Harmlessly naive: Tulisa Contostavlos arrives at Southwark Crown Court, 15 July. Photo: Getty
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Tulisa and the “fake sheikh”, FBI’s home-grown terrorists and why Gove had to go

Peter Wilby’s First Thoughts column

The News of the World may be dead and so, one hopes, may the phone-hacking habits of its journalists. But one of its star turns, Mazher Mahmood – called the “fake sheikh” because he has often dressed up as one – is still employed by the NoW’s successor, the Sun on Sunday. His chequered career has just suffered another reverse. The trial of the singer Tulisa Contostavlos on charges of setting up a cocaine deal collapsed on 21 July because, the judge said, there were “strong grounds to believe” that Mahmood – “the sole progenitor of this case, the sole investigator, the sole prosecution witness” – had told lies in evidence.

Contostavlos had allegedly been enticed into getting a friend to supply Mahmood with half an ounce of cocaine. She thought he was an Indian film producer auditioning her for a £3.5m role. Mahmood has many admirable scoops to his credit, notably the exposure of match-fixing by Pakistan cricketers in 2010. Yet many of his stories seem to involve luring the harmlessly naive, such as Contostavlos, into potentially serious misdemeanours. Some have led to expensive trials that collapsed because the “plots” he claimed to have exposed turned out to be bogus: a plan to kidnap Victoria Beckham, for instance, and a conspiracy to “explode a dirty bomb on the streets of Britain”.

In better days, Mahmood would have produced two or three mega-stories a year under intensive editorial supervision. Now, in a fiercely competitive and shrinking market, he is required to produce “exclusives” even when he hasn’t got a real story.

Feel the sting

More serious cases of entrapment – involving law-enforcement agencies and mostly impoverished Muslims, not journalists and glamorous singers – have received little attention. In a new report, Human Rights Watch details cases in which the US’s FBI “may have created terrorists out of law-abiding individuals by conducting sting operations”. In 2010 and 2011, the FBI targeted Rezwan Ferdaus, a man with mental-health problems. An informant infiltrated his mosque, devised a plan with him to attack the Pentagon and the Capitol, provided fake weaponry and funded his travel. Ferdaus got 17 years in prison. In at least two instances, the FBI paid people to take part in a terrorist plot.

How often the British police use similar tactics we can’t be sure, but one undercover officer, Mark Kennedy, confessed that he had infiltrated green groups and sometimes played an active role in organising protests. No wonder the police and security services are so anxious to hold trials in secret. 

Takes the Michael

Michael Gove had to be sacked as education secretary because he treated the job as though he were still at the Times. He never distinguished between a bright idea for a 1,000-word Monday-morning column and a serious government policy. “I’ll bring back O-levels” sounded great until everyone remembered O-levels excluded more than half of the nation’s 16-year-olds. Like many columnists, he loved the provocative paradox, displaying a picture of Lenin in his office and insisting that he entered politics purely to assist the poor. But his journalistic instincts made him too many enemies and too often invited ridicule.

Some commentators predict another big job for Gove if the Tories win the election but it’s hard to know what it could be. David Cameron would surely not risk Gove upsetting doctors (“I’ll bring back bloodletting!”) as much as he upset teachers. At the Foreign Office (“I’ll bring back the British Empire!”), he’d probably provoke a nuclear war. The safest option would be defence, where “I’ll bring back the cavalry!” would appeal to animal lovers as well as to the nostalgic.

Testing times

England Test cricketers now come and go with bewildering rapidity. Over the past decade we have had two apparently world-beating sides that disintegrated almost as soon as they reached the top. Matt Prior, the current wicket-keeper, seems finished at 32 after a Test career lasting a mere seven years. The career of one of his predecessors, Alec Stewart, spanned more than 13, ending in 2003 when he was 39. England Test careers now rarely last longer than ten years and players generally retire in their early thirties.

Andrew Flintoff managed an 11-year career but retired at 32. Ian Botham, by contrast, played for 15 years and retired at 36. Overseas players seem to survive: South Africa’s Jacques Kallis retired at 38 after an 18-year career. Perhaps English cricketers have to strain harder to beat anyone. The likely explanation is that the English board, in its money-making zeal, puts players through a more punishing programme. This year’s schedule of five Tests against India in six weeks is just one example. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 23 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double 2014

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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