FOOTBALL commentator Andy Gray was yesterday sacked by BSkyB from his £1.7m-a-year (€2m) job following the emergence of a succession of recordings in which he could be heard making sexist comments -- prompting speculation that he is being punished for suing Rupert Murdoch's News Corp, the company's largest shareholder.
he broadcaster said the former Scotland striker had been fired after the discovery of "new evidence of unacceptable and offensive behaviour". A day earlier, Mr Gray (55) had been taken off air after the leaking of a conversation between him and fellow presenter Richard Keys, in which the pair mocked a female assistant referee and the vice-chairman of West Ham, Karren Brady.
A second leaked clip, involving Mr Gray and football reporter Andy Burton, contained further comments about the female official, Sian Massey (25). The new evidence, a third clip posted yesterday on YouTube, dated from last month and showed Mr Gray in the studio before going on air, lewdly asking his co-presenter Charlotte Jackson to tuck in a microphone near his waist.
The scandal coincides with a legal action being brought by Mr Gray against News Corp. Mr Gray claims he was a victim of phone-hacking by the 'News of the World', one of Mr Murdoch's papers.
One source close to Mr Gray yesterday described the sacking as "retribution". One colleague said: "This has been done from the inside. The whole thing is murky. I don't want to sound like a conspiracy theorist but Mr Murdoch is in town and Andy Gray is suing."
Mr Murdoch is in London as his bid to buy out BSkyB faces probable referral to the Competition Commission. Mr Murdoch is said to be furious at the damage to News Corp's reputation by the long-running phone-hacking scandal. Mr Gray is one of a series of figures from the worlds of entertainment, sports and politics who are suing the publisher based on claims their voicemails were unlawfully intercepted by the newspaper.
The explanation for the leaked clips of Mr Gray could be more straightforward. A product of the football culture of the 1970s and 1980s, Mr Gray had upset other colleagues with his dressing-room-style banter. Journalist James Macintyre was alerted to the clip with Ms Jackson by a Sky employee and encouraged to bring it to further attention.
But conspiracy theorists point out that Mr Keys (53), who telephoned Ms Massey to apologise for his remarks, had not been sacked. In the first leaked recording ahead of last Saturday's Premier League game between Wolverhampton Wanderers and Liverpool, Mr Keys said: "The game's gone mad. Did you hear charming Karren Brady this morning complaining about sexism? Do me a favour, love."
The comments of the two Sky presenters have provoked widespread criticism from within the game of football.
Ferocious treatment was meted out to Mr Gray by the News International titles, usually highly conscious of their corporate loyalties.
News of Mr Gray's sacking was broken by his colleagues at Sky News yesterday. They reported a statement by the Sky Sports managing director, Barney Francis, who said: "We have no hesitation in taking this action after becoming aware of new information."
Former ITV co-commentator Ron Atkinson, who resigned in April 2004 after making an off-air racist comment, suggested Mr Gray may have been unfortunate to lose his job.
Mr Atkinson told BBC Radio Five Live: "I don't know the full story but on the evidence of what I've just heard and what I've read, I think a suspension would have been the correct decision."
And the former England women's cricket captain Rachael Heyhoe-Flint suggested there had been an over-reaction. "I know Richard and Andy very well. These were tongue-in-cheek comments and we are blowing something enormously out of proportion here," she said.
Mr Gray fell for the former Olympic gymnast Suzanne Dando when she landed a job alongside him on Sky Sports in 1999. Mr Gray had told reporters that his womanising days were over: "With age, I hope, comes maturity. I certainly do not see myself with anyone else." But Mr Gray and Ms Dando split up shortly afterwards. Until recently, he was engaged to Rachel Lewis, an ex-model and the former wife of his long-time friend and agent.
Mr Gray has been married twice before, to Vanessa Taylor and Jacqueline Cherry. He has fathered five children by four different women -- his two ex-wives and former girlfriends Sara Matthews and Janet Trigg.