Sole-searching: Theresa May has launched an enquiry into child abuse allegations. Photo: Getty
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A very British “cover-up”, the truth about the Isis crisis and the Tour de France in Essex

Peter Wilby’s First Thoughts column.

Many institutions – the Catholic Church, elite fee-paying schools, the BBC, children’s homes – have covered up instances of sexual abuse among their own. So it is hardly surprising that Westminster and Whitehall are now accused of doing just that. It’s hard to shop people you’ve worked with most of your life and all the more so when you believe, as most priests, schoolteachers, BBC employees, politicians and civil servants do, that they need to maintain collective moral authority.

“Cover-up” isn’t quite the right term. It’s a matter of casually brushing things under the carpet – or more precisely shoving them to the back of the filing cabinet – and trusting to the old British practices of secrecy, discretion, quiet words here and there and believing that chaps who went to the right school wouldn’t do anything truly wicked. That was how Soviet spies such as Philby, Burgess, Maclean and Blunt got away with it and so, it now seems, did child abusers in high positions.

 

No slice for Pie

Nowadays, the mere mention of paedophiles, even if they’re mostly dead, causes everyone to lose their head. As Theresa May announced what the Guardian called “a soul-searching national inquiry” into how public authorities handled child abuse allegations, the Home Office released a report on media claims that it provided direct funding to the Paedophile Information Exchange (Pie) in the 1970s. We learn that its voluntary services unit gave £65,750 over five years to the Albany Trust, a charity for sexual minorities, which reportedly held a series of “meetings” with Pie in 1975 and, in 1970, arranged the translation of a Dutch report on lowering the age of homosexual consent to 16. The same Home Office unit (through another charity, the Princedale Trust) gave £410,000 over ten years to Release, the drug users’ charity, whose address was also used by Pie for correspondence. Incredibly, civil servants spent three months investigating this non-story.

 

Simple twist of caliphate

Sir Richard Dearlove, the ex-head of MI6, now Master of Pembroke College, Cambridge, says that members of Isis are “misguided young men, rather pathetic figures”, who present little threat to Britain.

This is a refreshing change from the credulous consensus that has emerged after Isis leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi claimed he was the new caliph. If you believed most politicians and journalists, you’d think the caliphate was already a done job. In reality, Isis has an awful lot of Shias and rival Sunni factions to win over – or, more likely, behead – before one is established in the Middle East, never mind Europe.

The last widely acknowledged caliphate was the Ottoman empire, where in 1914 the sultan-caliph declared jihad against western imperialism (that is, the British and French) and rumours later spread that the German kaiser had converted to Islam. It didn’t end well. Empire and caliphate collapsed during the war and were succeeded by a determinedly secular Turkish state.

 

Two wheels good

To Epping in Essex to see the Tour de France on its way to the Olympic Park and the Mall in London. A friend observed that it is one of the few great sporting events free to watch. Given that you see the cyclists for no more than about 30 seconds, it would be poor value if it charged. Moreover, long before anyone on a bicycle appears, you endure about 20 minutes of marketing – cars, vans and floats tear past, all blaring horns and throwing free samples – for just about every brand you’ve ever heard of.

Even the police seemed to be in on the act, riding motorbikes in advance of the race, waving as though they were conquering heroes and, in one case, slapping the hands of spectators lining the route.

The Tour de France was never just a cycle race. It started in 1903 as a promotion for a French sports newspaper that, since the paper’s circulation rose from 25,000 to 854,000 in 30 years, probably counts as the most successful sponsorship in history.

 

Call me Peter

Npower, which is reported to have the worst customer relations of any energy company, sent me an “annual summary”, saying that I was more than £1,200 in credit. I rang and asked if I could have the money back. No, I was told, the credit existed only because I hadn’t been sent a bill for six months. The next day, the company emailed me: “Thank you for contacting us . . . We’ll change the name on your account to PETER.” That must be its solution to the customer relations problem: to put us all on Christian-name terms.

Peter Wilby was editor of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005

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 08 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the red-top era?

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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