We encourage the mediocre, the mendacious and the cowardly

The issue of disabilities looks more like an excuse for dismissing Hoddle than the reason
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The Independent Culture
ALL RIGHT, team. The match has been played; we've got the result. Let's all have a nice shower and then sit down and discuss what we've learned from the Hoddle debacle. Do we perhaps agree with Margaret Hodge, minister for the disabled, when she says (as she did on Tuesday's Newsnight) that the demise of the England manager represents a "watershed" in the public discussion of disability? She had, she said, been trying for months to get a debate going on the subject, and now there was one.

Well that's good, isn't it? Not that Margaret herself had ever called for Hoddle to go. Oh dear, no. As she told Jeremy Paxman, that was all strictly a matter for the FA. She had merely offered the opinion that it was "inappropriate" that someone expressing the views that Hoddle had expressed should hold the office of, say, England manager. The FA, as it turned out, had agreed. And in saying this she had been in tune with a public opinion that was overwhelmingly offended by Hoddle's remarks. Polls, she revealed, had said so.

Readers will make what they will of Ms Hodge's strange reluctance to accept part of the credit for Hoddle's departure, but they should be careful with her polling evidence. The only polls that I can discover on this subject were those phone polls (where self-selecting readers phone in) carried out by The Sun, The Express, and The Guardian on its Internet site. These are not usually cited by ministers when making careful evaluation of public opinion.

But if Ms Hodge had not been after the head of Hod, what about the Nationwide Building Society? The Nationwide has sponsored the FA to the tune of pounds 15m so far. Mike Lazenby, the society's marketing manager, told newspapers on Tuesday: "The England boss has a duty to ensure his views do not have a damaging impact on the FA, England players, or sponsors. That was what we felt had happened in the situation. We have made it clear that we are not prepared to accept anything that brings the Nationwide name into disrepute."

Why had Nationwide "made it clear" to the FA? Because, said Mr Lazenby, "a number of our members were distressed by the reported comments". Now, as it happens, I am both a borrower and a lender with Nationwide, and I do not remember being canvassed for my views on the Hoddle situation by Mr Lazenby. Perhaps he can supply us with the details of those who did. And then again, perhaps he can't.

The FA itself, a model of fairness and rectitude, had taken no notice of all this. It had, according to its own account, spent from Saturday through to Tuesday listening to Hoddle's explanation, but finally concluded that his position had "become untenable". But on Tuesday night on Radio 5 Live, the BBC's sports correspondent and presenter, Brian Alexander, let slip that as early as Sunday afternoon several sports journalists had been briefed that Hoddle was to be sacked.

This is beginning to sound like a modern witch hunt anatomised: the press, the minister, the moneybags and the employer. There will be Americans, who lived through the blacklisting period, who will recognise how all these forces can combine to rob a man of his living.

Hoddle was not a Communist. His offence was to give offence. The wrath of everyone in this country who is registered disabled was called down upon his head. Most of the disabilities groups said that he should go because he had insulted the people on whose behalf they work. They had, it is true, discovered the extent of this offence remarkably quickly (my father-in-law missed the phone call), but were all the more indignant for that.

The trouble with offence is that it is subjective. To give it, someone has to take it. Salman Rushdie has lived for years under a death threat for writing things about Islam that, had he written them about Anglicanism, might have earned him a tedious correspondence with a slightly reproving bishop. Likewise, women signally failed to take proper offence when ministers in the previous government - John Gummer and Ann Widdecombe - publicly opposed the ordination of women, on the basis that they were not scripturally equal. No one, I recall, suggested that those ministers should be fired for this.

And some disabled people seem more inclined to take offence than others. That's hardly surprising, as there are an awful lot of them and - despite the way they are lumped together by journalists and politicians - their situations differ markedly. Nevertheless, the conventional wisdom, as it floated about the air waves this week, was that Hoddle had done "irreparable damage" to those with disabilities.

But in Wednesday's Times a member of the executive council of Scope - one of the organisations most critical of Hoddle - concluded his letter with the sentence, "you can forgive a man for being a fool if England are beating the world at football". In other words, had we won the World Cup last summer the "offence" caused would have been less, and the "damage" done would have been repairable. If that's the case, then the issue of disabilities looks more like a convenient excuse for dismissing Hoddle, rather than the reason.

Let me draw your attention to something interesting that happened in Washington DC last week. The director of the District of Columbia's Office of Public Advocate, David Howard, was forced to resign because, like Hoddle, he had caused offence. On 15 January, Mr Howard, a white man, had been discussing a budget with two aides and told them, apparently, that: "I will have to be niggardly with this fund, because it's not going to be a lot of money." One aide then stormed out of Mr Howard's office, and pretty soon rumours of racism in City Hall were sweeping DC.

The complaining phone calls started to flood in. Ten days later Howard resigned. The mayor, Anthony Williams, pronounced Howard's resignation "appropriate" (that word again), adding that officials should "exercise the utmost judgement, discretion, and caution" in their choice of words. He told The Washington Times that everyone must avoid words that could sound offensive to someone else. "Chink in the armour," he mused. "I wouldn't say that now."

I hardly need add that the word "niggardly" has nothing to do with race. It means "miserly" and probably comes from a Norse word, hnoggr, meaning "to scrape". That wasn't the point. The point was that it caused offence whatever it meant. And since it had caused offence to people inclined to be offended, Howard had to go.

The warning is there. You will forgive me, then, for thinking that if the Hoddle case is a watershed, it isn't one for the disabled. I do not believe it will alter their many situations one iota. No, it is, rather, an encouragement of the mediocre, the ever-careful, the anodyne, the mendacious, the riders of bandwagons, the slippery and the cowardly. No wonder Margaret Hodge was so pleased.