to go. Obviously, the FA has a diversity code, which requires certain quotas on boards at football clubs and in coaching roles and that sort of thing. I do not know whether that could be applied to sports journalism as well so that it brings more people in.
You also mentioned the diversity of the coverage. I touched on that earlier when I talked about market forces. You have to balance what interests the public and what is in the public interest. I think the best journalism is the things that do both. There is a phenomenal example of it today. I do not know whether anyone here has seen it, but Fran Jones is a tennis player from Bradford. She was born with a rare genetic condition called EEC, which means that she only has three fingers on each of her hands. She only has seven toes. That is something that clearly affects your ability to be a tennis player. Incredibly, she has just reached the first round of the Australian Open. It is a great story that addresses diversity but is also coverage of elite sport. Those that tie in both are the best sorts of journalism.
Ed Malyon: That is a pretty good, all-encompassing answer. In the two previous newspapers I worked at before coming to The Athletic, in those sports departments there was not a single female sports journalist. We have tried to diversify our staff as much as possible at The Athletic. We can still do better like everyone else. There has been that pipeline problem.
What Martha said about viewpoints is hugely important. For better or worse, racism has become a big story in sport over the last few years. How can you have someone writing authoritatively on racism if they are white, with only white editors? It is an impossible task.
I was fortunate at the Independent to have some great people working there who could write authoritatively on racism, and it strengthened our coverage no end. We can continue to do better as an industry and as an outlet ourselves. Everyone wants to better reflect the country we live in.
In terms of diversity of coverage, I remember the first time a few years ago when I saw Ellie Symonds on a Sainsbury’s advert. I felt like that was breaking through a glass ceiling of sorts. You also increasingly see journalists in wheelchairs. We have people covering disabled sports. We have people covering sports that would not have been covered before, not just because the stories are great but because there is interest in this.
As we said before, there is the commercial pressure of covering elite sport, but more and more, compared to when I started in this industry, we are covering things that would never even have been thought about. I think we are trending in the right direction. There is obviously a lot of hard work to be done. To get to where we need to be, that hard work will have to continue for many more years, but we are getting closer.
The Chair: Before we move on to our last group of questions, I want to ask both of you if there is anything specifically that you think the Government could do to increase and improve diversity and inclusion. What is one thing they could do?
Martha Kelner: I would probably go back to targeted investment in certain organisations and people. I met a swimmer the other day called Alice Dearing, who is Britain’s leading marathon swimmer. She would be the first black woman, if she qualifies, to go to the Olympics in Tokyo, if it happens. She is an ambassador for the Black Swimming Association. I was just struck by how few black children are able to swim. I think it is 80%. I wonder if it is just more targeted investment in those sorts of organisations that is needed. It is probably more a question for government and people who know exactly how sport operates, but that is something that springs to mind.
The Chair: Ed, do you have a quick response?
Ed Malyon: Much like Martha is saying, you sometimes need to have visual inspiration. I talked to an NFL contact this week. There were six female coaches on the sidelines of the NFL playoff last weekend for the first time ever. When there are young girls in America who see female faces on the sidelines and love the NFL, they will believe that there is a path. It is a privilege to be able to aim high. It is to see someone and say, “I want to go and do that”. Much of that will come down, as Martha says, to targeted examples. If young black people see a black sports journalist on television, they can say, “I can do that and I can be that”, because that was not the case 20 years ago.
The Chair: Before we finally move on, Martha, as an interesting fact, in a bit of research we have done, there are about 700 sports journalists at the moment, of whom 30 would come into the diversity category. That is about the same as it was 20 years ago. We have not made that much progress despite what is happening.
We will move on finally to Lord Moynihan.
Q39 Lord Moynihan: Thank you, Ed and Martha, for the answers you have given to date.
We finish off on the subject of governing bodies. Some of them, some would argue, have similar constitutions to those they had when they were formed 100 to 150 years ago. Others might even argue that they have not really changed in composition a great deal either during that period of time.
Picking up on your diversity point, do you think the Government should set very clear targets, which, if not achieved, should lead to the withdrawal of funding to those sports? In the context of diversity representation, we have been talking a lot about the voice of the athletes. There were some very strong comments just now from you, Ed, about the importance of having people who understand what they are talking about, not least as reporters, let alone on governing bodies.
First, do you think governing bodies are fit for purpose? Are you disappointed about the role of governing bodies during Covid-19, with the arts getting £1.57 billion and sport getting far less, and, as Martha has just pointed out, community sport and boxing getting left out of the sports winter survival package? All the focus has been on fitness classes, aerobics, yoga fitness and well-being, as you said, Martha. What have the governing bodies been doing about promoting that?
Finally in that context, Ed, I have a question to you related to the role of governing bodies. You pointed out that the great advantage we have in this country over the States is with the NHS. There is an awareness that an active lifestyle and participation in sport is an essential pre-condition of getting the country fit and thus reducing the call on the NHS budget. Are there any governing bodies that are leading that charge, and should there be? In other words, overall, are governing bodies doing a great job at the moment, and should we be clapping them on Thursday nights as well, or on a different night, given their performance in the last 12 months and in fact the last 12 years?
Martha Kelner: It is an interesting one. The first question was about diversity in governing bodies and whether there should be quotas attached, and whether, if they are not met, funding should be withdrawn. I am not usually in favour of such draconian action. Having said that, there are clearly huge issues with diversity on governing body boards across the board. Yes, that might be a good thing. I would have to look more closely at the current state of play. I know there have been gentle and not-so-gentle suggestions that boards are reformed. I know that the FA has done a lot of work on its board. I know that it now has a head of diversity and inclusion. That was an actual role created to address that. I think work is being done in the background.
One thing that I struggled to find out the other day was the composition of Premier League clubs’ boards. I would like more transparency. I do not know whether the Government could do anything to help to improve the transparency at Premier League board level. It is hard to find out just who is making these decisions. A lot of the time there is not huge transparency in the numbers and ethnic diversity on those boards.
If we are looking at governing bodies’ performance, one thing I was keen to talk about—I know Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson has had a lot to do with this—is the duty of care in governing bodies. I know that UK Sport has recently shifted its focus in its funding from being a medal-focused body to being more about participation in sport. That is something I wanted to highlight. For too long, duty of care for athletes has not been paramount. It absolutely should be if we are talking about participation. Parents should be able to look at elite-level sport and know that their child is safe attending a gymnastics club or a cycling club. for instance. That is key.
It is about holding people to account, is it not? I was really pleased to see that UK Sport had apparently shifted its funding to that participation level, even if it is not completely at the expense of medals. People still want to see medal-winning performances, but they also want to know that the athletes are being taken care of.
That is about all I can say about diversity at board level. I do not know whether Ed has anything more to add on that.
Ed Malyon: When it comes to governing bodies, in my mind there have been more stories or scandals over the last four and five years about bullying or a lack of care from governing bodies than I can remember. If we take away their funding, does that punish the right people? It is a tough question. If you are a kid who loves gymnastics, for example, and the UK gymnastics body has its funding taken away because there are some discrepancies at board level, who are we punishing there? If there is a way to enforce change in the leadership, in the executive, for me that would probably be more effective and would optimise the right things.
Every governing body for every sport seems to be cash-strapped. That is just a fact of life. More broadly, if we look at some of the governing bodies in elite sport—I will not go into specifics—there are big clubs who are so rich that they can force change, and any rulings against them can be overturned in appeals because they have armies of lawyers. This will probably become bigger in elite sports where there is a lot of money at stake.
Governing bodies need the right support, but really it is more about focusing on governance. Their funding must be reliant on the governance being good rather than on participation levels. Participation levels are easier to shift, but when you have scandals going on at the top of these sports we have to remove and replace the people involved. We have to improve that, because otherwise we are punishing the wrong people.
Martha Kelner: I would add one thing. I know that this term can sometimes be used slightly lazily, but I also think it is about diversity of thought. It is about moving with the times and reflecting a modern Britain.
The FA’s diversity code requires clubs to have a certain number of black, Asian or ethnic minority people on their boards. Some of these clubs cannot afford to do that. That is the feedback I am getting. Would it be right to strip away their funding for something that they are struggling to achieve because they do not have that money? I am not sure.
Diversity of thought is also about having people on your board who are brave enough and have the knowledge to make change—I am thinking of the RFU and its increased focus on head injuries in sport, and the lawsuit being brought by a number of former rugby players. You need people on your board who are willing to consider the possibility of making major changes to a game in order to protect your players. That is just another suggestion on the governance side of things.
Lord Moynihan: Why can they not afford to bring quality BAME representatives on to their boards?
Martha Kelner: This is solely me repeating what I have heard from people. I would have to do a little more research and come back to you. One of the things they were saying is that they cannot bring in HR people in order to get the right people on board. I do not know whether that is an actual issue, or whether that is just something they are saying to protect themselves against that. It is definitely something I would like to hear more about. It is based on a very brief conversation that I had with an exec at a lower league football club, but I can certainly look into that and get back to you.
Lord Moynihan: I think you should be reporting on it rather than coming back to us. I think it would be despicable to use that as an excuse for not increasing diversity and representation on boards in football that matched the numbers of outstanding footballers who come from that community.
Martha Kelner: Yes, absolutely. It is a major issue. I think some people feel that the FA’s diversity code should have been even stronger than it was. I do not know whether government can do anything to compel clubs to do more on diversity. At the moment, it is a voluntary code to sign up to. I do not know whether there is a government thing that they can do.
The Chair: Lord Knight will finish off on this.
Lord Knight of Weymouth: I am a big fan of David Conn’s work as a journalist writing about the business of football. It seems unusual to have that depth of investigative journalism into that murky world. I just wonder whether there is a problem with the necessity for sports journalists to have a fairly cosy relationship with what they are reporting and the clubs they are reporting on in order to get access to players and games. Is that a real problem? We do not have much time, so I will start with Ed, and then Martha, to give you a break from having to answer first.
Ed Malyon: I would say that the outlook for this is actually a lot better now. For example, The Athletic, the Times and the Telegraph are more reliant on a subscription model now. That allows you to go and do more investigative reporting. For example, we have Max Slater and Joey D’Urso, who go off and do investigative reporting. The key for them is that they have time and space to go off and do it. The thing for us is that, when we produce these big investigations, they generate more subscribers for us, so there is the commercial incentive and it does really well.
In terms of gaining access to elite football games, as Baroness Brady will know, the Premier League and the EFL have a company called Football DataCo that manages access to games. Except in extreme circumstances, clubs have no say over who is going to the games and who is not. There is an element of people having relationships within sport, but every journalist I know is more motivated by the objective of breaking a massive story than they are being friends with an associate director of a football club.
Martha Kelner: I would echo what Ed was saying. One issue that particularly most football journalists will have encountered is the public relations nature of getting access to interviews. Sometimes you cannot speak to players directly without having a PR officer or an advertising person sat next to them. You sometimes do not get the fullest picture of what is going on from people. There have been occasions when football reporters have been banned from going to press conferences because they have asked a question that the football manager does not like, which is clearly not acceptable.
The Chair: On that note, I thank both Ed Malyon and Martha Kelner for being really quite superb witnesses. We have enjoyed having you during this session. Thank you very much indeed.