Selective evidence: an ugly political game

Commentary surrounding the horrific Rochdale case speaks more for the critics than the victims.

As a polemicist, you’re faced with a choice when something as horrific and complicated as the crimes in Rochdale comes along. Do you research it, investigate it, look into it, and then arrive at your conclusions? Or do you simply see everything on the table as being evidence that you’ve been right all along? 

Look, I am a polemicist myself; here I am, writing this blog. And there’s a temptation to see a big news story, especially a shocking one like this, as something that can be scavenged for easy reaction. 

But this isn’t any ordinary news story: it’s a story about sexual predators and young people in care. It’s a story that involves lives being shattered and vulnerable people having been abused. Is it really the time to be picking over the evidence and looking for things that prove you right so you can stick two fingers up at your opponents? 

Julie Bindel writing in the Guardian sees the story as evidence that the media would rather focus on the ethnicity of the offenders than the fact that young girls have been preyed upon. Melanie Phillips, in the Daily Mail, says that this was a consequence of the "Islamophobia witch-hunt".  

Reading through blogs and opinion pieces from the usual suspects, it’s clear that a lot of disparate people with frequently opposing views have all found something to take from these crimes and claim as proof that they’re right. 

Of course they may all be right; they may all have focused on different aspects of the whole picture. Or they may all be wrong, focusing just on the things they want to see. But it’s interesting to see how this case, this shocking case in which real people’s lives have been ruined and wrecked beyond almost all comprehension, should have coincidentally proved so many commentators right about the things they believed before the trial took place. 

The guilty verdicts came in, and the keyboards started clicking. You and I could have predicted with a fair degree of certainty what was going to be said before it was said – some of these things just write themselves, after a while, and don’t even need the author’s byline there to give it credibility. Just feed the data into a machine and it’ll come out nicely and neatly arranged in the same predictable pattern. 

The thing is, what have we actually learned from these crimes, these wrecked lives and this whole miserable affair? Some conclusions were probably already drawn before the verdicts were delivered. Nick Griffin, of course, chose to make gleeful political capital out of it, before two of the convictions had even been decided upon – though anyone on a jury who could possibly be influenced by a Nick Griffin tweet shouldn’t be serving on a jury in the first place. 

I found myself increasingly frustrated when reading commentary on this episode. Some people were desperate to downplay whatever racial or cultural element to the crime there had been; others were determined to show that there was, and that their political opponents were somehow in part responsible for these men’s actions. It was not an entirely edifying spectacle, and the victims didn’t seem to be at the forefront of many writers’ concerns. 

Cheap political capital: a member of the BNP demonstrates outside the Liverpool Crown Court. Photo: Getty Images
Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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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