Cage-fighting kids? The real problem is the kneejerk reaction

Why bother with putting things into context when you can just point and screech?

What is it about the story of "cagefighting kids" is it that we find so shocking? Is it the kids-as-entertainment aspect? Is it the fighting? Is it the age of the participants? Or is it the cage?

Perhaps what's needed here is a way of learning self-defence against a kneejerk -- it's a particularly brutal weapon, when used by an advanced practitioner like the Daily Mirror or the Metro, and fans of martial arts have found themselves on the defensive thanks to headlines like CAGE OF INNOCENTS or CHILD CAGE FIGHTERS. How do you block it? And is there some way of sending in a counterpunch?

Gareth A Davies, the Telegraph's expert on combat sports, shows the value in speaking to experts who actually know what they're talking about. He points out that it was not mixed martial arts taking place in the arena, but jujitsu; and while he condemns the setting, he is irritated by the moral outrage. "Take away the cage, the ring card girls, and put a gi on the boys, and there would have been no interest in the news pages in this story. What it is not -- is mixed martial arts," he says.

Is that needless hair-splitting? I don't think it is. These weren't children punching and kicking each other in a free-for-all. They were taking part in an exercise with strict rules. Whether you think that's suitable entertainment for an adult audience -- some of whom had been drinking, the Mirror tells us in a somewhat pearl-clutching tone -- is up to you. Perhaps there's something, also, about the cage that makes it seem sordid, or wrong. Not that the cage was involved in any way other than to mark the boundaries of the arena, as far as the children were concerned.

Mixed martial artist Rosi Sexton, meanwhile, aims to set the record straight. "As it turns out, one of the boys and his parents are good friends of mine. He's a great kid -- polite, well mannered and dedicated to his sport. His parents are also wonderful people, totally devoted to their son and very upset at the way this is being portrayed," she writes. But is anyone listening?

As ever, though, a bit of context from an expert like that does tend to take the edge off a good tale, doesn't it? Why bother with putting things into context, or explaining the value of combat, self-defence or martial arts to children, when you can just point and screech? KIDS IN A CAGE! Shock! Outrage! CHILD CAGE FIGHTERS! Get angry now!

What that approach does, though, is to dehumanise the participants somewhat. Those are real children in that arena, with families who love them and care for them, no doubt. They're not out vandalising or causing trouble; they're involved in something which requires discipline and hard endeavour in order to bring a reward. Have we heard from the parents of the boys involved? Do we want to? Do we care what they have to say -- or are we just keen to be outraged and upset by what we see, or what we think we see, that it doesn't matter what's actually there?

We see what we want to see, and it seems we're keen to be outraged. But behind the anger and the fury, the real stories are a little less sensational than we're led to believe. If you're going to get angry, at least get it right about why. Otherwise it's just shadow-boxing.

 

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.