Honours lists are a minefield. Every country has them in some shape or form, and who gets honoured is a matter of great subjectivity. But leaving aside the rights and wrongs of who gets what, the British are relatively rare in that they give certain honours that change the courtesy title of the person who has been honoured: ‘Sir’, ‘Dame’, ‘Lord’, etc. And that’s where good journalists need to distinguish between admiration and sycophancy. Too often, they don’t.
I have many misgivings about the British honours system, but there’s no question Andy Murray deserves the knighthood he has been given. He is arguably the UK’s greatest athlete. The only person who could come remotely close to challenging that at present is Mo Farah, and at least the fact that both men have received knighthoods in the New Year honours list corrects the uncomfortable omission of Farah from the top three in the BBC Sports Personality of the Year public poll.
So from tomorrow (1 Jan), Murray will be referred to as ‘Sir Andy’, and Farah as ‘Sir Mo’. But these are courtesy titles, they are not changes of name. And the difference is important.
Around the world, if someone completes a PhD, they are allowed to use the title ‘Dr’, but only in a few countries is it part of the name – elsewhere it is just a courtesy title. Germany is one of the countries where the name actually changes. If I were German and completed my PhD, I’d go to the local registry office to change my surname from ‘Bowers’ to ‘Dr Bowers’. Thereafter, anyone addressing me formally in German would call me ‘Herr Dr Bowers’. And if I write two theses and gain two PhDs, I’m ‘Herr Dr Dr Bowers’. (The reason for the name change is linked to how Germany has dealt with the remnants of its aristocracy, which doesn’t officially exist even if certain titles – like ‘von’, ‘Graf’, etc – still do, but that’s another story.)
The British knighthood titles of ‘Sir’ and ‘Dame’ are courtesy titles. What that means is that if you used to call the world’s top tennis player ‘Mr Murray’, you should now call him ‘Sir Andy’. But in sport we very seldom use the titles ‘Mr’ or ‘Ms’. Therefore, Murray should remain just that: ‘Murray’ or ‘Andy Murray’.
But it won’t happen like that, at least not in the UK. When the England football team won the world cup in 1966, its coach Alf Ramsey was knighted. Thereafter, he was ‘Sir Alf’. When Manchester United won the European Champions League in 1999, its coach Alex Ferguson was knighted. As a Liverpool supporter, I found that galling because Bob Paisley was never knighted despite winning three European titles for Liverpool two decades earlier (that too is another story, linked with Ferguson having supported the then governing Labour Party). More galling was the way journalists who had previously called Ferguson ‘Alex’ started referring to him as ‘Sir Alex’, a custom Ferguson appeared rather to enjoy.
I feel that custom indicated a deference that became a sycophancy, which in turn prevented the scrutiny that good journalists should have exercised over Ferguson the coach. I don’t want journalists to be too chummy with athletes and coaches, but nor should they tug their forelock to them. At least Ferguson was a coach – in recent years we’ve had the childish situation of commentators having to talk about active sportsmen and women as ‘Sir Chris Hoy’, ‘Sir Bradley Wiggins’, ‘Dame Kelly Holmes’ etc. Are Rod Laver, Jack Nicklaus or Muhammad Ali any less of a legend because they don’t have a courtesy title before their name? Of course not!
As a commentator, I will continue to refer to the world’s top tennis player as ‘Andy Murray’ and ‘Murray’. I will not studiously avoid ‘Sir Andy’ because there may be moments when it adds gravitas to both his achievements and my commentary. But his name will not change, nor should it as the ‘Sir’ is just a courtesy title. And I offer this consolation to my non-British sporting colleagues: if you think the British honours business is all a bit silly in the 21st century, you’re not alone.