England's sporting refugee hero: Saido Berahino

The footballer's triumph shows things are different for his generation.

"I'm pinching myself. It's amazing. I couldn't dream of it going that way", said Saido Berahino, the 20 year old footballer, after scoring the winning goal for England on his debut for the under-21 international team last night.

It capped an incredible week straight out of Roy of the Rovers for the young player. Last week, he had scored a hat-trick on his full debut for his club in a three-nil cup tie win against Newport.

Berahino could not hide his delight at scoring for his country, and his journey to wearing the three lions on his chest has been celebrated too.

Just ten years ago, the 10 year old Berahino was a child refugee from Burundi, fleeing a civil war in which his father had been killed, and arriving in Birmingham without a word of English.

The Daily Mail celebrated the ambition and hard-work which saw him seize the opportunities of his new life in England, finding in it cause for some "jumpers for goal-posts" nostalgia about football before the age of the Playstation.

"That is where Berahino learned to play football. Not with a coach, not on a pitch and not even with a pair of boots.  Such was their love for the game, he and his friends would make balls out of plastic bags and tape before starting matches that would go on until night-time".

While Saido Berahino’s is an extraordinary story of sporting talent and potential, it is not a unique story. 

Berahino hopes to one day compete for a place in the full England side along with the other rising stars of English football. Most will have been born and bred in England, though sometimes to parents who came here from abroad. Some, like Manchester United signing Wilfred Zaha also arrived here as a child, fleeing conflict, before making a new life in Britain.

It is a happy coincidence that Berahino plays for West Bromwich Albion FC. The football club could claim to have done as much as any other social institution to change our public conversation about racism and race. The club’s Hawthorns ground borders the Smethwick parliamentary constituency, scene of notorious racist campaigning in the 1964 general election.

In the late 1970s, when black players were still very much the exception and not the everyday norm, the great West Brom team of the era had an enormous impact on local attitudes to race and racism, with enormous local pride in the dazzling contribution of their trio of black players – hailed as the three degrees - to the team, but shock too at the ferocious response their heroes received from rival fans.

Cyrille Regis, the West Brom centre-forward, spoke to England’s young footballers at Wembley last month. He captured just how far we have come on racism in both football and society, as well as the challenges that remain today.

“In ’82 I got my first England cap. I was looking at my fan mail and I’d got a letter in the post. It said: "If you put a foot on the Wembley turf one of these are for you." It was a bullet. A bullet in the post, trying to prevent me from playing for my country", Regis told the next generation. 

“My own fans at West Brom were great, very supportive. My team-mates were great, no problem at all. The opposition fans – Millwall, West Ham, Chelsea, Newcastle – the abuse we got was phenomenal", Regis said.

That type of public racism has been banished from our stadiums – though England players have experienced racist chanting in European competition, at international and club level.

Things are very different for the Berahino generation, thanks to those who broke those barriers down in a previous generation. That the shared national pride of a multi-ethnic team represents the social reality of our diverse country is now taken for granted by most people. 

That helps to explain why it took the life and death drama of his on-pitch heart attack for many people to hear about Fabrice Muamba's remarkable personal journey from Congo to England: his playing in the Premiership for Bolton and captaining the England under-21 side were simply an unremarkable part of the modern game, until that personal drama, where his life was thankfully saved, though his playing career was sadly ended, catapulted him into the headlines.

Young footballers often face unrealistic expectations. FA chairman Greg Dyke’s unlikely prediction this week of an England World Cup victory in the heat of Qatar in 2022 would be stretching the fairytale a little bit far.

Given Saido Berahino’s pride in wearing the three lions, he might be forgiven the most unlikely of footballing dreams.

Saido Berahino. Photograph: Getty Images

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.

GEOGRAPHY PHOTOS/GETTY IMAGES
Show Hide image

Fake news sells because people want it to be true

The rise of bullshit, from George Orwell to Donald Trump.

When is a lie not a lie? Recently, the Daily Telegraph reported that university students had demanded that “philosophers such as Plato and Kant” be “removed from [the] syllabus because they are white”. Other outlets followed suit, wringing their hands over the censoriousness of today’s uninquiring young minds. The article generated an extraordinary amount of consternation click bait. Angry responses were written and hot takes were quick-fried and served up by outlets anxious  to join the dinner rush of  ad-friendly disapproval.

It’s a story that could have been designed to press every outrage button of the political-correctness-gone-mad brigade. It has students trying to ban things, an apparent lack of respect for independent thought and reverse racism. It seemed too good to be true.

And it was. In reality, what happened was far less interesting: the student union of the School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas) at the University of London had proposed that “the majority of philosophers on our courses” be from Asia and Africa, and that the Western greats be approached from a “critical standpoint”. Some might consider this a reasonable request, given that critical analysis is a component of most philosophy courses, and Soas has a long tradition of promoting the study of the global South. Yet a story about students declaring Kant irrelevant allows the Telegraph to despair for the youth of today and permits advertisers to profit from that despair.

People didn’t start pumping out this stuff because they decided to abandon journalistic ethics. They did so because such principles are hugely expensive and a hard sell. Even those of us who create and consume news can forget that the news is a commodity – a commodity with a business model behind it, subsidised by advertising. Rigorous, investigative, nuanced content, the sort that pays attention to objective facts and fosters serious public debate, is expensive to create. Talk, however, is cheap.

Fake news sells because fake news is what people want to be true. Fake news generates clicks because people click on things that they want to believe. Clicks lead to ad revenue, and ad revenue is currently all that is sustaining a media industry in crisis. Journalism is casting about for new funding models as if for handholds on a sheer cliff. This explains a great deal about the position in which we find ourselves as citizens in this toxic public sphere.

What has this got to do with Donald Trump? A great deal. This sticky, addictive spread of fake news has fostered a climate of furious, fact-free reaction.

Press outlets give millions of dollars of free coverage to Trump without him having to send out a single press release. The reality TV star is the small-fingered god of good copy. The stories write themselves. Now, the stories are about the threat to the future of journalism from the man who has just entered the Oval Office.

Trump’s first press conference in six months, held at Trump Tower in New York on 11 January, was – by any measure – extraordinary. He did not merely refuse to answer questions about unverified allegations that he had been “cultivated” by Russia. He lost his temper spectacularly with the assembled press, declaring: “You’re fake news! And you’re fake news!”

Trump did not mean that the journalists were lying. His attitude to the press is straight from the Kremlin’s playbook: rather than refute individual accusations, he attempts to discredit the notion of truth in journalism. The free press is a check on power, and Trump likes his power unchecked.

Writing in the Guardian in 2015, Peter Pomarantsev noted of Putin’s propaganda strategy that “these efforts constitute a kind of linguistic sabotage of the infrastructure of reason: if the very possibility of rational argument is submerged in a fog of uncertainty, there are no grounds for debate – and the public can be expected to decide that there is no point in trying to decide the winner, or even bothering to listen.”

If people lose trust in the media’s capacity to report facts, they begin to rely on what “feels” true, and the influence rests with whomever can capitalise on those feelings. Donald Trump and his team know this. Trump doesn’t tell it like it is. Instead, he tells it like it feels, and that’s far more effective.

Fake news – or “bullshit”, as the American philosopher Harry G Frankfurt termed it in a 2005 essay – has never been weaponised to this extent, but it is nothing new. George Orwell anticipated the trend in the 1930s, looking back on the Spanish Civil War. “The very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world,” he wrote. “Lies will pass into history . . . In Spain, for the first time, I saw newspaper reports which did not bear any relation to the facts, not even the relationship which is implied in an ordinary lie . . . In the past people deliberately lied, or they unconsciously coloured what they wrote, or they struggled after the truth, well knowing that they must make many mistakes; but in each case they believed that ‘facts’ existed and were more or less discoverable.”

This is the real danger of fake news, and it is compounded by a lingering assumption of good faith on the part of those who believe in journalistic principle. After all, it’s impossible to prove that a person intended to deceive, and that they didn’t believe at the time that what they said was true. Trump may believe in whatever “facts” he has decided are convenient that day. When he insists that he never mocked a disabled reporter, whatever video evidence may exist to the contrary, he may believe it. Is it, then, a lie?

Of course it’s a lie. People who have no respect for the concept of truth are still capable of lies. However, they are also capable of bullshit – bullshit being a register that rubbishes the entire notion of objective reality by deeming it irrelevant. The only possible response is to insist, and keep insisting, that the truth still means something.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era