Why Steven Davies could be the tipping point for gay sportsmen

The England wicketkeeper’s decision could help break down the last taboo in sport.

It shouldn't be news. In 2011, the headline "Sportsman reveals himself to be homosexual" should not provoke oceans of coverage. But it has. The reason for that is simple. Steven Davies, the England wicketkeeper, is only the third professional British sportsman to come out of the closet in the past two decades.

Prior to Davies, the Welsh rugby player Gareth Thomas was the only openly gay top-flight sportsman in the UK. The footballer Justin Fashanu came out in 1990 and suffered nearly a decade of abuse before killing himself in 1998. Since then, no professional footballer has dared to reveal himself to be homosexual. It is the last taboo in sport.

Some might dismiss Davies's decision as easy, due to the genteel nature of the sport he plays. They are wrong. Yes, it is difficult to imagine crowds at the Oval erupting in homophobic chants, but sledging in cricket knows few limits. If someone's marital problems or mental issues are fair game, then it's likely their sexuality is, too.

Going on tour in South Africa and the Indian subcontinent – hardly bastions of tolerance for homosexuality – could also prove challenging. His career would no doubt be easier without the stigma of being the only gay man in the sport, which makes his decision incredibly brave.

But his bravery is not what makes his decision important. Davies's decision could well prove the tipping point for male homosexuality in top-class sport.

The critical thing about his coming out is the fact that he is a young, talented – but not great – player. When Thomas came out he had established himself as one of the best players Wales had ever produced, with 100 caps. (Plus, he was a 6ft 3in, 16-stone lump of muscle and could have happily beaten any homophobe into a hateful pulp.)

Davies, however, is 24 and has yet to establish himself as an England regular. Prior to his announcement, he had, in fact, just been dropped. He was not riding a wave of goodwill from a superb Ashes performance. Nor does he have a century of caps or a sackload of winner's medals to point to in a knee-jerk response to bigots.

Davies is simply a young, promising player with his career ahead of him – yet he felt confident enough to become England's only gay cricketer. If he can do it, then so can any other gay sportsman. He could well have dealt a fatal blow to the last taboo in sport.

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Cambridge Analytica and the digital war in Africa

Across the continent, UK expertise is being deployed online to sway elections and target dissidents.

Cambridge Analytica, the British political consultancy caught up in a huge scandal over its use of Facebook data, has boasted that they ran the successful campaigns of President Uhuru Kenyatta in the 2013 and 2017 Kenyan elections. In a secretly filmed video, Mark Turnbull, a managing director for Cambridge Analytica and sister company SCL Elections, told a Channel 4 News’ undercover investigative reporting team that his firm secretly stage-managed Kenyatta’s hotly contested campaigns.

“We have rebranded the entire party twice, written the manifesto, done research, analysis, messaging. I think we wrote all the speeches and we staged the whole thing – so just about every element of this candidate,” Turnbull said of his firm’s work for Kenyatta’s party.

Cambridge Analytica boasts of manipulating voters’ deepest fears and worries. Last year’s Kenyan election was dogged by vicious online propaganda targeting opposition leader Raila Odinga, with images and films playing on people’s concerns about everything from terrorism to spiralling disease. No-one knows who produced the material. Cambridge Analytica denies involvement with these toxic videos – a claim that is hard to square with the company’s boast that they “staged the whole thing.” 

In any event, Kenyatta came to power in 2013 and won a second and final term last August, defeating Odinga by 1.4 million votes.

The work of this British company is only the tip of the iceberg. Another company, the public relations firm, Bell Pottinger, has apologised for stirring up racial hostility in South Africa on behalf of former President Jacob Zuma’s alleged financiers – the Gupta family. Bell Pottinger has since gone out of business.

Some electoral manipulation has been home grown. During the 2016 South African municipal elections the African National Congress established its own media manipulations operation.

Called the “war room” it was the ANC’s own “black ops” centre. The operation ranged from producing fake posters, apparently on behalf of opposition parties, to establishing 200 fake social media “influencers”. The team launched a news site, The New South African, which claimed to be a “platform for new voices offering a different perspective of South Africa”. The propaganda branded opposition parties as vehicles for the rich and not caring for the poor.

While the ANC denied any involvement, the matter became public when the public relations consultant hired by the party went to court for the non-payment of her bill. Among the court papers was an agreement between the claimant and the ANC general manager, Ignatius Jacobs. According to the email, the war room “will require input from the GM [ANC general manager Jacobs] and Cde Nkadimeng [an ANC linked businessman] on a daily basis. The ANC must appoint a political champion who has access to approval, as this is one of the key objectives of the war room.”

Such home-grown digital dirty wars appear to be the exception, rather than the rule, in the rest of Africa. Most activities are run by foreign firms.

Ethiopia, which is now in a political ferment, has turned to an Israeli software company to attack opponents of the government. A Canadian research group, Citizens Lab, reported that Ethiopian dissidents in the US, UK, and other countries were targeted with emails containing sophisticated commercial spyware posing as Adobe Flash updates and PDF plugins.

Citizens Lab says it identified the spyware as a product known as “PC Surveillance System (PSS)”. This is a described as a “commercial spyware product offered by Cyberbit —  an Israel-based cyber security company— and marketed to intelligence and law enforcement agencies.”

This is not the first time Ethiopia has been accused of turning to foreign companies for its cyber-operations. According to Human Rights Watch, this is at least the third spyware vendor that Ethiopia has used to target dissidents, journalists and activists since 2013.

Much of the early surveillance work was reportedly carried out by the Chinese telecom giant, ZTE. More recently it has turned for more advanced surveillance technology from British, German and Italian companies. “Ethiopia appears to have acquired and used United Kingdom and Germany-based Gamma International’s FinFisher and Italy-based Hacking Team’s Remote Control System,” wrote Human Rights Watch in 2014.

Britain’s international development ministry – DFID – boasts that it not only supports good governance but provides funding to back it up. In 2017 the good governance programme had £20 million at its disposal, with an aim is to “help countries as they carry out political and economic reforms.” Perhaps the government should direct some of this funding to investigate just what British companies are up to in Africa, and the wider developing world.

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. He is the author of Understanding Eritrea and, with Paul Holden, the author of Who Rules South Africa?