Sunday, 10 February 2013

In which I apologise to Clare Balding. Or, a small cautionary tale.

Yesterday, I found myself in a little Twitter storm which is so illustrative of the perils of the internet that I am going to tell you the whole story.

It does not start well. I fear that I may have hurt the feelings of one of Britain’s most beloved broadcasters. Yes, even I, always banging on about good manners and kindness, may have not lived up to the standards I set myself.

Here is how it happened.

Channel 4 were showing the racing. I tweet a lot when the racing is on, partly out of excitement, partly to deal with big race nerves, and partly because I am still unsettled with the new coverage. Because the adrenaline is running, I type fast, and sometimes press send before I have thought carefully what it is I say.

As I was making my usual complaint that we do not get to see enough of the horses themselves, particularly in the paddock, two other Twitterers joined in. They were not people I know, but they shared my sense of loss for the old Channel 4 team, and soon we were in an orgy of regret for the departure of John Francome and Alistair Down.

One of them objected, in quite personal terms, to the choice of Clare Balding as the new front-woman for the show. I said that I like her as a broadcaster, which is absolutely true, but think that she is a generalist. By this I mean that she has a wide knowledge of all different kinds of sport, and works in a range of different mediums. (On a very personal level, what I crave from Channel 4 is a tight focus on specialist racing knowledge.)

However, in context, the whole Twitter chat came across as an ad hominem objection to Balding herself. I spend days twisting myself up like a pretzel to avoid ad hominem. So I was already started to feel uncomfortable, when Balding herself entered the conversation. I work hard, she said, and try to get people interested in racing.

Oh God, I thought. This is what happens when the internet flies too fast and tempers get heated. It can be forgotten that there are real people out there, with real feelings, who are only doing their jobs. I imagine that anyone in public life gets more slings and arrows than any human deserves, now that the green ink brigade has gone viral.

I was overcome with crushing angst. I sent Balding what I hoped was a polite tweet saying that all I too wanted was for more people to be interested in racing, and emphasised that really what I was crying out for was a view of the horses in the paddock. (This is an editorial decision, and absolutely not her fault.)

And here is the amazing thing. She tweeted back at once, saying that she would mention it, and that it might be possible once they were covering fewer races. I am a complete stranger, howling and yowling out on the prairies of the internet, and yet she took the time and trouble to reply.

How is that for grace?

The problem is that she was so generous and well-mannered that my angst only grew. I was now convinced that I had behaved badly and unfairly. I could not get the thing out of my head. I woke up this morning worrying about it.

So here is my own question for the day. It is: how may one object, without being objectionable?

I love racing with an unbridled passion. I loved the old Channel 4 team, and spent so much time with them that they felt like family. It’s a slightly peculiar thing to say, but it’s true. I loved that Alistair Down could recall every single Cheltenham since he was a boy. I loved that John Francome could tell you that an ordinary horse down the handicap had run a blinder on a wet Wednesday at Wetherby. Francome in particular wore his knowledge so lightly that it was easy to overlook how profound it was.

I am still a bit raw from the sudden change, and in danger of taking it personally. Channel 4 Racing, after all, does not exist just to serve me. Not everyone is a racing geek, and perhaps not everyone does need to know what happened in a mid-week card at Wetherby.

Where Clare Balding is brilliant is in her ability to translate the language of racing for a wider audience. She knows the world inside out, having grown up in it, and she knows the people. She is also an ultimately professional and accomplished broadcaster, who can take anything that a live programme throws at her.

It’s all very well, my yelping like a scalded dog, every time the programme does something I do not like. But this small episode reminded me that there is a danger, in this rushing internet age, of developing a nasty sense of entitlement. It is too easy for me to throw my toys out of the pram, and take to Twitter to shout and scream and set my hair on fire. Perhaps it is not a very edifying thing to do. My new resolution is to think before I tweet. Because, much as I hate to admit it, it really is not all about me.

Clare Balding is far too busy to read an obscure blog like this. But just today, I really wish she were one of the Dear Readers. Because I would like to say sorry. And to thank her for reminding me of a valuable lesson in manners.
Today’s pictures:

Too dull and snowy today to take out the camera. So here is a random selection from the last few days:

10 Feb 1

10 Feb 2

10 Feb 3

10 Feb 3-001

10 Feb 5

10 Feb 9

10 Feb 10

Autumn the Filly:

10 Feb 15

Myfanwy the Pony:

10 Feb 16

Can’t resist the free-schooling pictures:

10 Feb 16-001

10 Feb 17

Red the Mare, living up to her name in the winter sun:

10 Feb 18

10 Feb 19

Stanley the Dog enjoying some top ball action:

10 Feb 20

10 Feb 21

The hill, from a sunnier day:

10 Feb 30


  1. People who are in the media have a special extra layer of skin where criticism is concerned. They are critiqued heavily before getting a job like that, and they receive constant input from co-workers, bosses, and feedback (both positive and negative) from viewers - it's part of their job.

    Not everyone will agree with what they do or how they do it, and it's part of their skill set to take in the information, process it, and adjust their product so that it more closely meets the needs of the people who, in essence, are responsible for them even having a job - THE VIEWERS. You weren't rude, and you weren't extreme, and you have a right to your opinion.

    The fact that she personally got involved and responded to you is GREAT. It means she's paying attention, and wouldn't it be nice if you got some more horse coverage as a result?

    Don't lose any sleep over it, really. I'm sure she didn't. You are only one viewer out of thousands, and I'll bet in the scheme of her career, your comment doesn't even rate a slot on her "worst of" list.

    1. Agreed. Clare Balding has survived AA Gill. The day Tania gets THAT personal... I'm sorry, even the idea of Tania getting that personal makes me laugh...

  2. Agree with Marcheline - I'm sure Claire didn't take it personally and that she is far more used to this Twitter lark than us!

    And if through curiosity she reads your blog and you get a mega contract to write for the Racing Post then it wasn't all in vain!

    Thank goodness that nasty programme she was hosting on the BBC has finished - she is much better than that ...

  3. Haven't seen Clare Balding on the racing but thought she was brilliant at the Olympics. Doesn't sound like you said anything personal or offensive, you were just giving an opinion - and the fact that she responded to you shows she's a real professional.

  4. I'm not a twitterer, but you could tweet her a link to this blog as your apology. One look at the horsies and Stanley the Dandy would win her over.

    As an Aussie living in Switzerland who has been watching BBC for the past eighteen months, I have been really impressed with Clare Balding and she was chatting to Graham Norton recently and just reinforced that impression. Was even thinking about buying her book....

  5. Resisting the urge to say Oh, Tania, whoa-a-a-a, there! (OOPS, I said it!).
    I totally agree with Marcheline & the Native -- you weren't in the teeniest bit rude! AND you actually had the opportunity to have a DIALOGUE with Clare Balding about your concerns. General audience appeal & time constraints notwithstanding, she may be able to incorporate some of your suggestions into her racing coverage.
    Bottom line is this: you are ALWAYS entitled to your own opinion(s) and the expression(s) thereof.
    Very much looking forward to your writing for the Racing Post (as if you weren't already busy enough!)

  6. Ah, the Dear Readers. You are such a tall glass of water. Is that the expression? Anyway, something cool and refreshing. Sorry for slight incoherence, been out in the snow feeding the equines and am wet and tired. Lovely reassuring comments, as always. Think part of this kind of angst is I can get so easily bent out of shape myself by careless talk, and so would never wish to do it to others. Happy Sunday to you all. You have cheered and calmed mine. :)

  7. Clare's rather wonderful in her way, but as soon as she was signed up the coverage was always going to change-one couldn't have imagined Clare allowing John McCirick to call his fellow presenter 'female'! What I do agree with is that the C4 coverage isn't what it was-the old team covered Cheltenham beautifully-I particularly enjoyed Alistair's little vignettes-once we've all settled down I think the true test will come next month at The Festival?

  8. Happy to see over on the Twitter that Clare is completely unscathed (as your Dear Readers have tried to assure you she would be) and is now complimenting you on your wonderful photographs here on the blog. Peace and happiness all round. Loving being a tall glass of water, or least part of one. A smiling one, too. :)

  9. H'm . . . the different ways one can read things. I saw a little of that yesterday on Twitter -- notably, your tweet saying 'I wish we could see more of the horses in the paddock' and Clare Balding's 'I'll relay that request.' I thought, 'good deal -- the Channel 4 team will hear the opinion.'

    The thing is, it is a legitimate suggestion. As you say, Clare Balding hadn't a hand in the decision to drop the paddock shots, so it is not a criticism of her. And she can get the director's ear far better than a few letters from fans can (if anyone ever got around to communicating along formal lines). Viewers might assume that directors know what they want, but that's not always true. Given the shooting logistics, the director might have figured the lack of paddock shots was no big deal.

    Just a thought. If the discussions got out of hand and criticized Balding herself, then that's another thing, and I can feel your angst. But in the midst of it all, a good interchange happened.


  10. You are lovely. Really lovely.


Your comments give me great delight, so please do leave one.


Blog Widget by LinkWithin