The Mail's odd campaign against "plastic Brit" Olympic athletes

Is everyone born abroad somehow not really British?

The Daily Mail's campaign against some of the Olympic athletes who will compete for Team GB - lambasting them as "plastic Brits" -  has always struggled for consistency. Partly, it was that the Daily Mail brought about the most egregious "passport of convenience" case with Zola Budd in 1984, by campaigning on her behalf. Mostly, it was a refusal to define the terms, so that different Mail writers attacked the British credentials of some athletes whom their colleagues praised.

I've written before about this, noting:

Twelve per cent of people in Britain today are foreign-born. Because that percentage is twice as high in London, the Olympic host city, the team of Olympic volunteers will probably have more multinational roots than Team GB. As a newspaper that celebrates patriotism and integration, the Mail could celebrate that 70 per cent of those born abroad feel a strong sense of belonging to Britain, even slightly outscoring those born in this country (66 per cent), as a State of the Nation poll found. They don't think they are Plastic Brits; instead, they fly their flags with pride.

One thing that was stressed for the defence was that this was not a pejorative attempt to attack all foreign-born athletes as "Plastic". But it transpires that the Mail has run a news story defining and counting the Plastic Brits: declaring there are 61 plastic Brits in Team GB, once the Mail defines a plastic Brit as "any citizen who was born abroad". It seems that both Mo Farah and Belgian-born Bradley Wiggins are "plastic" after all. And poor Prince Phillip is a Plastic Brit too.

I have written to Mail editor Paul Dacre suggesting that Friday's opening ceremony would be a good moment to adopt the tradition of an Olympic truce (see below).

Once the torch is lit in Stratford, it should be time to set aside the “plastic Brits” controversy for a fortnight, and to instead join the London crowds in their desire to get behind every Olympian invited to compete for Britain. If the Mail can bring itself to wave the Union Jack for all of the Olympic athletes chosen to compete for Britain, then they could count all of the medals that they win for Team GB in the medal table too.

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Dear Mr Dacre,

The next fortnight will see the country rally around Team GB in the hope that they will write another golden chapter in the proud history of British sport.

The Daily Mail’s sports pages have sparked a lively and controversial debate in challenging some of the Olympic athletes selected to compete for Britain as “plastic Brits”, where they are naturalised citizens, or have qualified for the Olympic team through parental connections to Britain. The Mail has also praised the pride and contribution of many foreign-born Brits, such as Mo Farah, who arrived here as an 11-year old from war-torn Somalia to become a world-beating athlete.

No Team GB member has been able to jump the citizenship and immigration queue, nor bend the rules of their sport, though this has also been a debate about how best to reflect the spirit of international sport.

This “plastic Brits” debate has sparked passion from all sides.  But might the opening ceremony provide an ideal moment to adopt the tradition of an Olympic truce?

Once the torch is lit in Stratford, it should be time to set aside the “plastic Brits” controversy for a fortnight, and to instead join the London crowds in their desire to get behind every Olympian invited to compete for Britain.

The London Olympics will be an experience that many of us hope we and our children will remember for a lifetime. So let’s wave the Union Jack for all of the Olympic athletes chosen to compete for Britain – and count all of the medals that they win for Team GB in the medal table too.

Best wishes,

Sunder Katwala

Director, British Future

Bradley Wiggins: born in Belgium. Photo: Getty Images

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.

ELLIE FOREMAN-PECK FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Craig Oliver, Cameron's attack dog, finally bites

A new book reveals the spiteful after life of Downing Street's unlikely spin doctor.

It must be hard being a spin doctor: always in the shadows but always on-message. The murky control that the role requires might explain why David Cameron’s former director of communications Craig Oliver has rushed out his political memoirs so soon after his boss left Downing Street. Now that he has been freed from the shackles of power, Oliver has chosen to expose the bitterness that lingers among those on the losing side in the EU referendum.

The book, which is aptly titled Unleashing Demons, made headlines with its revelation that Cameron felt “badly let down” by Theresa May during the campaign, and that some in the Remain camp regarded the then home secretary as an “enemy agent”. It makes for gripping reading – yet seems uncharacteristically provocative in style for a man who eschewed the sweary spin doctor stereotype, instead advising Cameron to “be Zen” while Tory civil war raged during the Brexit campaign.

It may be not only politicians who find the book a tough read. Oliver’s visceral account of his side’s defeat on 24 June includes a description of how he staggered in a daze down Whitehall until he retched “harder than I have done in my life. Nothing comes up. I retch again – so hard, it feels as if I’ll turn inside out.”

It’s easy to see why losing hit Oliver – who was knighted in Cameron’s resignation honours list – so hard. Arguably, this was the first time the 47-year-old father-of-three had ever failed at anything. The son of a former police chief constable, he grew up in Scotland, went to a state school and studied English at St Andrews University. He then became a broadcast journalist, holding senior posts at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

When the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned as No 10’s communications director in January 2011 because of unceasing references in the press to his alleged involvement in the phone-hacking scandal, Oliver was not the obvious replacement. But he was seen as a scandal-free BBC pen-pusher who exuded calm authority, and that won him the job. The Cameron administration, tainted by its association with the Murdoch media empire, needed somebody uncontroversial who could blend into the background.

It wasn’t just Oliver’s relative blandness that recommended him. At the BBC, he had made his name revamping the corporation’s flagship News at Ten by identifying the news angles that would resonate with Middle England. The Conservatives then put this skill to very good use during their 2015 election campaign. His broadcast expertise also qualified him to sharpen up the then prime minister’s image.

Oliver’s own sense of style, however, was widely ridiculed when he showed up for his first week at Downing Street looking every inch the metropolitan media male with a trendy man bag and expensive Beats by Dre headphones, iPad in hand.

His apparent lack of political affiliation caused a stir at Westminster. Political hacks were perplexed by his anti-spin attitude. His style was the antithesis of the attack-dog mode popularised by Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride in the New Labour years. As Robert Peston told the Daily Mail: “Despite working closely with Oliver for three years, I had no clue about his politics or that he was interested in politics.” Five years on, critics still cast aspersions and question his commitment to the Conservative cause.

Oliver survived despite early wobbles. The most sinister of these was the allegation that in 2012 he tried to prevent the Daily Telegraph publishing a story about expenses claimed by the then culture secretary, Maria Miller, using her links to the Leveson inquiry as leverage – an accusation that Downing Street denied. Nevertheless, he became indispensable to Cameron, one of a handful of trusted advisers always at the prime minister’s side.

Newspapers grumbled about Oliver’s preference for broadcast and social media over print. “He’s made it clear he [Oliver] doesn’t give a s*** about us, so I don’t really give a s*** about him,” a veteran correspondent from a national newspaper told Politico.

Yet that approach was why he was hired. There was the occasional gaffe, including the clumsy shot of a stern-looking Cameron, apparently on the phone to President Obama discussing Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, which was widely mocked on Twitter. But overall, reducing Downing Street’s dependence on print media worked: Scotland voted against independence in 2014 and the Tories won a majority in the 2015 general election.

Then came Brexit, a blow to the whole Cameroon inner circle. In his rush to set the record straight and defend Cameron’s legacy – as well as his own – Oliver has finally broken free of the toned-down, straight-guy persona he perfected in power. His memoir is spiteful and melodramatic, like something straight from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Perhaps, with this vengeful encore to his mild political career, the unlikely spin doctor has finally fulfilled his potential. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories