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A victory for women’s rights? Do me a favour

The sacking of football pundit Andy Gray is a serious blow to the right to express opinions freely in private.

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

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The liberals who have been conducting a social media twitch-hunt against ‘neanderthal’ Sky broadcasters Richard Keys and Andy Gray are today celebrating. Keys has had his no-longer-hairy wrists slapped and Gray has lost his job for a second bookable offence. A blow against sexism in football? I don’t think so. It is, however, a further erosion of our privacy.

I’m not defending the sentiments expressed by the men, just their right to express private opinions without fear of reprimand. The blokeish exchange about referee’s assistant Sian Massey was puerile and sexist. So too Gray’s ‘tuck this down here love’ quip directed at Sky presenter Charlotte Jackson. But, and this is the crucial point, they were private comments made while the cameras weren’t broadcasting. This is an important distinction. Off-air comments should be off limits for the mind-your-language police.

The row was sparked by an audio clip of Keys and Gray joking off-air that Sian Massey probably didn’t understand the offside rule. Is offside a feminist issue? The offside law is football’s most celebrated rule. Football is generally a simple game but offside is probably its most complex rule. If you are able to explain the offside rule – admittedly one that has become increasingly convoluted in recent years – it means you ‘get’ football; you’re part of the club. It’s football’s equivalent of the British Citizenship exam.

Undoubtedly there are many women who still don’t understand the offside rule. My wife is one of them. ‘I’m a bird’, she said when I challenged her (not a representative sample, I’ll admit). But, these days, increasing numbers of women watch football and do understand offside. And they can prove it with the use of salt and pepper pots. Keys and Gray are not so enlightened. They clearly don’t think a woman’s place is on the touchline. But this point of view is becoming increasingly marginalised. Judging by the weight of reaction – both inside and outside the game – the disgraced presenters are living in the past.

The opinions expressed by Keys and Gray are undoubtedly offensive. But, although these views were expressed at work, they weren’t intended to be on the record and therefore public. Even neanderthals have a right to share a bit of caveman humour in private. The shocking thing about their subsequent trial by social media is that it represents a new and insidious form of tyranny.

This isn’t a conventional case of state intrusion. There were no bugs or phone taps. It’s not clear how the unguarded comments about Sian Massey were recorded or who posted the audio files on YouTube. But who needs the thought police when your fellow citizens are prepared to eavesdrop and to persecute you via Twitter? This is nothing short of Orwellian. For the past few days, all manner of un-PC comments made by Gray or Keys have been dredged up, posted on YouTube and re-tweeted to Kingdom Come. The video clip which cost Gray his job was actually recorded last December, though it went unnoticed at the time.

Why, you ask, does any of this matter? A couple of sexist knuckledraggers have been publicly shamed. So what? What do the rest of us have to fear? But what’s at stake here is not the status of women in football. This is a privacy issue – a point that most of the frothing Twitterati seem to have overlooked. It’s about the right to hold and express private opinions, however objectionable. Keys and Gray have been branded neanderthals. England captain Rio Ferdinand called them ‘prehistoric’. Fair enough – but what’s just as prehistoric is the complete disregard for privacy. In pre-modern societies there was no distinction between public and private. Everything people said or did was subject to rules and regulations.

One of the great advances of modern societies was the establishment of a private sphere, distinct from the public arena, where citizens were not scrutinised or regulated. If that private sphere is eroded then all our lives are poorer as a consequence. The space in which we are free to be ourselves, to think and say what we want, will have shrunk. We will have to be on our guard all the time. All of us – men and woman alike – will have to watch our words next time we email a tasteless joke to colleagues or say something we’d rather the boss didn’t hear at the water cooler.

This isn’t about football or offside or female officials or sexism. The biggest loser here is privacy. And that’s nothing to cheer about.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist.

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Topics Politics

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