Shocking – Syria and the Dehumanisation of Misery?

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Aleppo, November 2014, Credit: Getty Images, Baraa Al Halabi

Did the picture of Omran Daqneesh shock you? Upset you?  The images and story of “The boy in the ambulance” surely pushed buttons in most of us, highlighting graphically the desperate siege of Aleppo and its residents, screaming “look at this, you must look at this”  in an anaesthetised or uncaring world.

But here’s a thing: Would all the people (including me) who are upset by this photo give a thought about his life/welfare/education/family/prospects if he hadn’t just been pulled out of a pile of rubble?

That’s the view from some of those who know much more about all this have been critical. “Self-serving weepy obsession,” to paraphrase one comment from a close friend who has spent the summer volunteering in a refugee camp. Tough words, but quite apart from editors and readers not really caring, can a child really give consent for their photo to be used like this?  Is it right to use photos of traumatised bodies for shock value? Isn’t it just dehumanising? Children,  like Phan Thi Kim Phuc,  photographed in similar situations have said they have never been able to escape the legacy of the published images

But there is a larger point here too, ironically illustrated by  the juxtaposition  of two  editorials  in Friday’s Guardian – one on  Omran  Daqneesh  as  a  wake-up  call  on Aleppo,  and the other  on race equality in the UK.

I share the view – put forward by my friend (who happens to be white) – that victimisation and dehumanisation is a problem area for our media. It’s not just that there are rarely stories of middle eastern children who aren’t living in a refugee camp or covered in blood – it is more that such a lop-sided view is dehumanising and arguably teaches us to see black and middle eastern people only as either victims or perpetrators, never as full human beings – as bodies first and people second.

This is close, in my view, to some views on black deaths in police custody. It is not difficult to see why the Black Lives Matter campaign has such a strong resonance in the UK and why race quality is rightly rising up the political agenda.

My Calais correspondent argues that the photos of Omran Daqneesh show how as a middle-eastern person, he has less of a right to privacy and to consent than a white child would.  That he’s presented as a symbol, not a human being. That using traumatised and injured people for shock value is dehumanising and creates the troubling narrative described above.

I understand but think there’s another view: newspapers should be slow to sanitise the horrors of war. There is a duty to hold a mirror up to the world for their readers. And the strangulation of Aleppo and its people still hasn’t attracted the attention it should or needs. Public interest trumps consent on this one I think. It is not good that it takes bloodied kids being pulled out of rubble to get enough focus, but sadly not surprising.

I agree about the (sometimes unintended) presumption of victimhood and the consequences of that – but how else, in reality, to report Aleppo right now? Not at all would probably be the dominant view. I also disagree that there is an absolute right to consent.

Sometimes, the circumstances make consent impossible. Sometimes there is no realistic right to privacy – including when there is an overwhelming public interest.

Shock tactics have always played a role for in political debate. Facts and policy arguments may engage your mind and change what you think.  But images are more likely to change how you feel.  And for better or worse, how you feel is more likely than what you think to make you act.

This article also appears in The Huffington Post. An appeal to aid Aleppo is here. You can support humanitarian work at the Calais Refugee Camp here

 

Points of View: Me and St George

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(Lyme Regis 2016, credit: Richard Bridges)

 This photo caught my eye. “So crowded” was my first thought. I looked again. Felt uneasy. Felt guilty. Felt confused.

It’s not hard to work out why. This is reality not an air-brushed brochure. The beach isn’t pristine, the clothes are not haut-couture and the bodies aren’t air-brushed.

But the chaotically packed sand, the brawny sleeveless t-shirted chap in the foreground (“big bloke in wife-beater shirt” said one commentator), the fluttering cross of St George. Martin Parr, welcome to Britain 2016.

But let’s not jump to conclusions too quickly. You can try to play “Where’s Wally” by looking for a can of Stella somewhere, but I think your time would be better spent.

Take the man in the foreground – and I am sorry Sir, but I do not know you or who you are. But actually, he is helping his small son – almost out of shot, dressed in an Arsenal kit (not a fashion crime, as far as I am aware. Unless you’re a Spurs fan).

And try as you might, I couldn’t find a can of Stella, or a knotted hankie. But I do see people reading books and newspapers and actually not doing any harm to anyone.

I know some people get very uncomfortable about these sorts of images – just as many did about Parr’s seminal work “The Last Resort”. There is nervous well-to-do middle class laughter about peole we presume are less well off, less cultured, less confident or adventurous than us. And then some guilt because we might be responsible. But I think it is wrong – indeed patronising – to generalise in this way.

No, my unease about this photo comes from two places. First, I can see no non-white faces. Ok, this may be indicative of my urban multiculturalism, but the lack of diversity is really striking. Discombobulating almost.

And then there is that flag. Oh how things have changed in the last month with that flag. When I was a kid, the Cross of St George meant trouble.  It had been colonised, taken over paraded by the far right of the day. Then came less worried times. The people as a whole made a determined effort to repossess the flag for everyone.  We collectively rejected a national symbol being the private property of an abusive small minority – or maybe in times of prosperity, such things become less important.

But now? Now I am not sure.  Post –Brexit  don’t we feel ill-at-ease?  My foreign-born friends are (mostly) palpably worried, anxious, and careful. Racists and xenophobes seem emboldened even though I am sure most people who voted “out” would absolutely reject such intolerance. How do we react to icons that have become tarnished in this way? How can we live with them as we did before? How do we stop ourselves possibly over-reacting and placing our own fears and presumptions at the doors of innocent others?

Questions, questions. I do think  Martin Parr would have been happy  to  have taken that photo, and  to feel  a link with  the Thatcherite  backdrop of  “The last resort”. There is no doubt we live in challenging times. But rather like that Guardian “Points of View” advertisement, we need to be sure we see all angles before jumping to conclusions.

This piece also appears in the Huffington Post

Clutching at Straws?

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Photocredit: Getty images
Close your eyes and it could well have been Ed Miliband talking on the steps of 10 Downing Street this Wednesday. Apart from the voice, of course. Prime Minister May’s message was decidedly centrist. Given her consistently  right-wing voting record,  was this  just a gimmick, designed to deceive?

I think I’m entitled to be sceptical. But perhaps, just perhaps, we should wait and see. And no – I haven’t gone soft. Here’s why:

Theresa May has possibly read the runes and realises that many centrist votes are simply there for the taking. There seems to be a trend across the last two General Elections  of Labour failing to win back votes lost to the Tories.  Perhaps May is positioning the party to permanently colonise this section of the electorate.

After all, it is not unreasonable to surmise that whatever the outcome of the current internal Labour debates,  there is a realistic prospect of centrist voters looking for a new home.

And May would not be the first politician to embrace Machiavelli’s maxim that what you need to do to get power is different to what you need to do to keep it.

Machiavellian is one apt description for her boldness in cabinet appointments. Who didn’t have an instinctively good reaction  to the fates  of Osborne, Whittingdale, Morgan and Gove? The debate is still, of course, out on our new Foreign Secretary.  Perhaps having created a huge mess, it is only right he is given an opportunity to clear it up.

Policy-wise, Brexit must inevitably dominate the post-referendum period, but there are surely worse people  to have in charge than the pro-human rights  David Davis. I worry at the loss of focus on climate change,  but see potential positives with the emphasis on industrial strategy.

Let us be clear, though, that when Theresa May says “We will do everything we can to give you more control over your lives” that can mean massive deregulation and privatization as easily as a supportive and empowering state.

Unfortunately we on the left have to face some uncomfortable  truths – the first  comprehensively educated Education Secretary  is a Conservative. Indeed more of the cabinet went to state schools than any government since  1945.  Both female prime ministers have been Conservative. Why have these achievements not been ours?

So maybe there is the basis for just some, little, super-ultra-cautious optimism. But at the heart of Mrs May’s approach is a contradiction.

You can’t be a One-Nation Prime Minister with Two-Nation economic policies. You can’t be  progressive on social policy  without  the  economic policies to  turn  pledges into  reality. Chris Dillow’s article expands well on this point, and highlights the space this leaves for those on the left (and right).

This week has shown once again that   the Conservative Party is the master above all of keeping power. That has to be admired, and not just because of the travails of the opposition. Another Tory maxim is governing for the few and not the many. If Mrs May is serious about breaking that one, she will have to show more substance than seduction.

Did Legal Loop-hole Win it for Leave?

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The “Vote Leave” battle-bus, Photo credit PAUL ELLIS/AFP/Getty Images

The Brexit pledge of more money for the NHS was a key argument in the EU referendum. Indeed, it could well have been the deciding factor in a narrow win following a bruising campaign.

The £350m per week in question was blasted on the side of the Leave battlebus, and cited by Brexiters-in-chief remorselessly. Highly controversial but seemingly widely believed, it has now been thoroughly disowned and all traces purged from the campaign website.

Spin – arguably bending truth up to but not beyond breaking point – has always been part of the process.  And “over-spinning” can often be justified on the basis that it is just someone’s opinion, rather than a clear statement of fact (a crucial distinction, as every newspaper journalist knows well). But how could something so unsupported have been allowed to surface in the first place?

You see, large parts of the Representation of the People Act (RPA) were incorporated into the regulations governing the Euro-referendum, as a clear set of rules to ensure everyone behaved themselves.

Large parts but not, apparently, the bit that says you can’t bend the truth beyond breaking point: Section 106  in particular makes it an offence to publish a statement about a rival candidate that you know to be false.

It was this clause – or rather the failure to abide by it – that ended the parliamentary career of the MP for Oldham, and former minister for immigration,  Phil Woolas.  In the 2010 General election,  he narrowly defeated his Lib-Dem  rival  Elwyn Watkins. In doing so  had made some specific statements about him  that were subsequently shown to be in breach of the Act.  The election was declared invalid, Woolas was barred from being a candidate for three years, and Debbie Abrahams won the rerun contest for Labour with a comfortable majority.

So despite the cross-referencing of these two pieces of legislation, why did unedifying untruths still unfold?

To my lay-person’s eye, there seems to me to be one obvious reason – Section 106 refers to candidates, not campaigns.  And I  can hear the argument that  a campaign,  especially  such  a broad  one  as  Leave (or Remain),  cannot realistically be expected to adhere to the same standards  as one individual candidate.

But such arguments surely misunderstand the issue.  The whole point is that elections must be fair and seen to be fair.  That fairness is vital because if the result of a poll is not credible,   the consequences of that in terms of social unrest, economic uncertainly, and political instability can be very great indeed.  As we are seeing in this extra-ordinary post-referendum period.

Therefore, from the perspective of practicality as well as ethics,   the same standards must apply to referenda as to all other elections covered by the RPA.

“But hang on,” my hypothetical critics retort -” who speaks for a campaign?”  Why  should leading figures  be trapped  by  what some low-level  barrack-room  loudmouth  may sound off about?  Campaigns are just too big to be held to the same standards.

This seems a thin argument:  Parliamentary candidates also have significant teams of support staff working on their campaigns. This is recognised by the Act.  And in any event Leave and Remain were officially endorsed groups.  There is a clear chain of command.  So I see no reason why a Section 106 (or equivalent) proviso should not apply in these circumstances, albeit with an additional built-in opportunity  for repudiation. A suitable  acknowledgement that  there has  been a problem,  a  disavowal  of the offending statements and an undertaking  to fix whatever has gone wrong would seem to be an appropriate and effective  sanction  in the  context  of a referendum.

It is time to take a further step to remove lies from our political process.  The mess they create smears those who voted Leave with honourable intentions – and does damage to us all.

This article also appears in the Huffington Post

Reasons to be Cheerful

 

 

There are none. This is the omnishambles of all omnishambles, as Malcolm Tucker would say. The Brexit result  had my teenage daughter  wailing “They’ve F*cked my Future” over her breakfast,  and  my son  is scurrying  around trying to  establish  whether my wife’s Irish forebears entitle him to  a passport.

It’s dismal alright. And it’s unknown. And it seems no good can come of it.  The demographics are striking – a grand coalition of the old, less well educated, less well off has delivered a momentous result.  Whoever thought it was a good idea not to allow 16 and 17 year olds to vote (Clue:  it was the man who has just announced his resignation).

But in all the fog, upset and bitterness we have to have hope. We are entitled to search for some solace. Here’s where I think it can be found;

First, this is going to be a long process, with multiple chances to intervene and mollify the eventual outcome. Patrick Wintour’s summary of what now happens in practice is an excellent overview.

Second, the Conservatives are split – irreparably in my view. Even their hard-wired instinct for power will not be enough to paper over the cracks. Given part of the divide is over style and attitude; there are opportunities for some new alliances and to push the case for an alternative government.

Third, this seismic political shock should act as a catharsis over some issues the left has grappled with for years. The practical as well as ethical argument for votes at 16  is surely made.  Our current campaign tools seem to have proved ineffective – again. So we need to examine how we communicate.

And we need to recognise that the UK is fractured even more than the Conservative Party, and have a response to that.

In my view this response  needs to  be  a federal UK –  well actually more a federal England given  I expect  Scotland  be  independent in 5 years and back in the EU  in 10,  and  Wales and Northern Ireland already have devolved assemblies. My blueprint for a post referendum settlement is here.

Fourth, we have to re-orientate our political thinking to a more UK-centric view. We can see what will come in terms of a “Brexit” recession and budget.  We need to build and sustain the narrative now on an alternative, inclusive tax and investment policy as opposed to the default of more cuts signalled by George Osborne days before the vote.  We need to turn attention to the realities of trade with the rest of Europe from outside the EU.

Fifth and probably most importantly, irrespective of the misplaced anger a majority of voters seemed to direct against the EU, we must remember the words and deeds of Jo Cox.  “We have more in common than that which divides us”.  There is much we cannot change, but   we do have control over our thoughts and actions.  This is a time for emphasising our common humanity.

I am sure that many voted Leave with honourable intentions. But the campaign   was hijacked by the nasty brigade who played the oldest trick in the political book – “you’ve got problems and they are all the fault of people who are not like you.”

So we pick ourselves up, we dust ourselves down. We make sense of the new reality as best we can.  And we stick to our values and redouble our efforts. There has never been a more important time for decency, determination and hope, and these are all things we can deliver, irrespective of the Brexit vote. “You got to have hope” is a good maxim.

A New Settlement for Post-Referendum Britain

 

Whatever the outcome of the EU referendum, the future of UK politics looks more uncertain than at any time in living memory.

The Conservative Party is irreparably split. The bitterness of the campaign has been astonishing.  The fault lines in personal relationships across the party are deep and, I suspect, unbridgeable.

It is hard to see the Prime Minister staying in office for long. But although  we  have become used to  the notion  of  a Johnson/Osborne/May  fight  to be the next  occupant of No 10,  could any of this troika  reunite the Party?  I think not.  Eurosceptic Conservatives have much in common with   UKIP, and could command a healthy vote in any election – possibly around 25%.

But we have seen a resurgence  of  what  we used to call “One Nation” Toryism, – those such as  Sarah Woolaston and Baroness Warsi  who  have  publicly rejected  the  acerbic  traits  of  colleges.  The impressive performance of Ruth Davidson – both in the Scottish elections and the EU campaign could be the catalyst for a move back to the centre, which would itself have a strong electoral pull.

So we have the real prospect of  a  staunchly  right  wing  Conservative/UKIP  block,  and  a  reasserted  One Nation grouping.  But as we look to the left of the political spectrum we see challenges there too.

Jeremy Corbyn is firmly in control of the Party machinery. Labour’s share in recent elections is generally improving.  But the party’s message is struggling to be heard and its core vote is vulnerable, outside of the South East particularly, to UKIP.   The party’s collapse in Scotland and  redrawn  Westminster constituency  boundaries  make  it  much  harder  for the Party  to  win a majority.

In this scenario, for both a fractured Conservative party and a constrained Labour one, constitutional reform makes increasing sense. Would not a “leave”   result would create an unstoppable momentum for Scottish independence and may even loosen English-Welsh ties?  London will surely vote Remain, and is becoming ever more distinctive to other parts of the UK.  But the devolution  of  powers  away  from  central  government (the so-called “Devo Manc”  model)  has been enthusiastically  embraced –  not least by  Labour  who  see it as   an opportunity  to  address the  imbalance of political  forces  at  Westminster.

The level and spread of regional autonomy in the UK could soon cross the Rubicon. So the question  must be  how to  ensure that  the exercise of  devolved power  is  by directly  elected representatives who  reflect  the political views of the  population.  A new constitutional  settlement,  especially one  in which  old political  power blocs  have changed,  could make  proportional representation not only  desirable  but necessary.

The future is of course unwritten. The post-referendum landscape will inevitably be different, and we can’t leave it to others to shape it. The opportunity to shape a new constitutional settlement – that takes the heat from the referendum campaign and produces something effective, enduring and empowering – is one we must take.

This piece also appears in The Huffington Post

 

The Immigration Debate – A Lightning Rod for Discontent

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The immigration debate has been hijacked by those who claim to want a dispassionate treatment of the issue, but in reality have a distinct, fixed view.

That’s why my heart sinks with each new Migration Watch report. Like the Taxpayers’ Alliance it seems like an organisation which uses a legitimate issue of concern as a Trojan Horse for a particular political view.

The latest instalment is a report asserting the UK’s population will rise by around 1 million every four years if we stay within the EU. The report was immediately contradicted by immigration minister James Brokenshire who essentially said “it’s more complicated than that.”

The recognition that immigration is indeed a complex issue was a rare and welcome admission by the Government. But there was, of course, nothing innocuous about the timing of the MW report, playing as it does to the defining issue of the EU referendum debate.

Migration into the UK is part of our past, present and future. In a global economy and with an imperial past how can it be any different? Richard Bean’s 2009 play “England People Very Nice” showed (controversially ) how successive waves of immigration have been assimilated into society, changing it along the way.

But as the Financial Times’s George Parker observed in an excellent article: “Immigration has become a metaphor for everything that is wrong with the country. A stick to beat politicians who break their promises, rather than necessarily a big factor in their daily lives”.

Those “big factors” are the things that are making our country so ill-at-ease with itself. As I said recently, many – very many – people in our country have urgent pressing issues that need sorting out immediately if not sooner.  Few decent jobs,  even  less  social or affordable housing,  well established industries changed  beyond recognition (from  privatization of Royal Mail  to  the  strangulation  of the UK fishing  sector),  the uncertainty brought about  by changes (either real or anticipated) in population.

It is entirely  understandable that this instability  generates fear – the fear of limited resources and opportunities being  even  more thinly spread,  which  then  gets  transformed  into  a fear and hostility  of strangers.  It is wrong to dismiss these as unimportant or imagined, but equally flawed to dress it up as something that it is not.

It is an old trick – turn immigration into the lightning rod of discontent. It plays on deep–seated anxieties and always ends badly.  And that’s the problem with the Migration Watch report and newspaper coverage like the Sun’s 27 May front page showing a Britain over-run with “migrants”.  These are not neutral acts (as perhaps Andrew Green would claim), and cannot honestly be held to encourage sensible debates on delicate issues.

The events of the last week have been truly shocking. The Sun’s head of PR, Dylan Sharpe made a point of tweeting a well-written emollient editorial, but some doubt its sincerity (and with that ‘paper’s track record, you can see why.)

Time will tell if we have really entered a new era. I hope we have. But until I see Parker’s article reprinted or reflected in the Mail or Express and Boris Johnson calling out the toxic and xenophobic of his  co-Brexiters, judgement is necessarily reserved.

Why I’m Voting Remain

Just  so  you know, I’m voting Remain in the EU  referendum. But I recognise the sincerity and the views of many who want a Brexit.

Let’s face it, many – very many – people in our country have urgent pressing issues that need sorting out immediately if not sooner.  Few decent jobs,  even  less  social or affordable housing,  industries changed  beyond recognition from  privatisation of Royal Mail  to  the  strangulation  of the UK fishing  sector, (although the suggestion that Michael Gove’s family business was wrecked by the EU  has been shown to be “codswallop“),  the uncertainty brought about  by changes in population.  It is wrong to dismiss these as unimportant or imagined, and blaming EU membership for failings mostly in domestic politics is worryingly attractive.

I’m voting Remain on the basis that progressive voices are louder as part of the EU than outside it,  that the social dimension to economic and industrial  policies remains stronger on the continent than here in the UK, that unrestrained by  the EU  the Tories will be even more destructive than they  are at present.

There is also that the EU will still be there if we leave and we can exert more influence from inside than out. And finally,  something  not spoken of enough – it is a much better  way  to  regulate international affairs than  the military carnage mainland Europe suffered in the  hundred years  that preceded the original Treaties of Rome.

I get that decent people with sincere beliefs will sway towards voting Brexit. But just look at the company that you would be in – some Conservatives have already switched sides because of the fantasists and xenophobes who dominate the Leave campaign.

I will name just two – Boris and Michael. Mr Johnson has been publically condemned for putting his Prime Ministerial ambitions ahead of any dignity or integrity.  And Mr Gove’s dog-whistle, fear –fuelled, deliberately disingenuous tactics belie the intelligence he reportedly has – and demeans the high offices of state he has occupied.

Yes, I know the Remain camp has a few characters of its own you might not want to spend time with – Michael O’Leary for one – but they do seem to be a minority.

But we don’t have to look very  far  to see where the isolationist, chauvinistic nationalism can lead us – Look at the rise of Donald Trump in the US and his response to the “Pulse” mass-murder which surely plumbs new depths.

But controversial and complex  as the EU debate undoubtedly is,  I think  there is a  another reason   why the debate has become some bitter and fraught. It is simply that our country is not at ease with itself.  The “haves” have too too much.  Too many survive rather than live. Politics seems remote, cut-off, insulated from too many. Politicians are seen as part of a self-serving establishment that includes mainstream media.  Political debate ping-pongs between the sterile and the toxic. The blame-game is everywhere and tribalism is rampant. Is it a surprise so many  are turned off?

Even if our politics is as grey and stormy as this month’s weather, this does not have to be a given. We can change things and there is an alternative. “No act of kindness, however small, is ever wasted.”  For “kindness” read humanity, tenacity, integrity, cooperation-not-conflict, for-the-many-not-the-few.

Whilst all those around us may lose their decency, we must never use that as a justification for abandoning our own. I believe  the EU referendum  is a defining moment for us – but what  happens after the vote (whichever way it goes)  will be even more important.

 

 

 

Land Registry Sale – National Interest or Quick Buck?

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Data on who owns all this could be transferred to the private sector. (Photocredit:  Getty images)

There’s been plenty written about the government’s desire  to sell off the  Land Registry  – including  by my fellow Huffpo blogger Jeremy Raj – but some arresting new research has just been published  by the New Economics Foundation and  pressure group We Own It.

This suggests that a sell off, now, of the Land Registry would see the public short changed “as the value of the scarified surpluses will have exceeded the value money received from the sale.”  Heady stuff, particularly as the raison d’etre of the sale was specifically to raise funds.

That the government  has taken this  stance when  Land Registry’s business is booming,  surpluses increasing,  costs under control, and productivity rising shows  just  what a premium  is being put on achieving  so-far elusive  financial targets associated with  the national debt.  “A strong economy lies at the heart of good government” begins the introduction to the consultative document on the proposed sell-off. In other words, and as Aditya Chakrabortty very recently described, everything must go or we are all doomed. The £1.225bn Land Registry is expected to yield makes a big dent in the Chancellor’s £5bn target for sell-offs announced in the autumn statement last year.

But as this new report sets out, the government seems to get it wrong in the terms of its own argument.  And you can see where the critics are coming from; There are many “ifs and buts”   surrounding the government’s plans.  Lots of optimistic conjecture, especially about future growth and how the government will retain control of key data, rather than hard fact. Recent history is not reassuring, as the Public Accounts Committee’s criticism of the last big public sale – Royal Mail – set out starkly.

And, of course,  once you have sold  off an asset,  banked the  proceeds,  you cannot do  so again – even  when if  it continues to make significant profits and its business – which is absolutely linked to housing market activity –  is  strong for the foreseeable future.

When these financial arguments are lined up beside policy issues, you begin to sense that the government may have a problem here.  Those policy arguments centre around integrity (a similar proposal  in 2014  was scrapped, and this new  consultation was arguably launched  at a time  to guarantee maximum stealth),  risk (potential instability in property transactions,  new and untested  regulatory  arrangements) and transparency (more public data disappearing behind a private wall)

But for me,  even  more worrying  than the contradictions been  the stated aims and the likely  outcomes is  the potential – well, likely – impact on two elements  key  to maintaining good governance  in our country. Sounds melodramatic, but bear with me.

Since around 1066, the state has recognised that it needs to keep a strong grasp on its knowledge of who owns what.  William the Conqueror commissioned a little thing called the Domesday Book to do just that.  Why would any government not feel this knowledge is important?  Why would any government not see the need to be sure – really sure – it had a handle on this.

Because is not knowing who owns what land, and what property is built on that land surely at the heart of good, strong, transparent government in our property-based democracy? That’s surely worth more than a quick buck, however it’s dressed up?

This article also appears in The Huffington Post

5 leagues and 100 clubs – Be Careful What You Wish For 

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Will plans to create a 100 club, 5 league structure make Saturday special again? (Photocredit :Getty Images)
I like the idea of a 5 league 100 team structure at the top of England’s football pyramid. So full marks to the bods at the FA for putting the idea forward and starting the debate.  It’s not a panacea for the challenges the game faces, but it does tick some important boxes – player (and spectator) fatigue, a more rational structure, more flexibility in the footballing calendar.

But it is clear that the debate is necessary and not straight-forward. Let’s take two specifics.

First, for all the positives, listed above, playing fewer games in a season is highly problematic for many clubs – well, most clubs actually.  For my own beloved Brentford, currently resting at 29th in the pyramid (i.e. – top half of the current second tier) the loss of income that four fewer home games would lead to is highly significant, as the supporters have already made clear.  – based on 2014/15 ticket income, removing those games makes for a loss to the club of £540,602.

There is of course a way round this – English football is hugely lucrative.  The latest contract for Premier League TV rights is worth   around £5.1bn over three years.  Parachute payments are common place –  so why not extend this  culture of compensation  to off-set the risk to clubs whose cash flow and profit-and-loss accounts  are  much  more vulnerable than  the  premier league giants?  As the much-respected @Besotted said, the sums involved are not, in footballing terms, so great –  £12k off the weekly wage bill in this case.

A second issue is the possible  rededication  of Saturday afternoons as the  time for  football matches to  take place , made possible by  a sparser  schedule of  games.  I recognise the appeal of this return to more straight-forward and less distracted times (although midweek floodlit matches also have strong support). But I fear such hopes are forlorn.

This is because part of the rationale for such huge sums being associated with football is its marketability.  And that  marketability  requires a different approach to scheduling, increasingly with live football  being shown on  TV  every day of the week, with kick-off times  to  maximise the audience (and advertising revenues for everyone but the BBC).  Indeed,  you could argue that football as whole is so leveraged  that maximising financial  returns  is  the only valid criterion –  that seems to be the justification (for example) for Wembley Stadium’s  marketing  approach –  the  money  spent of redeveloping the site  has to be repaid.

And if there is  more space in  the domestic calendar,  is that  just to facilitate  a European Super League  which will do nothing  to deliver a stronger national  team or any of those prospective benefits for the clubs involved.

Crucially, for those hoping for the rededication of Saturdays, I suspect the price of a compensatory payment by broadcasters will be even more flexibility in scheduling.

Always assuming the FA’s motives were good, it’s a question of the best of ideas being subject to the law of unintended consequences!