Published by ConservativeHome
Is there a sporting equivalent for the philosophic or aesthetic philistine? If so, please excuse my socio-lexical ignorance: I must be one. I sat patiently through last night’s BBC News while the Gracious Speech played inglorious left-wing to the centre-mid resignation of Sir Alex Ferguson. I bit my lip as his departure from the field shunted the Coalition’s programme for government from the headlines of the national press, and Twitter tribalists obsessed all day about his legendary record of achievement.
Incredibly, there were even some comparing the moment to the death of The Lady, which is really quite appalling when you think about it. Did the late, great Alex Ferguson really do for football what the late and very much greater Margaret Thatcher did for Great Britain? Did he halt terminal decline, revive a national spirit, liberate half a continent or inspire a generation?
If Man Utd is your cultic passion, perhaps there’s a comparison to be made – if only in his embrace of unbridled capitalism and the Mammon-worshipping free market in stellar players (what man can be worth £30million?). If you really want to know why Alex Ferguson is/was important, just follow Tim Montgomerie’s Twitter feed: “As well as 13 English titles #MUFC have not fallen outside the top 3 for 22 seasons”; “Sir Alex’s final game as #MUFC manager – versus WBA – will be his 1,500th”; “Not once in 39yrs as a manager has a Ferguson team lost after being 2 goals ahead.”
That’s fine: it’s Tim’s Twitter feed, and you can always choose to unfollow. But I’m at a loss to understand why the BBC should spin this tedious stuff into the collective consciousness of the entire country as the leading news story of the day. I don’t mean to sound like Sir Humphrey, but it’s not as if Auntie led with the departure from the RSC of the quite remarkable Michael Boyd, who really did transform and revive a near-dead institution. And neither did the Evening Standard headline the resignation of Sir Nicholas Hytner from the National Theatre after a golden decade of artistic (and economic) success. Yet here they are, all bowing in demotic reverence to pay homage to Sir Alex bloody Ferguson at the idolatrous altar of Old Trafford. If he doesn’t make the next round of papal beatifications, he’s sure to leap over Ann Widdecombe to an honoured seat in the Lords.
I don’t despise football; really, I don’t. I quite enjoy it when it’s England v Germany or Iran v the USA (‘The Great Satan’). That’s when sport becomes the politics of power, and 22 men kicking a ball around a field somehow mirrors the primal theme of the Manichæan battle between good and evil in the heavenlies.
But this is a culture column.
Shakespeare mentions football twice: once in Comedy of Errors , when we learn the ball’s function is to be spurned; and again in King Lear, when the Earl of Kent goads the impudent Oswald: “Nor tripp’d neither, you base football player?”
It was clearly once a vulgar pastime for the ignorant and ill-behaved. We have elevated it to the status of national religion, which informs our manners, habits and national character. Football has acquired a spirituality; a conventional morality; a cultural ethic. And television reduces all of human experience to perpetual passivity; random events radiated to our eyes and piped into our ears, all emptied of context and meaning. Put the two together, and we arrive at an entertaining collage of energised images suspended somewhere between euphoric fantasy and sweaty reality.
I freely admit that I know nothing about football (in case you haven’t guessed), and I care even less about the departure of Alex Ferguson (I hope I made that clear, too). But in the world of cultural determinism, the news shapes our apprehension of the significance of both: TV creates the reality. The BBC determined that this would be not merely a “media event”, but the media event of the day. They magnified Sir Alex Ferguson out of all proportion – at least to other newsworthy events. Auntie decided that I would be more stimulated and transfigured by the weeping and wailing of Man Utd, when I’d have preferred the political docudrama and medieval pageantry of the State Opening of Parliament. My thinking was ordered in warped priorities.
I sense in this effusive media adulation the basest hagiography and the most undiscerning gratification: it’s not as if the decision to lead with the story was preceded by some agonisingly difficult editorial conclave. I get it; I really do. Sport is more important than the Arts; Man Utd is more newsworthy than the Government; and Alex Ferguson is of greater significance than the Queen. It is moot as to whether public broadcasting pragmatically reflects societal change or subtly inculcates it, but this is our conceptual system, and this is how we interpret the reinterpretations of the revisionists to make sense of our contemporary concerns.
The BBC plays a central role in defining our everyday realities and informing truth – and we are obliged by statute to pay for it. Like all media, it guides us to think along certain lines, and those thoughts can determine our actions – both individual and social. I am left with the impression that the sensational soap opera of football trumps the royal history, political traditions and governance of the country. In the normal scheduling of light entertainment that may be true and justifiable: a vibrant creative culture invites the projection of competing romantic truths, and we are enthralled. But we’re talking here about primetime
news, and that demands a rather more coherent categorisation of objective events.
Politics is prosaic, and football is magical realism. This simplistic presentation is attractive because it distracts us from our present troubles and deflects us from inconvenient truths. It is bizarre, in a culture dominated by objectivism, realism, materialism and logical positivism, that we are content to subsume law, government, journalism, business and economics to metaphors, dreams and sporting myths. Or perhaps they fill the void.