Perhaps Marcus Rashford knew all along that this was how it might all play out. Or perhaps he will have realised it at some point on the journey: that there would ultimately be a price to pay for putting this many important noses out of joint, for doing so fearlessly and unapologetically, for making too much of a difference. After all, you don’t get to embarrass a Conservative government for free. And on Sunday, Rashford would discover the real consequences of speaking truth to power.
“School meals Marcus’s £2m homes empire,” read the headline in the Mail on Sunday, referring to five properties recently purchased by the Manchester United forward in Cheshire. The “campaigning football star”, we were told, had taken out “mortgages from the Queen’s bank, Coutts, for all five properties”. Meanwhile the authors of the article seemed particularly keen to inform readers that Rashford has begun the process of trademarking his name in the US, and that his own house is worth £1.85m and has six bedrooms.
The first thing to say is that virtually none of this is really anyone’s business. And perhaps, given the gravity of everything else going on in the world now, the temptation will be to leave it at that: to sigh a little sigh, chuckle a little chuckle at the frivolousness of it all and say something trite about tomorrow’s fish-and-chip paper. But read between the carefully arranged lines and something more pernicious and sinister is clearly taking place: a shot across the bows, a reducer challenge, a declaration of hostilities, the first severed thumb in the post.
There remains a curiously quaint view within journalism that we should refrain from criticising our own industry, a trope roughly analogous to “trying to get a fellow pro sent off”. The reality, of course, is that this is a convenient veneer of bullshit dreamed up by those who most benefit from bad journalism being allowed to flourish. And of course there’s plenty of bad journalism about, just as there is bad art, bad law, bad football, bad plumbing. What we so imperfectly describe as “the media” is better understood as a marketplace of competing voices. Many of you, I like to think, are here because we’re not the Mail. Doubtless the reverse is also true.
The Mail on Sunday article isn’t bad journalism, in the sense that it’s brilliantly effective at conveying what it wants. For buried amid the apparent sobriety of the article, its accretion of various random facts (“… it has a smart kitchen and dining area … Rashford, who came from humble beginnings on a council estate … residents include veteran Coronation Street actor William Roache…”), there’s an awful craft at work: a loathing so artfully sheathed you would barely know it’s there.
The juxtaposition of “school meals Rashford” with the “£2m homes empire”. The dog-whistle reference to the “campaigning football star”. The early mention of the player’s age (23). The picture of Rashford himself, frowning in a dark hoodie. Everything here is code, bound up in motifs and subtext, the mood music of sophisticated right-wing distaste. It’s entitled, nappy-grabbing, shit-hurling rage, dressed up in sensible clothes and babbling vaguely about property prices.
This is why it’s pointless attempting to engage with the internal logic of the piece, or indeed much of the criticism of Rashford since he stepped up his campaign during the summer. Trying to extract any sort of cogent argument or legible worldview here is the equivalent of trying to spot secret messages in your morning cereal. An example: on page 123 of the very same newspaper is a financial columnist urging chancellor Rishi Sunak to resist reforming capital gains tax on the basis that it would “deter wannabe landlords”. Yes, the irony feels cussedly satisfying. But hypocrisy is in many ways the least important of the misdemeanours here.
Because, if you take a broader view, the Mail on Sunday’s story is simply the latest escalation of the growing Stop Rashford movement, one begun by right-wing pundits and Conservative MPs on Twitter in recent weeks. Last month the Guido Fawkes website sardonically praised Rashford’s “ability to eloquently and magnanimously oppose verbal attacks on Tory MPs just minutes after the end of a football match”.
The subtext here – that a 23-year-old footballer should not habitually be capable of any of these traits – is familiar enough. And in a way, Rashford is the populist right’s worst nightmare: a young, black, working-class campaigner who bases his appeal not on culture war or tribal loyalty or fiery invective, but on unity, consensus, the common ground. He is a political campaigner who rejects party politics, rejects the idea that conflict and progress are the same thing, indeed refuses to acknowledge that there is anything remotely contentious or left-leaning about wanting hungry children fed. And – coincidence! – he gets things done.
Small wonder this country’s conservative establishment has come to see Rashford not as a fleeting irritation but as an existential threat: a man cheerfully exposing not just the worst privations of government austerity but our own snide and bickering political culture. Small wonder his personal finances and lifestyle choices are now considered fair game. If Rashford is allowed to succeed, who else might follow in his wake? Rashford did not choose this fight. But with unerring precision and a depressing alacrity, it has chosen him. Perhaps there’s something deeply depressing in the treatment of this decent and principled man by a section of the media that has always thrived on conflict, the vindictive urge to tear down, to expose, to disgrace. Rashford, you suspect, would see it as incontrovertible proof that he is winning.
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