Sol Campbell on the pitch. Photo: Getty
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Did Sol Campbell really miss out on the England captaincy because he was black?

Like Kanye West, Sol Campbell has the habit of making headline-hogging statements that allow us to evade wider and more uncomfortable questions – in this case, about institutional racism in football.

If Kanye West had played professional football, then he might have provided quotes like Sol Campbell. Campbell, who had a distinguished career for various clubs (most notably, Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur) and his country, has contended that “if I was white, I would have been England captain for more than 10 years”. Campbell’s comments, which appear as extracts from his new biography in The Sunday Times, are damning of the Football Association, whom he describes as “institutionally racist”. He elaborates thus: “I think the FA wished I was white. I had the credibility, performance-wise, to be captain . . . I’ve asked myself many times why I wasn’t [captain]. I keep coming up with the same answer. It was the colour of my skin.”

Like Kanye West, Sol Campbell has the habit of making headline-hogging statements that allow us to evade wider and more uncomfortable questions. When Kanye, in an interview with BBC Radio One’s Zane Lowe, railed against racism in the fashion industry, his important point was lost in the familiar Kanye haze of outlandish egotism. Similarly, when Campbell remarked that racism has been and is a problem within football, he stated his case in a manner that has unfortunately made the entire issue far simpler to dismiss.

The thing about making accusations of racism, particularly those against organisations, is that it is very difficult to prove them at the best of times. Unfortunately for Campbell, who was wryly aware of the furore his remarks would attract, the facts as they stand are not strongly in his favour. He played for England for just over ten years, between 1996 and 2007, receiving 73 caps in that time; during that period, he played alongside David Beckham, Alan Shearer, Tony Adams, John Terry and Steven Gerrard, each of whom could at various times have considered themselves worthy of the captaincy. Campbell himself led England three times, more than Wayne Rooney or Frank Lampard, who have been handed the captain's armband twice each. Like Kanye, who imagines himself to be a visionary in the world of fashion, it may be that Campbell overestimates his ability as a leader in his chosen field.

But, but, but. There does still seem to be a persistent problem regarding racism within football; and that is evident from the cacophonous silence from many of Britain’s black footballers at vital moments. Let’s not forget that they felt so dismayed by their union’s handling of the issue that, as recently as October 2012, they were considering the launch of a breakaway organisation to represent their interests. It is unclear whether these preliminary discussions evolved into anything much more substantial but it is instructive that black footballers even thought them necessary. More interesting still is the secrecy in which they were conducted, as if they feared public reprisal if they voiced their grievances too openly. After all, this was 2012; a time when we should presumably be past such conversations, clandestine or otherwise. We have had black England captains; black English footballers are some of our most-loved characters and several of them may prove decisive in this season’s Premier League title race. What’s there to complain about?

Well, quite a lot, if we step back from the spectacle. As was pointed out to me on social media yesterday, it was only a handful of years before Campbell’s arrival as an international player that racism was alleged to be a factor in selection of the England team. As noted by Vivek Chaudhary in “Manager reveals England’s hidden racism”, an article that he wrote for the Guardian in 2004,

Wednesday’s lunch to mark the 10th anniversary of the football anti-racism group Kick It Out was buzzing with speculation about the identity of a former England manager who has alleged that during his tenure he was told by senior FA officials not to pick too many black players. The manager in question, whose identity is known to Digger and has a long history of closely working with some of England’s leading black players over the past 25 years, privately spoke about the incident at the lunch but refused to go public with his allegation. He claims that he was called into an office where two senior FA officials were present and they told him that his England team should be made up of predominantly white footballers. [My italics.]

It’s only a thought, but it’s worth wondering whether the only people who speak out are those who feel that they have nothing left to lose. Football is a very small world and those who consistently speak out of turn will find themselves swiftly excluded. It’s notable that this former England manager still did not feel comfortable, years after leaving his role, to say attach his name publicly to these allegations. Campbell’s claim that the FA is “institutionally racist” is not currently backed by the most compelling of evidence. However, it is a comment that has come at a particularly damaging time, following the FA’s award to Nicolas Anelka of a mere five-match ban for making the quenelle gesture. To quote the definition given in the Macpherson Report in 1999, institutional racism is:

The collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people. [My italics.]

This is where allegations of institutional racism against the FA, and the sport of football in general, may gather some momentum. Many people may think that racism is merely the preserve of hooded men on horseback, but it’s not: it’s also something far more insidious, which is the failure to see people as suitable for positions of authority merely because of the colour of their skin. In some cases, it is a prejudice of which even those making such appointments may be unaware; but, of course, that does not make it any less detrimental to the ethnic-minority candidate in question. On this note, it was just last autumn that the FA faced implications of not only institutional racism but institutional sexism, having appointed a commission to consider the future of English football that consisted entirely of white men. As Heather Rabbatts, the FA’s first female director, objected in a letter to the commission’s chairman Greg Dyke:

By proceeding along this current path we are not only failing to reflect our national game but we are also letting down so many Black and Ethnic Minority people – players, ex-players, coaches and volunteers, who have so much to offer and are so often discouraged and disheartened by the attitudes they encounter. The FA should be leading by example not reinforcing entrenched attitudes. [My italics.]

Rabbatts’ letter, which is worth reading in full, is clearly something that she published as a last resort; which suggests that, for every Sol Campbell vaulting above the barricades in sensationalist fashion, there are very many more black people, very possibly with far more nuanced arguments than him, who are silent for fear of rocking the boat. However, looking at their under-representation in the game’s senior positions, it may well be that the boat could do with some rough seas. It is to be hoped that, lest Campbell be seen as a lone and poorly-substantiated voice of protest, they come forward to tell their stories.

DebateTech
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Politicians: it's no longer OK to know nothing about technology

It’s bad enough to joke about not being "techy"; it's worse to write a piece of legislation from a position of ignorance. 

Earlier this week, facing down a 600-strong battalion of London’s tech sector at a mayoral hustings in Stratford, Zac Goldsmith opened his five minute pitch with his characteristic charm. “I’m not very techy!” he exclaimed. “I understand coding about as well as Swahili!”

Pointless jibe at a foreign language aside, this was an ill-chosen way to begin his address - especially considering that the rest of his speech showed he was reasonably well-briefed on the problems facing the sector, and the solutions (including improving broadband speeds and devolving skills budgets) which could help.

But the offhand reference to his own ignorance, and the implication that it would be seen as attractive by this particular audience, implies that Goldsmith, and other politicians like him, haven’t moved on since the 90s. The comment seemed designed to say: “Oh, I don't know about that - I'll leave it to the geeks like you!"

This is bad enough from a mayoral hopeful.  But on the same day, the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament filed its report on the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill, the legislation drafted by the Home Office which will define how and how far the government and secret services can pry into our digital communications. Throughout, there's the sense that the ISC doesn't think the MPs behind the bill had a firm grasp on the issues at hand. Words like "inconsistent" and "lacking in clarity" pop up again and again. In one section, the authors note:

"While the issues under consideration are undoubtedly complex, we are nevertheless concerned that thus far the Government has missed the opportunity to provide the clarity and assurance which is badly needed."

The report joins criticism from other directions, including those raised by Internet Service Providers last year, that the bill's writers didn't appear to know much about digital communications at all, much less the issues surrounding encryption of personal messages.

One good example: the bill calls for the collection of "internet connection records", the digital equivalent of phone call records, which show the domains visited by internet users but not their content. But it turns out these records don't exist in this form: the bill actually invented both the phrase and the concept. As one provider commented at the time, anyone in favour of their collection "do not understand how the Internet works". 

Politicians have a long and colourful history of taking on topics - even ministerial posts - in fields they know little to nothing about. This, in itself, is a problem. But politicians themselves are often the people extolling importance of technology, especially to the British economy - which makes their own lack of knowledge particularly grating. No politician would feel comfortable admitting a lack of knowledge, on, say, economics. I can’t imagine Goldsmith guffawing "Oh, the deficit?  That's all Greek to me!"  over dinner with Cameron. 

The mayoral candidates on stage at the DebateTech hustings this week were eager to agree that tech is London’s fastest growing industry, but could do little more than bleat the words “tech hub” with fear in their eyes that someone might ask them what exactly that meant. (A notable exception was Green candidate Sian Berry, who has actually worked for a tech start-up.) It was telling that all were particularly keen on improving internet speeds -  probably because this is something they do have day-to-day engagement with. Just don't ask them how to go about doing it.

The existence of organisations like Tech London Advocates, the industry group which co-organised the hustings, is important, and can go some way towards educating the future mayor on the issues the industry faces. But the technology and information sectors have been responsible for 30 per cent of job growth in the capital since 2009 - we can't afford to have a mayor who blanches at the mention of code. 

If we’re to believe the politicians themselves, with all their talk of coding camps and skills incubators and teaching the elderly to email, we need a political sphere where boasting that you're not "techy" isn’t cool or funny - it’s just kind of embarrassing. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.