'It's nasty bullying with an edge. It's not just banter'

Wed, Jan 26, 2011, 00:00

Women who worked at Sky Sports paint a grim picture of sexism and bullying, MATT SCOTTreports.

THE ONLY surprise about the events leading to Andy Gray’s sacking as the most famous voice in football yesterday was that he had not made a similar gaffe in public before. That is the view of three women who have all held frontline roles at Sky Sports.

Fearing repercussions that could harm their careers if they were identified, the three spoke to the Guardianon condition of anonymity. But despite talking separately, their views echoed each other’s; each describing the bullying and sexist culture they feel Gray and his co-presenter, Richard Keys, have fostered.

One former Sky journalist said: “It came as absolutely no surprise to me to see this. The surprise is that we haven’t seen more. It’s the kind of language and vocabulary that is used within the Sky football department all the time.”

Another, who still works for Sky, said: “There are many stories of their shocking behaviour. [Gray and Keys] are hated by the crews. It’s a climate of fear pervading. But as long as everyone is laughing and it’s a joke it’s all right isn’t it? I believe sexism is systemic and not openly challenged but goes underground or disguised as jokes or ‘just banter’.” The third separately cited how “just banter” is claimed as a defence, and explained why that claim holds no water. “Live football is well known as something everyone wants to work on. But no one wants to work with those two. They took the piss out of a runner for having no money. It’s nasty bullying with an edge. It’s not just banter.”

All three women agree that Barney Francis, who has been managing director of Sky Sports since his appointment 18 months ago, has improved matters. His decision yesterday summarily to dismiss Gray shows that he will scarcely indulge a chauvinistic culture any longer. One said: “There has been a culture of bullying and sexism around Sky for a very long time, but recently Sky have been managing the bullying a lot better through changes in management. There were rumours of people being told off and that bullying behaviour was unacceptable.”

Yet despite the positive steps made by Francis, the women all expressed a feeling that there must be more widespread surgery to eradicate what they described as a patriarchy that limits women’s promotion prospects. “There’s this blokey vibe and it’s like a lads’ club,” said one. “At the BBC the head of sport is Barbara Slater. Sky are a long way from that situation. “During my time at Sky Sports News it wasn’t hidden that women were appointed to present on it primarily because of the way they looked. You can see how Andy and Richard are behaving like that because the people at the top have employed people without any experience. Clearly that’s sexist and it means at Sky you are always looked down on as a woman involved in sport, full stop.”

That view chimed with another’s view. She said: “You’d get bosses saying, ‘It’s just fruit on the barrow.’ I found it a very sexist working environment. The production staff found it incredibly frustrating: they’re younger for a start than the management.

“But it permeated through the whole culture. When Sky Sports News first started the girls were in suits. Sky was still about the image but they wanted women who were interested in sport.

“Any monkey can read an autocue and you can’t build passion for what you do from nothing. But if you’re a woman you were there as decoration. Anything else was a bonus. It’s not that there is a criterion about how the girls look. It’s that it is the main criterion.”

Sky told the Guardianthat it hires its presenters principally for their abilities as journalists and presenters. Nonetheless, one of the former Sky journalists pointed out that the fact that Gray and Keys’s unreconstructed comments were leaked into the public domain reflects the glee that Sky employees would feel at their downfall.

“I think deep down Richard and Andy are just bullies,” she said. “They bully new men in the game as well. It’s how they operate. They don’t have many friends there but after 20 years they’ve always been at the top of the game and earning a ridiculous amount of money, so I guess who’s laughing?

“But they have ruled the roost for a long time and upset people for a long time. They got into bother with someone who had a schadenfreude motive. I am just surprised that you have a broadcaster with experience of 20 years talking like that in front of a mic and not expecting it to get out. It was not the first time they were caught saying things they shouldn’t say. They think they can get away with murder. How arrogant.”

A Sky spokesman said last night: “There was evidence at the weekend and we took action. Today there has been new evidence and we have taken entirely appropriate action. If people are saying there is a culture of sexism here that shows we don’t tolerate it.”

Guardian Service

Duo’s previous gaffes

Keysintroduces Ulrika Jonsson on her debut as a TV-AM weather girl in 1989 with this clarion call for equal rights: “Does the sunshine have anything to do with you?

Grayand Keys add gravitas to their coverage of the 1998 womens FA Cup final by giggling while the match highlights are shown

In 2007, introducing highlights of the Faroe Islands v Scotland Euro 2008 qualifier, Keys finishes his link, then adds the open-mic flourish: “Daft little ground, silly game, f*** off.”

RoyKeane sums up his time as a pundit on a Keys-fronted show. “I’d rather go to the dentist. They’re trying to sell something that’s not there.”

Key’sthoughts on Theo Walcott are overheard by online viewers during Arsenal’s 4-1 Champions League defeat to Barcelona. When Walcott goes down Keys say: “Get up, you stupid little boy. You’ve been shite, son, in your daft pink boots – absolute rubbish.”

Grayquestions whether Barcelona would cut it in the Premier League. “I don’t know if Barcelona have every gone to a place like the Britannia Stadium and suffered the kind of onslaught from Tony Pulis’s team of long throws and free-kicks.”

Lionel Messi shivers in fear.