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A close reading of Neil Hamilton’s complaint about anti-Brexit kids on the BBC

Did the BBC ask Ukip for a spokeschild? Did they? No, they did not.

First, some background. Neil Hamilton was first elected a Tory MP for Tatton, in Cheshire, in 1983, at the tender age of 34. A mere nine years later, he became a junior minister.

Then things all went a bit wrong, and in October 1994 he resigned in disgrace over the cash for questions affair. Hamilton and his wife Christine spent much of the next two decades doing a series of increasingly bizarre media appearances until, in 2002, some genius at the Paramount Comedy Channel had the bright idea of hiring them to host “Neil & Christine’s Cheech-and-Chong-a-thon”.

These days, though, there do seem to be second acts in political lives, no matter how disgraced you make yourself, and in 2011 Hamilton joined UKIP. In 2016 he was elected to the Welsh Assembly, and swiftly became the party’s leader there. That should give you at least some sense of the sort of person who would file an official Ofcom complaint about the political opinions of a bunch of literal kids.

The complaint follows, with my annotations.

I am writing to complain about the segment on the World at One which involved Wales correspondent Tomos Morgan asking children from Pontybrenin Prime School near Gorseinon about their views on Brexit.

“Tomos”, eh? Not “Thomas”, you notice. “Tomos”. Suspiciously foreign, that. Doesn’t sound English, that’s all I mean. I’m saying nothing.

The segment was completely biased and absurd.

Two adjectives that could of course never be applied to either UKIP or the Hamiltons, shown here opening Erotica Manchester 2004:


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Every child who featured on the programme was anti-Brexit and the segment lacked any form of political balance.

Poor show on the part of the researchers not to provide balance by interviewing any pro-Brexit children. Did they ask UKIP for a spokeschild? Did they? No, they did not.

The interviewer, Tomos Morgan, failed to question any of the patently childish answers given to him.

Given that John Humphrys has stopped bothering to question any of the patently childish answers given to him by actual Brexit ministers, why should we expect Morgan to question the patently childish answers given to him by actual, literal children?

If the BBC’s role is to educate…

I think that’s the school’s role, actually.

…then all this segment did is prove how ridiculous it is to pose high-level political questions to nine year-olds.

Or to Iain Duncan Smith, amIrite? Yeah, I’m here all week, try the veal!

It was a mawkish puff piece, playing on the emotions of the listener in order to support the Remainer narrative that the nasty Brexiteers are stopping our children from being able to play with their friends from abroad.

I’m not sure that’s a “nasty Remainer narrative” so much as “a natural result of revoking our children’s rights to live and work in 27 other European countries”, but there were are.

According to a Brexit survey by TES in 2016, 75% of teachers supported remaining in the EU. Given this fact the dangers of bias and indoctrination in the classroom are high, even if done unconsciously.

A UKIP representative on every school board now! That’ll soon sort out these thought criminals.

There was no mention of these studies in the reporting or any angle of criticism for the proposals.

“So, Simon, why are you upset by Brexit, do you think? Is it because you’ve been brainwashed by your teacher? Is that the reason, Simon? No don’t look at her, just answer the question, Simon. SIMON I AM TALKING TO YOU.”

What is the BBC doing to challenge the Welsh Government’s plans to question children as young as seven about their views on Brexit?

This is just weird. Is Hamilton actually saying the BBC should attack the Welsh government for asking people what they think? I thought Leavers were in favour of asking people what they think? (No, not those people.)

The journalist should have asked Children’s Minister Huw Irranca-Davies about this policy and presented a balance of arguments for him to answer.

Pro tip: journalists love it when disgraced politicians tell them how to do their job.

By asking children questions about Brexit, the BBC is tacitly supporting the policy of the Welsh Government while providing no arguments against it.

It’s weird, because when the policy in question is “Brexit”, Leavers are quite in favour of the BBC providing no arguments against it.

The programme demonstrates an abject failure to support the BBC’s editorial guidelines on due impartiality.

And all for want of a pro-Brexit spokeschild. Poor show, auntie. Poor show.

That’s where the statement ends, as it happens, and I feel a bit deflated. It’s all very well mocking a disgraced former minister for writing an official complaint accusing children of holding childish opinions. But it doesn’t really go anywhere, does it? Once you’ve done, “Haha, look at this weirdo” there’s not really anywhere to take it.

So in lieu of an ending, here’s a picture of the poster for the 2011 pantomime at Kettering’s Lighthouse Theatre.

“Baron Hardup”. After the bankruptcy that must have really hurt.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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Arsène Wenger: The Innovator in Old Age

As the Arsenal manager announces his departure from the club after more than two decades, the New Statesman editor, Jason Cowley, appreciates English football’s first true cosmpolitan. 

How to account for the essence of a football club? The players and managers come and go, of course, and so do the owners. The fans lose interest or grow old and die. Clubs relocate to new grounds. Arsenal did so in the summer of 2006 when they moved from the intimate jewel of a stadium that was Highbury to embrace the soulless corporate gigantism of the Emirates. Clubs can even relocate to a new town or to a different part of a city, as indeed Arsenal also did when they moved from south of the Thames to north London in 1913 (a land-grab that has never been forgiven by their fiercest rivals, Tottenham). Yet something endures through all the change, something akin to the Aristotelian notion of substance.

Before Arsène Wenger arrived in London in late September 1996, Arsenal were one of England’s most traditional clubs: stately, conservative, even staid. Three generations of the Hill-Wood family had occupied the role of chairman. In 1983, an ambitious young London businessman and ardent fan named David Dein invested £290,000 in the club. “It’s dead money,” said Peter Hill-Wood, an Old Etonian who had succeeded his father a year earlier. In 2007, Dein sold his stake in the club to Red & White Holdings, co-owned by the Uzbek-born billionaire Alisher Usmanov, for £75m. Not so dead after all.

In the pre-Wenger years, unfairly or otherwise, the Gunners were known as “lucky Arsenal”, a pejorative nickname that went back to the 1930s. For better or worse, they were associated with a functional style of play. Under George Graham, manager from 1986 to 1995, they were exponents of a muscular, sometimes brutalist, long-ball game and often won important matches 1-0. Through long decades of middling success, Arsenal were respected but never loved, except by their fans, who could be passionless when compared to, say, those of Liverpool or Newcastle, or even the cockneys of West Ham.

Yet Wenger, who was born in October 1949, changed everything at Arsenal. This tall, thin, cerebral, polyglot son of an Alsatian bistro owner, who had an economics degree and was never much of a player in the French leagues, was English football’s first true cosmopolitan.

He was naturally received with suspicion by the British and Irish players he inherited (who called him Le Professeur), the fans (most of whom had never heard of him) and by journalists (who were used to clubbable British managers they could banter with over a drink). Wenger was different. He was reserved and self-contained. He refused to give personal interviews, though he was candid and courteous in press conferences during which he often revealed his sly sense of humour.

He joined from the Japanese J League side, Nagoya Grampus Eight, where he went to coach after seven seasons at Monaco, and was determined to globalise the Gunners. This he did swiftly, recruiting players from all over the world but most notably, in his early years, from France and francophone Africa. I was once told a story of how, not long after joining the club, Wenger instructed his chief scout, Steve Rowley, to watch a particular player. “You’ll need to travel,” Wenger said. “Up north?” “No – to Brazil,” came the reply. A new era had begun.

Wenger was an innovator and disrupter long before such concepts became fashionable. A pioneer in using data analysis to monitor and improve performance, he ended the culture of heavy drinking at Arsenal and introduced dietary controls and a strict fitness regime. He was idealistic but also pragmatic. Retaining Graham’s all-English back five, as well as the hard-running Ray Parlour in midfield, Wenger over several seasons added French flair to the team – Nicolas Anelka (who was bought for £500,000 and sold at a £22m profit after only two seasons), Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira, Robert Pirès. It would be a period of glorious transformation – Arsenal won the Premier League and FA Cup “double” in his first full season and went through the entire 2003-2004 League season unbeaten, the season of the so-called Invincibles.

The second decade of Wenger’s long tenure at Arsenal, during which the club stopped winning titles after moving to the bespoke 60,000-capacity Emirates Stadium, was much more troubled. Beginning with the arrival of the Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich in 2003, the international plutocracy began to take over the Premier League, and clubs such as Chelsea and Manchester City, much richer than Arsenal, spent their way to the top table of the European game. What were once competitive advantages for Wenger – knowledge of other leagues and markets, a worldwide scouting network, sports science – became routine, replicated even, in the lower leagues.

Wenger has spoken of his fear of death and of his desire to lose himself in work, always work. “The only possible moment of happiness is the present,” he told L’Équipe in a 2016 interview. “The past gives you regrets. And the future uncertainties. Man understood this very fast and created religion.” In the same interview – perhaps his most fascinating – Wenger described himself as a facilitator who enables “others to express what they have within them”. He yearns for his teams to play beautifully. “My never-ending struggle in this business is to release what is beautiful in man.”

Arsène Wenger is in the last year of his contract and fans are divided over whether he should stay on. To manage a super-club such as Arsenal for 20 years is remarkable and, even if he chooses to say farewell at the end of the season, it is most unlikely that any one manager will ever again stay so long or achieve so much at such a club – indeed, at any club. We should savour his cool intelligence and subtle humour while we can. Wenger changed football in England. More than a facilitator, he was a pathfinder: he created space for all those foreign coaches who followed him and adopted his methods as the Premier League became the richest and most watched in the world: one of the purest expressions of let it rip, winner-takes-all free-market globalisation, a symbol of deracinated cosmopolitanism, the global game’s truly global league. 

(2017)

Postscript

Arsène Wenger has announced he is stepping down, less than a year after signing a new two-year contract in the summer of 2017. A run to the Europa League finals turned out not to be enough to put off the announcement to the end of the season.

Late-period Wenger was defined by struggle and unrest. And the mood at the Emirates stadium on match day was often sour: fans in open revolt against Wenger, against the club’s absentee American owner Stan Kroenke, against the chief executive Ivan Gazidis, and sometimes even against one another, with clashes between pro and anti-Wenger factions. As Arsenal’s form became ever more erratic, Wenger spoke often of how much he suffered. “There is no possibility not to suffer,” he said in March 2018. “You have to suffer.”

Arsenal once had special values, we were told, and decision-making was informed by the accumulated wisdom of past generations. But the club seems to have lost any coherent sense of purpose or strategic long-term plan, beyond striving to enhance the profitability of the “franchise”.

The younger Wenger excelled at discovering and nurturing outstanding young players, especially in his early seasons in north London. But that was a long time ago. Under his leadership, Arsenal became predictable in their vulnerability and inflexibility, doomed to keep repeating the same mistakes, especially defensive mistakes. They invariably faltered when confronted by the strongest opponents, the Manchester clubs, say, or one of the European super-clubs such as Bayern Munich or Barcelona.

Wenger’s late struggles were a symbol of all that had gone wrong at the club. The vitriol and abuse directed at this proud man was, however, often painful to behold.

How had it come to this? There seems to be something rotten in the culture of Arsenal football club. And Wenger suffered from wilful blindness. He could not see, or stubbornly refused to see, what others could: that he had become a man out of a time who had been surpassed by a new generation of innovators such as Pep Guardiola and Tottenham’s Mauricio Pochettino. “In Arsene we trust”? Not anymore. He had stayed too long. Sometimes the thing you love most ends up killing you.

 

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.