by Niall Gooch
Wednesday, 9
June 2021
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10:27

Farewell then Wisden, my sanctuary from the culture war

One of the most venerable names in sport publishing has gone woke
by Niall Gooch
Yesterday’s top story on Wisden.com

“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.

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  • Well said, in every particular. So much about prevailing social and political attitudes stinks, it’s difficult to know where to begin. But I highlight your point about the “discussion”, involving three people who agreed; the mention of “offence archaeology” and the exaggeration of the so-called “offence” in the first place. This is not to mention the attack on rights to privacy, to freedom of speech and on ordinary, imprecise human utterance. Taken all in all, the whole affair offers an illumination by flashlight of an increasingly Orwellian public life: narrow, slanted, authoritarian and intrusive. Once cannot help attaching such conditions to the general esteem in which too many of our leading lights hold certain brutal regimes of the east, coupled with their readiness to receive funds from the same, tainted source. The slogan, “silence is violence”, says it all. Even the refuge of discretion is crumbling. Like so many Thomas Mores pursued by a posse of sadistic, enforcing Cromwells, those of us who retain a shred of dignity and independence in the face of this onslaught will find our own days of martyrdom delayed, not cancelled. As to whether any of this can be challenged or reversed, I have my doubts. If a Tory government with a majority of eighty can happily oversee such ideological persecution, there is little that can be done. We wait, in our castles of silence, for the knock on the door.

  • To pinch a bit from Douglas Murray, it is so frustrating that this particular offence archaeology only works one way. If you slip slightly right in the “good” peoples mind that is worthy of not only a grovelling apology but penance and 50 lashings. However if you slip slightly left (or extremely left as shown by certain leading lights in the Labour Party) sometimes an apology isn’t even necessary. Somehow, the left have managed to moralise their apparent crusade to be morally “Right” and the destination outweighs all the nastiness to get there. I see the same thing with people having massive problems with people standing under the nazi flag, but no problem with others standing under the hammer and sickle. It’s almost as if the Nazi flag is the sign of pure evil but the hammer and sickle is the sign of good intentions that went a bit wrong. They were both pure evil.

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