It is not often that a great man or woman dies. There may be no more than half a dozen such events in a year. A great man died yesterday. His death coincided, however, with the announcement of the death of a television presenter, so it is possible that last night you were more familiar with the life and times of Harry Carpenter.
The great man is, or was, Sir James Black, whose invention of the beta-blocking drug propranolol saved and extended the lives of millions of people. He died at the age of 85.
Harry Carpenter – sometimes known as ‘Arry – was a commentator on boxing, tennis, golf and much else, a reliable jack of all trades in BBC Sport. He is remembered best, at least by me, for his infuriating geniality during the long rain breaks at Wimbledon when it still rained in London in July and tennis was worth watching; in other words, rather a long time ago. He died at the age of 84.
I have nothing against ‘Arry. He seems to have been a decent enough sport. In his final years, he became a bit of a curmudgeon. He hated Britain, declaring it rude, dirty and dangerous, described modern tennis as ‘tasteless’ and said there was little to be said in defence of boxing. About tennis and boxing, then, he was a person of some discrimination, the only mystery being why he spent so much of his professional life devoted to these activities. During the war, in perhaps his greatest service to the country he grew to loathe, he was a Morse code operator. As I say, there was nothing wrong with old ‘Arry.
Which of these deaths was the more significant and which life meant more to the human race? We are not offering a Scottish Review pen for the correct answer. Yet my former employers quickly got it into their heads that their own man Carpenter should take precedence over a mere Nobel Prize-winning pharmacologist.
On the BBC’s national news website, ‘Arry had suddenly become ‘a vital part of boxing for millions’ and was the subject of a glowing 800-word obit. We were informed that his first job had been at the Greyhound Express. News of the day’s other death was much harder to locate; the pregnancy of Samantha Cameron, a gay couple refused a bed for the night and ‘new clues in a Glasgow vampire hunt’ were all considered more important. The search for Sir James finally yielded, not 800 words, but 137. I know this because I counted them.
Even in an item of 137 words, it was possible for the BBC to get a fact wrong. The town of St Andrews was spelled St Andrew’s. It was also possible for the BBC to so qualify its position in 137 words that the reader was left wondering whether Sir James had been all he was cracked up to be. While Harry Carpenter was ‘a vital part of boxing for millions’, a statement leaving no room for doubt, James Black was only ‘considered to be’ one of the great scientists of the 20th century and had been merely ‘credited with’ inventing the beta-blocking drug. With the positioning of the story, its strange brevity, and its even stranger qualifications, the BBC had come close to praising Sir James with faint damn.
I turned to BBC Scotland’s website for a more generous tribute and found only the same 137 niggardly words, including the same mis-spelling of St Andrews. The story had just been lifted straight.
By first thing this morning, the obituary of Carpenter on the national site had been extended to around 1,100 words, including fulsome valedictories from nine colleagues and friends, while all mention of Sir James Black had gone. On the Scottish site, his death had been further relegated to ‘Features, Views and Analysis’, a misnomer for the same 137 words, with a couple of sentences tagged on. The spelling of St Andrews had been corrected. For the usual small mercies we remain grateful.
This is, at first glance, simply another example of the BBC looking after its own, even in death. We saw it recently in the case of another sports presenter, Bill McLaren, whose death preoccupied BBC Scotland for almost a week and whose funeral was the main item on its news website, including footage of the deceased’s coffin. It was all so disproportionate that those unaware of the full significance of these events could only gape in astonishment. Among the gaping was the distinguished sculptor Sandy Stoddart, who was roundly pilloried for declining an offer to do a McLaren statue.
But there may be something else at work here. Loveable personalities such as ‘Arry and Bill, both familiar ornaments in the living room, both symptoms of our attachment to telly celebrity, are easier to cope with than true greatness in the modern world, the greatness that in the case of Sir James Black saved lives and eased human suffering. We may have ceased to believe that such things are possible; and when, occasionally, we are confronted by their reality, as in the death of an 85-year-old Scot of no celebrity whatever, we are instinctively sceptical. That is why Sir James, in the eyes of the BBC, can only be ‘considered to be’ one of the great scientists of the 20th century and why he can only be ‘credited with’ his invention. In a world of few certainties and fewer heroes, it is safer to rely on ‘Arry.
Read Kenneth Roy’s interview with Sir James from 2002