Orange squash: Ron Vlaar and Andrés Guardado during the Netherlands v Mexico match, 29 June. Photo: Getty
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This is Fifa-land: colourful, attractive spectators in team shirts playing by the rules

There is a set way to behave. Team shirts and face paint have become de rigueur, while Mexican waves now interrupt the view of anybody trying to watch the football with irritating regularity. 

On Sunday, waiting for a flight to São Paulo, I watched the Netherlands’ last-16 match against Mexico at Santos Dumont Airport in Rio de Janeiro. It felt like the archetypal moment of a modern World Cup. There were people in the shirts of Uruguay, France, Belgium, Russia, Colombia and Argentina, as well as Mexicans (who presumably hadn’t counted on making it through the group) and Brazilians (many of whom seem, for the duration of the tournament, to wear the national uniform of Nike yellow at all times). There was at least one television commentary team, children, old people, men, women; the world uniting on a bland, brightly lit food court to stare at a big screen, sponsored by Budweiser. They drank Coke and ate undercooked wedges of pizza – “American pizza, Italian flavour”, the outlet boasted, whatever that means.

The scene was eerily Ballardian, although this was a lounge stripped of the sense of possibility with which J G Ballard would have imbued it. Fifa, you suspect, would like the World Cup to become something similar: safe, antiseptic, anaesthetised, with difference expressed by nothing more than colour of shirt, as everybody shells out for the global brands with which it has signed sponsorship deals.

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With the street protests here muted, the only anti-Fifa note has been struck by the nation of Uruguay and its all but uncon­ditional support of Luis Suárez after he was given a four-month ban for biting Giorgio Chiellini. In the fog of denial, Suárez ludicrously claimed he had lost his balance and fallen into the Italy defender, something that caused him “a strong pain in the teeth”.

There is a legitimate question to be asked about why football punishes biting so much more severely than flailing elbows or bad tackles, which can cause injuries far more severe than a few marks on the shoulder – and you wonder why Neymar, Kyle Beckerman and Mamadou Sakho have escaped investigation for apparent elbows in the World Cup – but having already been banned for a total of 17 games for two biting offences, Suárez can hardly claim he didn’t know how gravely the offence is considered. Equally, there seems to be something a little draconian about the four-month ban, which is not just from playing but from all “football-related activity”. That means he had to leave Uruguay’s team hotel, will not be able to train with Liverpool, his club (for now), and can’t even appear in their team photograph.

Uruguay’s manager, Óscar Tabárez, usually the most thoughtful of men, hinted at those concerns but ended up blaming the “English-speaking” media for asking a series of questions about the bite, and thus forcing Fifa to act. The chutzpah was staggering – Fifa, after all, has spent much of the past decade decrying the English-speaking media for making allegations of corruption within the organisation on an almost weekly basis. The idea that Fifa could be influenced by them is laughable – and ignores the blanket coverage given to the Suárez bite in Brazil and elsewhere.

At least Tabárez had the excuse that he was fostering a siege mentality to try to stiffen the Uruguayans’ resolve ahead of their game against Colombia, which was lost. José Mujica, the president of Uruguay, was presumably speaking from the heart when he denounced the punishment as “a fascist ban” and called Fifa “a bunch of old sons of bitches”. All of this righteous anger was somewhat undermined when, on 30 June, Suárez apologised, “having had the opportunity to regain [his] calm”. It was almost as though somebody had read the explanation for the sanction issued by Fifa, had seen the condemnation of Suárez’s lack of contrition and had recognised an apology was a necessary first step in appealing to reduce the ban. But surely Suárez, who didn’t consult Liverpool before making his statement, couldn’t have been acting under instruction from Barcelona, who are desperate to sign him, despite it all? Because if that were the case, it might make the great Uruguayan martyr seem just a little venal.

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Although there has been the occasional fracas in the stadiums – the incident in which one England fan bit the ear of another, for instance, or when Chilean fans without tickets invaded the media centre at the Maracanã and were chased by security, who were themselves chased by men with cameras, just a lingerie-clad model from being a Benny Hill sketch – this has been another tournament in which fans have become almost part of a Fifa-sanctioned backdrop. There is a set way to behave. Team shirts (great for the manufacturers) and face paint have become de rigueur, while Mexican waves, once a sign of boredom, now interrupt the view of anybody trying to watch the football with irritating regularity. It’s as if fans have become complicit in their reduction to bovinity.

Most inexplicable of all, though, is the reaction of fans who see themselves on the big screen. Even at the height of the tension in the shoot-out between Brazil and Chile, a game in which it seemed a nation was holding its breath, fans had the same Pavlovian response. As Neymar stepped up to take his penalty with the scores level, the camera focused on a pair of young women in Brazil shirts and face paint. They looked terrified, hands to cheeks. Then they caught sight of themselves on the big screen and responded as they were supposed to, smiling and waving, jumping up and down. How tense could they have been a second earlier? Which was the artificial emotion? This is Fifa-land: colourful, attractive people, behaving exactly as they’re supposed to.

This article first appeared in the 02 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, After God Again

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A small dose of facts could transform Britain's immigration debate

While "myth-busting" doesn't always work, there is an appetite for a better informed conversation than the one we're having now. 

For some time opinion polls have shown that the public sees immigration as one of the most important issues facing Britain. At the same time, public understanding of the economic and social impacts of immigration is poor and strongly influenced by the media: people consistently over-estimate the proportion of the population born outside the UK and know little about policy measures such as the cap on skilled non-EU migration. The public gets it wrong on other issues too - on teenage pregnancy, the Muslim population of the UK and benefit fraud to name just three. However, in the case of immigration, the strength of public opinion has led governments and political parties to reformulate policies and rules. Theresa May said she was cracking down on “health tourists” not because of any evidence they exist but because of public “feeling”. Immigration was of course a key factor in David Cameron’s decision to call a referendum on the UK’s membership with the EU and has been central to his current renegotiations.  

Do immigration facts always make us more stubborn and confused?

The question of how to both improve public understanding and raise the low quality of the immigration debate has been exercising the minds of those with a policy and research interest in the issue. Could the use of facts address misconceptions, improve the abysmally low quality of the debate and bring evidence to policy making? The respected think tank British Future rightly warns of the dangers associated with excessive reliance on statistical and economic evidence. Their own research finds that it leaves people hardened and confused. Where does that leave those of us who believe in informed debate and evidence based policy? Can a more limited use of facts help improve understandings and raise the quality of the debate?

My colleagues Jonathan Portes and Nathan Hudson-Sharp and I set out to look at whether attitudes towards immigration can be influenced by evidence, presented in a simple and straightforward way. We scripted a short video animation in a cartoon format conveying some statistics and simple messages taken from research findings on the economic and social impacts of immigration.

Targeted at a wide audience, we framed the video within a ‘cost-benefit’ narrative, showing the economic benefits through migrants’ skills and taxes and the (limited) impact on services. A pilot was shown to focus groups attended separately by the general public, school pupils studying ‘A’ level economics and employers.

Some statistics are useful

To some extent our findings confirm that the public is not very interested in big statistics, such as the number of migrants in the UK. But our respondents did find some statistics useful. These included rates of benefit claims among migrants, effects on wages, effects on jobs and the economic contribution of migrants through taxes. They also wanted more information from which to answer their own questions about immigration. These related to a number of current narratives around selective migration versus free movement, ‘welfare tourism’ and the idea that our services are under strain.

Our research suggests that statistics can play a useful role in the immigration debate when linked closely to specific issues that are of direct concern to the public. There is a role for careful and accurate explanation of the evidence, and indeed there is considerable demand for this among people who are interested in immigration but do not have strong preconceptions. At the same time, there was a clear message from the focus groups that statistics should be kept simple. Participants also wanted to be sure that the statistics they were given were from credible and unbiased sources.

The public is ready for a more sophisticated public debate on immigration

The appetite for facts and interest in having an informed debate was clear, but can views be changed through fact-based evidence? We found that when situated within a facts-based discussion, our participants questioned some common misconceptions about the impact of immigration on jobs, pay and services. Participants saw the ‘costs and benefits’ narrative of the video as meaningful, responding particularly to the message that immigrants contribute to their costs through paying taxes. They also talked of a range of other economic, social and cultural contributions. But they also felt that those impacts were not the full story. They were also concerned about the perceived impact of immigration on communities, where issues become more complex, subjective and intangible for statistics to be used in a meaningful way.

Opinion poll findings are often taken as proof that the public cannot have a sensible discussion on immigration and the debate is frequently described as ‘toxic’. But our research suggests that behind headline figures showing concern for its scale there may be both a more nuanced set of views and a real appetite for informed discussion. A small dose of statistics might just help to detoxify the debate. With immigration a deciding factor in how people cast their vote in the forthcoming referendum there can be no better time to try.