Political sketch: Sky News is the only winner in this war

The news isn't sticking to the timetable, and it's ruining everyone's fun.

It is axiomatic in military circles, and down the British Legion Club, that there can only be one winner in a war and this week that prize goes to Sky News.

Anyone watching events unfold in Tripoli over the past few days knows that the Osterley upstart has led the way both in style and substance. The BBC rightly makes the point that it must be the people on the ground who make the final decision on whether to put themselves in the way of danger just to give us viewers the vicarious thrill of being up with the action, but being first in our business still counts.

Thus the appearance of Alex Crawford in the centre of Tripoli as the insurgents broke through was one of the most impressive moments of the conflict's coverage.

Alex, who has won many awards for being in the right, most dangerous, place at the right, most dangerous, time proved once again why this is not just luck.

The BBC's defence sounded a little hollow as it excused being absent during the storming of Gaddafi's palace, seen live on Sky, because its man was getting something ready for the six o clock news!

The real culprits for this diminution of the Corporation are not Sky, of which more in a minute, but the pesky foreigners who are simply not sticking to the script.

As we embarked on the Libyan adventure we made it quite clear that this was just another extension of the Arab Spring, but the timetabling of this event seems to have been ignored by the participants who determined to turn it into the Arab Summer with almost no attention being paid to pre-booked holidays and other August-type plans.

The rot had set in earlier in the month when those not already on the continent and apparently without the wherewithal to get there decided on some late-night, if rather unorthodox, shopping. This, you may remember, required Prime Minister Dave, after a couple of days to think about it, to quit Chiantishire for the slightly less attractive delights of Croydon. Indeed, MPs were forced to return from exotic spots throughout the world for half a day to remind those of us at home we had not been forgotten.

But no sooner had Dave embarked on holiday number two than the Libyans, perhaps emboldened by events in North London,decided to continue their revolution right through August.

Dave, who hardly had time to unpack his bucket and spade for his staycation in the West Country, was forced back on the overnight bus again to appear on the steps of Number 10 to tell us Libya was in his thoughts. He then got back on the bus and returned to his holiday.

And of course this is what lies at the heart of Sky's summer success: the holidays.

Not that it's been much of a year for the Sky brand until now. Its bosses the Murdochs, pere et fils, have spent recent weeks caught between the attentions of Messrs Sue, Grabbit and Run and Plod of the Yard. Indeed the attentions of Plod may well be the reason for the higher and higher octaves achieved by Murdoch the Younger which may yet give him a new career as a countertenor.

How different from this very day two years ago when in all his pomp and circumstance he turned up in Edinburgh at the annual TV-fest (why Edinburgh? Cos it's the holidays, stupid) to lecture on the media to the rest of the great and the good.

"The only reliable, durable and perpetual guarantor of independence is profit", said the man who at the time was in charge of the News of the World, which you may remember had discovered "one rogue reporter" with his mitts on several people's mobiles, now translated into a roomful of rogues, more mitts than the haberdashery department at Peter Jones and much of the phone book of Central London.

But all good things come to an end and the Sky News end of the Murdoch empire should enjoy its success while it can for the holidays are finally over. Spotted in all his splendour yesterday was none other than the wonderfully-titled Word Affairs Editor of the BBC, John Simpson himself.

John, remembered by many as the Liberator of Kabul - not least by the BBC correspondent who was living there - hove into view in Tripoli having spent, he told us, 48 hours getting there. Whether the 48 hours were from the borders of Libya or his holiday home were not clear.

Normal service has been resumed.

By the way, has anybody seen Gaddafi?

Peter McHugh is the former Director of Programmes at GMTV and Chief Executive Officer of Quiddity Productions.

Peter McHugh is the former Director of Programmes at GMTV and Chief Executive Officer of Quiddity Productions

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Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit