One of the most venerable names in sport publishing has gone woke
“Et tu Brute?” asks the title character in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, as he realises that his erstwhile friend and ally Brutus is among those who are stabbing him to death. “Then fall Caesar”, he adds as his final words; if even Brutus has turned against him, there is no hope.
That scene came irresistibly to mind this week when I realised that Wisden, perhaps the most venerable of all the great names in sport publishing, had plunged wholeheartedly into what has been called “offence archaeology”, that is to say the trawling of individuals’ social media accounts for evidence of past bad behaviour, unacceptable language or inappropriate thoughts. For almost all of Tuesday, the top story on wisden.com, crowding out an actual report on the recently concluded Test Match, was that a current member of the England cricket team made some racially insensitive jokes on Twitter while aged under 16.
The subject of their muckraking has yet to be named, but the England & Wales Cricket Board were quick out of the gate to announce that “relevant and appropriate action” would be taken in response. This all follows, of course, from the suspension from international matches by the England & Wales Cricket Board of debutant Ollie Robinson, after offensive decade-old tweets of his were unearthed during the Lord’s Test (never mind that Robinson took an impressive seven wickets in the match and made 42 runs).
Wisden has joined almost the entire cricketing media in toeing the party line on this issue, agreeing that the suspension was a reasonable response, and raising not a single question about the tarring of individual reputations on the basis of tweets written when the people in question were young and foolish. As an indication of how uniform the media attitude has been, it’s worth noting that the BBC’s Test Match Special podcast hosted a “discussion”, so-called, about the issue on Sunday, featuring three journalists who all thought more or less exactly the same.
There is something profoundly depressing about Wisden’s behaviour, including its use of a loaded and melodramatic term like “historic racism”, as if the players in question had been members of the BNP or Combat 18 rather than simply making a few off-key jokes. The website even adopted the usual weasel words of media outrage-mongerers, saying that the Bad Tweets had “emerged”, as if the bringing to light of very old tweets was something that just happened, without any human input or choice, rather than an action that people deliberately chose to take, for their own purposes.
It is a great illustration of an axiom I often repeat to people: you may not be interested in the culture war, but the culture war is interested in you. Wisden’s Cricket Almanac was first published in 1864, meaning that it predates electric lighting, the car, powered flight and Germany. It would not be quite correct to say that it has always avoided politics entirely, but its focus has been firmly on the game, and certainly not on the kind of faddish neuroses that lay behind “cancel culture”.
And yet here we are, with part of the Wisden media agglomeration adopting the moralistic, unforgiving style common to so much of the contemporary press. Maybe there is racial prejudice in professional cricket, but the fact that teenage boys like to make edgy jokes to their friends does not help us establish the truth of the matter.
Possibly this is just the cost of Wisden’s survival, carving out a niche for itself amid the cutthroat clamour of modern digital media. All the same, let’s hope that there remains room for a little island of steady, thoughtful coverage of sport unimpeded by political considerations.