The Fury furore: Has the BBC boxed itself into a corner over Tyson Fury's Sports Personality of the Year nomination?
To describe Tyson Fury as a divisive character is on a par with suggesting Donald Trump might just have stirred up the early rounds of the US presidential race. In a week when bigotry has rather dominated the headlines on both sides of the Atlantic, it's been like Fury vs Trump for the big-mouthed bigot championship of the western world.
Tyson Fury speaking to the BBC over the SPOTY controversy
In Fury's defence, at least he doesn't aspire to be the leader of the free world with his finger on the nuclear trigger. Not yet, anyway. But the boxer has certainly tossed a nuke in the direction of the upper echelons of the BBC with his presence on the BBC Sports Personality of the Year (SPOTY) shortlist in the wake of his remarkable World Heavyweight title victory.
Well, I'm a boxing fan, all-round sports lover and I always tune in to SPOTY. But I'm agonising over whether to 'boycott' the BBC's big night on 20 December and switch over to whatever ITV or Sky Movies can offer instead. The prospect of Fury picking up the award – or even being on the nominee list – equates to a sickening, heavyweight punch to the stomach. But at least I won't be protesting alone, with the petition against Fury's inclusion now running at over 120,000 and still counting, and a debate raging across both social and mainstream media on a scale comparable to that provoked by his rival bigot Trump's views on Muslims.
It's a debate that's also testing some of the finest, and punchiest, doyens of British sports journalism, and put me at odds with brilliant multi-award winning columnists Martin Samuel, of the Daily Mail, and the Times’ Matthew Syed (for the record, two men I've regularly backed as a longstanding judge of the British Press Awards). Both have penned excoriating denunciations of Fury's vile, sexist, homophobic bile BUT also reject the calls for him to be disqualified from SPOTY contention.
Rightly or wrongly, SPOTY has long been perceived as (and I'd suggest very much promoted as) more than just a recognition of, say, a single sporting achievement but more a salute to the concept of the sporting icon, the idea of the sportsman and sportswoman as role model/hero. There's no denying that Fury's dethroning of the veteran heavyweight champ Wladimir Klitschko was a remarkable sporting achievement, not least for the manner by which he out-psyched the champ before the first bell even sounded. Sorry, but it's the rest of it that I can't buy into.
The pro-Fury brigade on social media are counter-punching that SPOTY should only be about sporting success and not about controversial verbal assaults delivered outside the ring. And that their man's victory over Klitschko ranks higher than those achieved by main rivals Jennifer Ennis-Hill, Andy Murray, Chris Froome and Lewis Hamilton. There are growing signs they're busy orchestrating a Vote for Fury campaign.
The Times' Matthew Syed – certainly not a man who shares any of Tyson Fury's bigoted opinions – intriguingly offered a measure of support for the pro-Fury camp under the headline, 'Why I will be voting for Fury the bigot'. Contends Syed: ''Fury is a bigot. His views are horrendous and, in many ways, pitiful, If I were deciding whether to back him as a politician or moral philosopher, I would run a mile. But when I judge him as a sportsman, the criteria are different. In this context, I rather admire his daring, his unconventionality and, in that remarkable performance against Klitschko against all expectations, his courage.
"To put it another way, Fury is a pugilist, not a role model. Sportsmen are role models only in the eyes of the gullible and illogical. If parents are genuinely worried that their children may think his offensive opinions on homosexuality are valid because he has a decent left jab, they should spend more time educating their children and rather less time berating the BBC for including him in a glorified poll."
Fair point, Matthew. But only up to a point. Equally I don't relish the prospect of trying to explain to my early teenage sons how a man with Fury's nauseating stance on homosexuality, women, et al, could possibly be anointed BBC Sports Personality of the Year. At the same time, I can't feel much sympathy for those BBC bigwigs who, I've heard on the grapevine, are quaking in their boots at the possibility of a Fury 'triumph' and that nuclear-scale fallout from those who would see it as the Beeb 'endorsing' homophobia and sexism and downright dishonesty.
More fool them, perhaps, for all those years of promoting SPOTY as something resembling that very 'role model' image Syed debunks. It was a sign of the growing panic at the corporation that they virtually begged Britain's Olympic long-jumping champion Greg Rutherford to reverse his decision to withdraw his own SPOTY nomination in protest at Fury's inclusion and agree to show up on the night. As one senior BBC executive told me: "Privately, I think it's fair to say that some of us are hoping Tyson Fury might decide to withdraw himself from nomination so the whole furore can die down. But I don't think we can count on that happening somehow."
The rising tension within the BBC was underscored when BBC Northern Ireland presenter Andy West said he had been suspended after he posted on Facebook that he was "ashamed" to work for the BBC because of Fury's SPOTY nomination. West protested over the boxer's comments about homosexuality and the defiant presenter said he was writing to director general Lord Hall to complain.
I can't say more but, as of yesterday, I am suspended by the BBC pending investigation. I made my bed now I have time to lie in it!
— Andy West (@andywestTV) December 10, 2015
In another development, it was revealed that Lord Hall will also be quizzed on the decision to nominate Fury when he appears before MPs on the Culture, Media and Sports Select Committee next week on the eve of the SPOTY awards itself.
For me, there is something else that rankles almost as much as Fury's bigotry and that's his downright dishonesty. Let's not forget how the Fury furore began, with that extraordinary taped interview he gave to another award-winning journalist of my acquaintance, the Mail on Sunday's Oliver Holt. An interview Fury, and his entourage, initially claimed was riddled with misquotes and declarations of their intention to sue. A threat that the newspaper countered by putting the tape online and followed up with a two-page counter attack by Holt last Sunday under the decidedly no punches pulled headline: 'A bully and a bigot who even lacks the courage of his convictions'. Complete with a reminder of how Tyson Fury had boasted how a 25-stone member of his camp was raring to shatter Oliver Holt's jaw with a hefty right-hander.
Holt, it should also be noted, has also felt the fury of the boxer's fan club via social media and has been subjected to the argument, by some, that he should have 'protected' Britain's new heavyweight 'hero' from himself by editing out the more controversial quotes. To which Holt rightly counters: "Journalists are not censors. There are too many people who seek to be censors already – agents, managers, PR companies. Reporters report and it wouldn't have been honest to ignore what he said."
It's also true to say that, since Holt's original interview, Fury hasn't exactly gone on the defensive over his views on homosexuality, abortion and the role of women. To whit Greater Manchester Police are actively investigating complaints claiming that some of his anti-gay outbursts amount to a 'hate crime'.
Fury himself seems to have developed a love/hate approach to the SPOTY awards too.... sometimes declaring that he couldn't care less about whether he wins or not, sometimes insisting he deserves to win because he has more 'personality' than the rest of the nominees 'put together'.
On reflection, I think I might tune in on 20 December after all. Just at the start to phone-in my vote for Jessica Ennis-Hill and then at the end in the hope of seeing her win and catching the look on Fury's face when she does. That's the same Ennis-Hill, of course, that Fury only seems to rate when she's got her 'slap on' and wears a dress rather than a tracksuit.
And I have a strong hunch that there are some very senior figures at the BBC desperately praying in private: 'Please, please... anyone but Tyson Fury', while sweating heavily on how to fight their way out of a very tight PR corner if he does.
Paul Connew is a media commentator , broadcaster, PR adviser and sports lover. He is a former editor of the Sunday Mirror and ex-deputy editor of the Daily Mirror and a longstanding judge of the British Press Awards and the Royal Television Society Awards