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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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.