Daily Telegraph

Arsène Wenger – clearly the worst football manager ever

For my sins I’m a bit of an Arsenal fan. Like the glutton for punishment I am, I also happen to be a Guardian reader (probably no surprise to anyone who’s read my increasingly infrequent pinko leftie-liberal ranting on these very pages). These days it’s becoming increasingly difficult to happily combine the two.

I don’t care what any fusty old git says about the Telegraph having the best sports coverage, to my mind the dear old ‘Graun’ wins it by a country mile. Football writers like David Lacey & Kevin McCarra, alongside broader sportswriters like Paul Hayward and Richard Williams, are – if you’ll pardon the rather awkward pun – leagues ahead of the competition in terms of quality, if not readership.

Nevertheless, the (admittedly Manchester-leaning) Guardian seem to have developed an unhealthy obsession with the fortunes of Arsenal Football Club. In fact, scanning the rest of the media, the annual end-of-season implosion of North London’s finest seems to be something of a cause célèbre for everyone else too. Arsène Wenger is variously derided as stubborn, deluded, myopic, deranged, overly prone to whingeing, not to mention tactically inept and – let’s not forget – just bloody well foreign.

An undue amount of attention seems to be given to Arsenal’s sixth season without silverware (although there never seems to be any mention of Liverpool’s trophy cabinet gathering dust for the same period) without anyone pausing to consider perhaps what a fantastic job Wenger has been doing these last few financially-constrained seasons.

During a brief chink of light during an otherwise unrelenting hatchet job on the Arsenal manager, The Independent’s Mark Fleming points out that:

Since The Invincibles season of 2004, Wenger is actually in profit concerning transfer dealings with £10.8m in the bank, thanks mostly to selling Emmanuel Adebayor and Kolo Touré to Manchester City, while at the same time recruiting players such as Andrei Arshavin (£15m), Samir Nasri (£15.8m), Theo Walcott (£9m) and Thomas Vermaelen (£10m). Such frugality is remarkable, given the net spending of his rivals – Manchester City who have spent £435m since 2004; Chelsea £397m; Tottenham Hotspur £239m; Liverpool £142m; and Manchester United £108m, despite selling Cristiano Ronaldo for £80m.

Wenger’s shrewd management of Arsenal has seen the club finish in the top four of the Premier League for every one of his fourteen seasons in charge while becoming by far the most financially stable club of those that regularly contest the honours. This has been achieved without the backing of rich benefactors, or indeed (as in the case of Manchester United) the scandalous laying of debt onto the future of the club. Oh, and Arsenal still manage to play by far the most entertaining (if frequently infuriating) brand of football in the English League.

Yes, they were found wanting in the closing stages of the season and yes, almost any Arsenal fan would be able to point to areas of the team which could do with strengthening, but it really is time that someone recognised the quite remarkable job Arsène Wenger has done with such limited means. Instead it seems that otherwise respectable organs like The Guardian draw lots among their sports writers to find out who gets the privilege of putting together the daily character assassination of the Arsenal manager (witness these eight pieces in the last week alone). Meanwhile the free-spending scattergun-in-the-transfer-market Harry Redknapp (one FA Cup win in his managerial career) is portrayed as some cheery national treasure, poised to lead the limited players of the England national squad out of the wilderness the moment his country comes calling.

Perhaps I’ve got it all wrong. Perhaps Arsène Wenger really is the worst football manager ever. Even so, Arsenal would be mad to swap him for anyone else.

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The Wisdom of George

Steve Richards of The Independent tweets that we should not be surprised if George Osborne performs a u-turn over the controversial Child Benefit cut for high earners announced at the Tory Party Conference this week. The point Richards makes is that, while in Opposition, Cameron and Osborne quite frequently ‘flip-flopped’, to use the dreadful American parlance, at the first sign of serious media scrutiny of policy. “They are weak” he writes and, for all the tough rhetoric on tackling the deficit, there is more than a grain of truth to the remark.

My sense from the outside is that Osborne will probably stick by the announcement on child benefit, in spite of the rage from certain sections of the press, and try to paper over the cracks by making the sort of vacuous, moralising intervention on marriage that has already been indicated. I may not know a great deal about Osborne’s mindset but experience demonstrates that, given a range of options, instinct normally leads him towards the wrong one.

Perhaps the middle class outrage at the (frankly quite messy) changes to Child Benefit is the start of something faintly encouraging. I don’t mean in the sense that Women’s Institutes the length and breadth of Britain will start to become more politically engaged, but that – finally – there is a flicker of scrutiny of Tory policy from the party’s friends in the right-wing press. This is unlikely to unleash a full-scale examination of the darkness at the heart of the Conservative world view – the Mail, Telegraph and Murdoch propaganda sheets know where their bread is buttered – but the press may yet find it hard to supress their natural instinct to hunt down an individual when they scent weakness. Osborne may have some difficult months ahead of him.

It’s hard to see how Osborne can find himself in a position to pull any rabbits out of the hat. The economic situation is bleak and by any measure he was a strange choice for Chancellor given the options available to David Cameron when the Coalition was formed. Both Vince Cable and Kenneth Clarke were clearly better qualified for the job and there can be little doubt that Osborne holds his position (arguably the first ‘proper’ job of his life) purely as a result of the personal loyalty of the Prime Minister. Such loyalty is worth a great deal of course, as the continual, bewildering survival of Andy Coulson demonstrates, but is it really doing anyone any favours?

The coming months will test the Coalition to breaking point. The government will inevitably become increasingly unpopular as the cuts start to bite, and much pressure will fall on the Liberal Democrat involvement, depending on next year’s elections and the outcome of the AV Referendum. Crucial at such times is the work and vision of the Treasury, as the fulcrum of the business of government. The biggest worry for the Coalition must be that so much therefore depends on the wisdom – or otherwise – of George Osborne.

The BBC, Murdoch and the Tories

Jeremy Hunt’s recent statement on the BBC Licence Fee represents the coalition government’s opening salvo in what threatens to be a highly unedifying assault on the Corporation. In all probability (in spite of all the government’s noises, backed up by their cheerleaders in the right-wing press) this will have very little to do with fairness, funding or the quality of programming. It represents the first time in thirteen years that the favourite sport of ‘Beeb-bashing’ is spiced up with the addition of sharp teeth to Tory prejudice in the form of ministerial office.

Hunt said, in an interview with the Daily Telegraph, that:

“there is a moment when elected politicians have an opportunity to influence the BBC and it happens every five years. It is when the licence fee is renewed.

“That will be happening next year. That will be the moment when I use my electoral mandate [sic] to say to the BBC now, going forward for the next five years, these are what we think your priorities need to be and there are huge numbers of things that need to be changed at the BBC. They need to demonstrate the very constrained financial situation we are now in.”

There will, of course, be a strong argument for tackling executive pay (although the Tories don’t seem quite so keen to deal with this issue in too many other sectors) but any cuts forced on the BBC will almost inevitably have the effect of impacting on output. Love or loathe the Licence Fee, the Corporation produces some of the very best programming in the world of television and radio, has one of the best web resources available, and produces arguably the most trusted news output in the world. The BBC is also one of the world’s top brand names and does not make a loss.

Of course, the real driver behind the government’s assault on the BBC is the Tory Party’s perceived dependence on the Murdoch Press. Like Tony Blair before him, David Cameron was keen to court the approval of Murdoch’s Sun newspaper prior to this year’s General Election and it’s hard to reach any other conclusion than that the debt is now being called in. James Murdoch (Rupert’s representative on Earth) has been complaining for some time about what he sees as the anti-competitive effect the BBC has on the media marketplace, and particularly on the web. This last aspect is especially of concern to an organisation which has just placed The Times’ online content behind a paywall in an attempt to forge a new income stream to replace the diminishing returns of the ‘Dead Tree’ press.

The Licence Fee is the easy stick with which to beat the BBC, but it is also the mechanism which enables the Corporation to maintain the quality it does while also catering for unfashionable areas (such as culture) which commercial broadcasters won’t touch with a bargepole. Murdoch dreams of a world in which Fox News (Fair and Balanced™) is the model for how news is provided in every country in the western world, but as long as the BBC produce an alternative which is trusted by many more than depend on commercial alternatives, domination of the British media market will have to wait.

All of this chimes with a Tory Party which instinctively wants to fillet a BBC which they see as a hotbed of subversion and anti-establishment intrigue. Once again it falls to the Liberal Democrats within the coalition government to curb the mouth-foaming excesses of its senior partner. Let’s hope they can summon the strength and the will to protect, what I believe, is an organisation Licence Fee payers should be rightly proud of.

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The Torygraph: a rant

It seems the Daily Telegraph’s Expenses File is the gift that just keeps on giving. If there’s muck to be raked, that broadsheet bastion of Middle England is the one to do it. Hot on the heels of David Laws’ regrettable but unavoidable departure from the Treasury, the Telegraph has now turned its attention to his replacement, Lib Dem Danny Alexander.

As others have pointed out (notably Anton Vowl on his ‘Enemies of Reason’ blog and Mark Pack at Liberal Democrat Voice) the Alexander accusations are actually a complete non-story. They boil down to the new Chief Secretary to the Treasury not paying tax which wasn’t even due. (I guess the Telegraph, grieving that it doesn’t have the unfettered majority Tory government it wanted, is working on the principle that if you sling enough mud a certain proportion of it is going to stick.)

But amid this piety about financial probity do we get a word about George Osborne’s less than pure expenses file? Or David Cameron’s naked grasping over his Oxfordshire pile? Or even the tax status of the Barclay Brothers, reclusive owners of the Telegraph? Of course not, because the Telegraph is, if nothing else, the go-to-paper of the grasping, venal tax avoider, while effortlessly accommodating the excruciating pub bore who rants about what Brown did to his pension, or the great gold reserve give-away, or how the country has gone to the dogs at the hands of a bunch of left-wing homosexuals hell-bent on handing our national identity over to Johnny Bloody Foreigner.

The Telegraph’s bottom line is that we should all damn well know our place. It paints a rose-tinted vision of a glorious British past (most likely the 1950s) where Tories ran the country free of any scrutiny from the media, and the rest of us were grateful that our masters had learned what to do on the playing fields of Eton or Harrow. (These days you can add St Paul’s School to the equation, but probably not Westminster – bloody Lib Dems!)

The Telegraph used to be fun (for all the wrong reasons, of course). In between laughing at the musty old selection of mouth-foaming columnists, or the po-faced irony-free zone of the leading article, there was always amusement to be gleaned from the ‘Telegraph Letters Page Game’. Rifle through the outraged missives from the Torygraph’s ageing readership and award yourself points for finding the following: retired military officer, comedy double-barrelled surname, Peer of the Realm – find the full set and pour yourself a brain-numbingly large Tanqueray and Tonic.

Many of the Telegraph’s readership are at least self-aware enough to realise that they ought to be embarrassed about the fact – these are the crusty old (and in some cases worryingly young) farts who claim they only buy it for the crossword or the sport pages. Well, the crossword is an insult to the intelligence, and in any case the Guardian’s sport coverage is a country mile better than the rugby-porn extravaganza of the stuffy, dull old Nazigraph’s doggedly broadsheet pages.

Is it a good thing that this most unrepresentative organ should pick and choose the make-up of the government? Aided and abetted by the other poisonous rags that make up the right-wing press, they pour bile over those elected to run the country and play kingmakers to the Tory Party, itself hardly an organisation known for having its finger on the nation’s pulse. Their interventions are accountable to no one and they offer nothing of any benefit to wider society, yet still they have disproportionate power to wield. And which politician will dare say so publicly, when they don’t know the thickness of the Telegraph’s file on them?

With the demise of the ‘Dead Tree’ press only just around the corner, the Torygraph seems to be having one final flourish of ordure-heaping on the democratic processes of this country. I suspect that they are no more comfortable with the Coalition than I am, although for entirely different reasons. Perhaps in the end they will choke on the excrement they continually expel into the public domain – but I doubt that life’s ever that fair.

The courage to change

Many things are uncertain over the coming days. Will there be a hung parliament? Will Labour finish third? Will Cameron pull it off at the last? Are the Liberal Democrats on the brink of a role in government? How would a coalition government look? How would electoral reform change the way our political process takes place? These are all good questions about the coming ‘change’, and I am in the uncomfortable position of having the answers to none of them.

That’s the thing about change generally – deep down most of us don’t really like it. We’re suspicious of it, we tend to wonder why things can’t stay as they are and, if change is forced upon us, we worry about how we will be affected by the new way of doing things.

Even the most casual observer will have noticed that ‘change’ has been the most over-used word of the 2010 General Election (the candidates’ homage to the 2008 Obama campaign) but each of the three main parties have a very different view of what that word means.

The Tories seem to think it simply means a change back to their way of doing things. They view the period since 1997 as an aberration, an electoral mistake that ushered in an era of ‘political correctness’, ‘elf ‘n’ safety’ and ‘feminazism’. Not for them the touchy-feely, faux-empathy of the Blair sofa government years – people must be governed, not related to.

But, as far as the Tories are concerned, by far the worst thing about the last thirteen years is that they haven’t been in charge. The sole purpose of the 2010 Tory campaign is, in their eyes, to put that right. This is the arrogance born of their long eighteen year stint in charge under Thatcher and Major, and the programme for government they offer this time appears little more than a reheating of their 1980s persona but with a slightly less shrill tone. We have the über-vacuous “Big Society” (essentially “rolling back the state” and hoping the slack is picked up by volunteers); the ageless Tory passion for shifting the emphasis of taxation away from the wealthy and (through indirect means, such as an inevitable hike in VAT) back onto the less well-off; a thinly hidden agenda of dismantling public services; moralising, meaningless and prescriptive nonsense about marriage.

Simply turning the clock back doesn’t look much like change from where I’m standing.

Of course the reform the Conservatives will have absolutely no truck with is a move to a fair voting system. Liberal Democrats have long believed in an electoral system where everyone’s vote counts, as opposed to the current medieval system where the votes of only a few thousand electors in marginal constituencies decide who governs us. Funnily enough, the Tories – as beneficiaries of the system – see no need to interfere with the current arrangements. They dishonestly peddle the argument that with first-past-the-post you can “throw a government out” while ignoring the obvious point that making everyone’s vote count would do more than anything else to engage people in the political life of the country. Perhaps David Cameron’s attitude to renewal is best summed up in this week’s (superb) Observer editorial: “He defines change in politics as the old system preserved – but run by the Tories”.

Labour’s claims of renewal are left sounding all the more hollow after thirteen years of failure and missed opportunity. To be fair to Labour, there is much that they can be proud of (the minimum wage, for example) but their 2010 campaign seemingly consists of pointing to the things they did well and scaremongering about any change to their way of doing things. Their death bed conversion to partial electoral reform only serves to highlight their failure to fulfill their 1997 promise (which I voted for at the time) to hold a referendum on proportional representation. Instead their term of government has been stained with authoritarianism (ID cards, detention without trial) and illegal foreign wars. To try to claim now that their’s really is a progressive philosophy is frankly laughable.

The only real change on offer in this election comes from the Liberal Democrats. The theme that runs through everything is fairness – a fairer tax system, a fresh look at education, a genuine commitment to the environment, a Freedom Bill to restore and protect civil liberties, an honest dialogue about immigration (as opposed to the hysterical dogwhistling of Labour and the Tories) and proper, meaningful reform of the political system.

Predictably the Tory press have waded in to this wide-open election with unprecedented levels of bile being heaped on Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrats and any notion of a hung parliament. The Sun, the Daily Mail, The Telegraph et al may have had their say, but there are signs too that they have had their day. Murdoch, in particular, knows that if the Tories don’t get in then he and his media empire will be cast adrift for the first time in a generation – another change worth voting for.

The truth is that the crisis at the heart of the government and the financial system is such that we need people to work together to put it right. Labour and the Conservatives have each taken turns to run the economy over the last sixty-five years, and this is where it’s led us. The old ways haven’t worked – it’s time for a fresh look, a new approach.

It takes courage to change, but change is what this country needs. We need to take a bold step towards real change at the ballot box this Thursday. The Tories can’t offer anything other than a return to an even older way of doing things than that offered by an exhausted Labour Party. There’s only one way to make a real difference this week: vote Liberal Democrat.

The Second Leaders’ Debate

Last night Bristol hosted the second televised Leaders’ Debate of the 2010 General Election. The event was staged by Rupert Murdoch’s Sky News but, unlike ITV, NewsCorp did allow the live footage to be streamed to the BBC News Channel. However, interest seems to have dipped as early indications suggest that combined viewing figures were in the region of 4 million (compared with figures of 9.9 million for the previous week).

Indeed, there did seem to be less of an edge to last night’s event, as if the novelty of seeing our party leaders debating on television had already worn off. Perhaps there will be a raising of expectations for the third, and final, debate on the BBC next week as the choices become starker and the stakes become higher.

Clegg maintained the standard he set in the first debate at Manchester. Considering the tone of yesterday’s media coverage (in particular the Telegraph, Sun and Mail) and the weight that the level of Tory press smearing must have put on his shoulders, he showed real strength to top all but one of the post debate polls. I can only imagine the pressure that must have been on Clegg to perform to the same level as last time, but perform he did. He stuck to the same tactic of directly addressing the viewing public, seemed relaxed, and his answers were clear and to the point. Perhaps his main triumph was to look more human than Brown and less condescending than Cameron.

Both Brown and Cameron tried to play the “look at those two” card that Clegg carried off so well the previous week, but when they did it it looked like a focus-grouped tactic that each had suddenly remembered to deploy. Clegg does it naturally because the Lib Dems truly are the outsiders in Westminster politics.

Cameron certainly improved on the workmanlike performance he put in in Manchester, but Tory talk in the run-up to the debate of him “pulling a rabbit out of the hat” still looked wildly optimistic. Of course, the Tory press (still in denial over its total lack of influence over this election) has tried to spin their man to victory in the morning papers but the truth is that Cameron is still having nowhere near the impact on the campaign that had been predicted by just about everybody. Perhaps, in the heat of the campaign, people have started to see through the personality cult and the Blairesque spin. Indeed this is backed up by ICM’s poll straight after the debate which found that 47% believed Cameron was more spin than substance compared to 28% for Brown and just 19% for Clegg. The Tory leader has one last televised debate to find that rabbit.

Considering he is still – for two more weeks at least – the Prime Minister, it’s surprising just how quickly Gordon Brown has become the forgotten man of the debates. You could argue this works in his favour as he likes to paint himself as a man who simply gets on with the real job, a man who has no time for the flashy superficiality of Cameron, but in truth the Brown Premiership is dying a slow death before our eyes. Here he was plodding and over-technical, and his occasional attempts at humour looked desperately over-rehearsed. Perhaps the most damning thing I could say about any Prime Minister is that I feel sorry for him, but this is indeed the case now for Brown.

Adam Boulton was perhaps the biggest disappointment of the night. Right from the start he appeared to be more nervous than any of the party leaders, and he did seem to develop a knack of talking over all three for no apparent reason. Nevertheless, I have come to appreciate the ‘silent audience’ rule which governs the debate. I think it would be unedifying in the extreme to have the leaders heckled by party stooges. At least this way we are free to make up our own minds.

And so we look to the Midlands for next week’s BBC debate. Clegg will look to maintain his level of performance whereas Cameron has a final chance to put in the performance everyone has expected. Brown, it seems, will simply be glad it’s all over.

Leave the BBC alone

In my (occasionally humble) opinion the BBC is one of the very best things about living on this island. The news coverage is second to none; radio, documentary, drama and comedy output is far superior to the British commercial networks; the website is just about the best there is, and you only have to suffer five minutes of Clive Tyldesley’s infuriating, moronic football commentary (“remember that night in Barcelona”) to know that the quality of sports coverage on the BBC is unrivalled, even if the other networks wield a greater budget.

You wouldn’t think that, of course, if you had endured regular exposure to the right-wing press over the past few decades. In the world of Murdoch, the Telegraph and the Daily Mail, the BBC is nothing short of a subversive plot to overturn everything that is decent and traditional in Britain; it’s a hotbed for raving left-wing homosexuals who spend their every waking hour plotting to giftwrap our freedom and identity and hand it all over to those sinister imperialists on mainland Europe and the international Islamic conspiracy.

The BBC is constantly under assault from these quarters and there seems to be an eternal stream of spineless politicians who are more than happy to play along. There are never-ending accusations of bias against the BBC, ludicrously from all sides of the political spectrum. Culture Secretary Ben Bradshaw recently accused the BBC of “feeble” coverage of planned Tory spending cuts only to be ticked off by Jeremy Hunt, his Conservative Shadow, for “interfering in the BBC’s day-to-day political coverage”. Hunt, of course, had conveniently forgotten his own call a few weeks earlier for the Corporation to recruit more Tories to their news-gathering team, but who said you had to be fair when sticking the boot into the BBC? The truth is that the BBC is soft on everyone these days for the simple reason that, as an institution, it is terrified.

Murdoch has been circling for some time now, and he has a willing accomplice in David Cameron, a man who gives the impression of being so desperate for a favourable mention in The Sun’s ‘Page Three Briefs’ that he is more than happy to oversee the carving up of the BBC into bitesized chunks. (Anything to help his fairweather friend have his wicked way with Britain’s media.) You get the impression that the BBC don’t want to give the – essentially empty – Tory project a hard time because they fear what may be on the way.

Of course, the BBC isn’t perfect. It’s had its difficulties (Ross/Brand, Gilligan etc) and it’s a struggle to justify the continued existence of BBC Three, but do I think the licence fee represents value for money? You bet I do. Compare the expense of Murdoch’s Sky (which still comes with adverts, yet demonstrates no gain in quality in spite of all the extra revenue) to the TV licence and there’s only one winner.

The BBC is easily Britain’s strongest overseas ‘brand’, a name known and trusted all over the world, yet we are constantly taught by the press barons that we should hold it in contempt. So switch the BBC off for a week and see how you get on. Enjoy Murdoch’s “fair and balanced” FOX News or the rather sneakier Sky News, revel in the sporting insight of Tyldesley and Beglin, or maybe you’d enjoy an afternoon diet of adverts for consolidation loans and ambulance chasers. After seven days of such mediocrity it might become a touch clearer that perhaps the BBC isn’t so bad after all.