Telling Sport’s Stories: BBC News’ Joe Wilson

Finn Ranson 4 July 2018

“I used to sit in front of the tape recorder and try and interview my brothers,” says Joe Wilson, Cambridge alumnus and sports correspondent at BBC News. “I think I always had an idea that I would love to make a living out of writing. But to be honest the job I ended up doing, I didn’t really know it existed.”

It was only at the end of Wilson’s third year at Fitzwilliam that an intrigue of childhood began to take shape as a potential career, and even then with some trepidation. “When I left university, I gave myself at least six months or maybe a year to see if I could get anywhere with it, and then if I didn’t I would try a career with a bit more of a formal structure,” Wilson recalls. He had tried his hand at some radio with an early iteration of Cam FM, a tiny FM-less studio in Churchill that barely broadcast to Fitz and, Wilson still wonders, perhaps had no listeners at all. But it was, at least, Wilson chuckles, an idea of a radio station.

“I maybe did one rugby report for Varsity,” he added. “And I remember having to borrow a Mac at the engineering library. It was the only place I could find where I could actually type something up.”

Becoming a sports journalist had not really registered until Wilson started to ply his trade on local radio.

“I’d read the news in the morning and then they would say ‘oh God, does anybody fancy going down to interview the coach at the cricket’ and I’d go yeah seriously, you would like me to do that?” he laughed. “I remember once they said we’ve got an interview with this guy who used to play for Leicester Tigers, this bloke called Paul Dodge. I used to idolise him when I was playing rugby as a kid. The idea that then that was my job to go and interview him was just stunning. I ended up doing little bits of sport because in local radio there’s never enough people.”

Wilson knew his sport. He was an ardent sports fan made in Leicester’s eclectic sporting culture; Leicester FC, Leicestershire cricket and most of all Leicester Tigers were all regular weekend fare. Wilson would go on to play for Fitz’s first team in all three sports, a centre-cum-goalkeeper in his final year as well as a nagging seamer. He says his most vivid sporting memory is being sledged by soon to be England international John Crawley who was keeping wicket to his tail end batting in a cuppers match. Fitz were hammered – Trinity boasted quite a few internationals. “The things you find doing as a kid as your hobby then filter in to what you’re doing for a living which is still a bit strange,” Wilson smiled.

As a burgeoning journalist, Wilson was also drawn to the freedom he could have covering sport and its rich diversity of narratives, “happy and sad stories”, he charmingly puts it. “You have to have variety of tone,” Wilson explains of the business. “I sometimes do obituaries. I remember being at a coroner’s court for a guy called Tom Maynard, a cricketer, who died stepping on an electric railway line. Then you could easily find yourself doing an anfinely about Joey Barton speaking in a funny accent, I did that for the news.”

Now, reporting on the 6 and 10 o’clock news, it seems much of Wilson’s work is about getting that raw love for sport he had as a kid in Leicester across to people who would not consider themselves sports fans, who religiously watch Laura Kuenssberg and Jon Sopel deliver prophecies of doom to camera, shaking their heads at the state of the world with sage gravity, but switch off without hesitation come the sport bulletin. For Wilson, though, declaring sport’s newsworthiness seems to be not just a matter of insisting its political relevance to this audience, but almost stripping it back, displaying and admiring it in its simplest form: as a pure exhibition of human will.

“You have to sound enthused,” he said. “There’s moments where you feel God, I’m incredibly fortunate to be here” – he cites the 2016 Davis Cup final in Ghent (and that lob from Murray, he grins) – “and it’s important to reflect that sense in the reports that you do.”

“A lot of things in life happen to people. Illness happens to people, wars happen to people, taxes happen to people. They are kind of passive recipients of bad things. But sport is something people choose to do, invest in it emotionally and financially because they want it. Sport allows you a freedom. I’m an advocate of this idea that it matters hugely, but then it doesn’t matter very much at all. You shake hands at the end and then life carries on. And that’s why it can be such a powerful thing sometimes.”

But I was intrigued how something like the Russia World Cup sits with Wilson, such a voracious connoisseur of sport. When politics inescapably supersedes the human stories, the joy of sport, what then? Well, refreshingly, Wilson doesn’t think in those terms – enjoying and engaging in sport is not a dangerous delusion, or a diplomatic let off the hook.

“History tells us that repressive regimes, whether it’s East Germany or South Africa, fed off a sense of isolation,” he put it. “Sport has a unique way of bringing people together. To give common ground and to give people a chance to compete knowing that there will be a final whistle and things will then go back to normal. I remember covering a rugby tournament with a team from Rwanda playing and the coach making that point, saying if Hutus and Tutsis could wallop each other on a rugby field and then shake hands at the end it was making a huge point to them about reconciliation. It’s definitely true that this ‘power of sport’ thing can be exploited. But there’s no doubt it exists. It gave me the chance to have so many great conversations with people in places like Pakistan about cricket when we might have had on the face of it very different life experiences.”

Journalists most of all, travelling to countries for sport, can play a crucial role in this progressive globalisation. “If we go in with our ideas of what journalists are, we can throw much more light on a country than if we don’t go in at all,” Wilson puts it. “Once a sporting event is there, you have a different approach to journalism that you wouldn’t have if it was always just left to the people in that country to be doing the media.

“I remember when England went out to play test matches in the UAE a few years ago. They had a wicket keeper called Steven Davies who was openly gay and my idea was to find somebody in the UAE who was gay and talk about what they thought which I did via an anonymous email. That’s an example. You can shine a light on things because people with a western idea of journalism will report on what they see and ask the questions they want to ask.”

Wilson’s highlight of all his years as a sports reporter strikes me as a mixture of the two prevailing themes of our discussion – expressing, spreading and feeling that raw enthusiasm for sport, and asking those questions that are not being asked.

“I’ve done various things with the Special Olympics which was never funded in this country in the same way most countries in the world do,” Wilson said. “I managed to get a piece on the 6 o’clock news last year when it was based up in Sheffield. The first bit of that report was a Dad and his lad who really loved gymnastics, and it just so happened that the lad had down syndrome. To put that on the news was brilliant.

“As well as doing all the exciting, big stories and all the high profile famous people, particularly with the BBC, you do have a responsibility to shine a light on bits of society which don’t have a light shone on them. For me that was empowering, and I think it was quite empowering for those people to think that BBC Sport is interested in them.

“I felt almost more pleased to have done that than to have reported on some great big success for Britain.”

Sport has changed wholesale since Wilson broadcast from that tiny Churchill studio, or sought out that rare Macintosh in the engineering library. Largely as a result of Britain’s recent Olympic riches, the big three sports in Leicester now find themselves competing with a host of other disciplines which are often far more accessible. Wilson has spent much of his career covering international and domestic cricket for the BBC, and it perhaps most of all of England’s traditional sports has found itself in the participation doldrums since that heady summer of ‘05. The 100-ball innovation is not the only solution. “Whether you’re playing 20 or 100 overs you still need somewhere to play,” Wilson shrugged.

“The format of cricket is almost of secondary importance to people’s ability to engage with it. Cricket has been kind of unique in terms of the major sports in this country in having no live free to air access for a considerable period of time. That’s going to have connotations.”

You need the televisual monomania of the 2005 Ashes, of Murray winning Wimbledon in 2013, or that Super Saturday at the Olympics. “That’s when any sport brings in people that would not consider themselves to be sports fans,” Wilson said. “You’re not going to get 10 million people sitting down to watch every ball of a test match. But you’re going to have moments in a test match which are thrilling, Stuart Broad taking all those wickets at Trent Bridge or the previous Ashes when Andersen was bowling to Brad Haddin and it was given out on a review. If there’s something happening on a Saturday or a Sunday, it’s those abilities for people to go ‘what’s happening in the test match’ and turn on.”

It would be a shame, Wilson says – mildly, not quite with the same red in the face steam out of the ears Geoffrey Wheatcroft indignation of T20 cynics – to lose the tactical nuance of test match cricket, the front foot fielding strategies, aggressive bowling and close catches of a team chasing wickets. But radical shakeups are needed to spark debate, to put cricket back at the top of the bulletins, to win the hearts of young kids in Leicester, or children with down syndrome in Sheffield.

“I’d love to see some cricket played indoors in Cardiff at the Principality Stadium,” Wilson said. “A long weekend where you could close the roof, guarantee you could have play. It would be controversial and people would say that the boundaries are too small but that’s good, it would get people talking about it. The 100 ball has got people talking about it. And the greatest enemy for any sport is indifference.”