John Terry – and football – found guilty anyway
The outraged reaction to Terry’s acquittal is a bigger problem for football and society than anything the obnoxious-but-innocent ‘JT’ said.
The rule of justice is supposed to be that everybody is ‘presumed innocent until proven guilty’. But it does not always work that way. There have been infamous miscarriages of justice where people were found guilty in court although many knew they were innocent of the crimes involved. In the case of Chelsea footballer John Terry, it seems the opposite is true. Despite being cleared in court, the former England captain has joined the likes of OJ Simpson and Michael Jackson in the rogues’ gallery of those widely ‘presumed guilty although proven innocent’.
On Friday, Westminster magistrates acquitted Terry of the racially aggravated public-order offence of calling QPR’s Anton Ferdinand a ‘fucking black cunt’ during a Premier League match last October. Terry was captured on TV using those words, but insisted that was only a sarcastic retort after being falsely accused of calling Ferdinand an ‘FBC’ (as the key phrase became known in court).
In his ruling, the chief magistrate said that Terry’s explanation seemed ‘unlikely’. But with the video evidence of the sequence of events apparently inconclusive, contradictory accounts from lip-readers and no clear eye-witness testimony, he concluded that there was too much reasonable doubt to convict Terry. Fair enough. Terry walked free from court, essentially found obnoxious but innocent.
Cue howls of outrage from the spokespersons of official anti-racism, who effectively declared Terry guilty anyway. There were loud demands for the Football Association to punish him harshly, regardless of the verdict. Sir Herman Ouseley of the Kick it Out campaign reportedly ‘urged the FA to be “resolute”, ignore the criminal prosecution completely, and “deal with the racial element” of what Terry said’. Duwayne Brooks, who became famous as the friend who was with Stephen Lawrence when the black teenager was murdered in 1993 and is now a Lib Dem councillor in south London, wrote in The Times to complain that the verdict had ‘set us back 30 years’, and insist that ‘a guilty verdict would have been a breath of fresh air for football’.
The message is, never mind such niceties as the evidence or the law – lynch him anyway. Those who insisted in the first place that what was described in football-speak as an unexceptional case of ‘handbags’ must be turned into a major criminal trial, now insist that the trial is irrelevant because the verdict went the wrong way. The important thing is not justice, but to get the correct moral message across to the rest of us, to make an example of Terry, turning him into a reverse-role model of what will happen if you dance with the demon of racist language. Hence the official anti-racist movement is pushing the FA further to punish Terry – who was stripped of the England captaincy when he was first charged – for using the words ‘FBC’, regardless of the whats or whys of the matter.
Indeed, it is not only Terry who remains in the dock. Since the trial ended, the whole of football has effectively been found guilty of an ongoing public-order offence. It was revealed at surreal length in court that it is normal for Premier League footballers to swear profusely at each other on the pitch and to wind up the opposition by swapping deeply personal insults about each other’s wives, weight, sex lives, sexuality, you-name-it-they’ll-use-it.
In the sanitised atmosphere of Westminster Magistrates’ Court, the repetition of the common obscenities involved – the chief magistrate reportedly had to use ‘cunt’ 24 times in his summing-up – appeared deeply shocking to the legal establishment and the respectable media. Everybody agreed that such intolerant language could not be tolerated, and that something more must be done to stamp it out. Gordon Taylor, head of the Professional Footballers Association, declared that ‘We must reinforce the Respect campaign because the image of the game has been tarnished this week. The players are role models whether they like it or not and they must behave accordingly.’ Inevitably, even the Labour Party rushed to join in the outrage, piously announcing that the language Terry used – which the court had ruled could not be proved was racist – ‘has no place on any football pitch. The FA must restate its commitment to stamping out racism.’
In fact, some of us might think that the offensive language the players admitted to using on the pitch showed a fairly healthy disregard for the attempts to impose a false etiquette of pre-match handshakes and after-you-Claude manners through the official Respect campaign. What the trial evidence confirmed is that football is not like real life, and different rules operate on the pitch. Players – and fans – will let rip in the heat of a match in a way they would not consider doing elsewhere. Of course this sounded shocking in court – but football is not played in a courtroom or at a supper party. It involves the unleashing of passions and conflicts that can burst out in all kinds of unpredictable directions, yet can fade and disappear again just as quickly once the match is over.
The Terry trial showed that, despite everybody paying lip service to the Respect etiquette, in reality the authorities have as yet failed to tame or sterilise football entirely. That is no bad thing for those of us who love the aggro as an integral part of the beautiful game. Whatever the PFA or the Labour Party might think, we should surely defend the right of the players – and, of course, the fans – to be offensive to one another
The official view, however, is that it is no longer tolerable for football to play by different rules than the rest of society. Indeed if anything the authorities now demand that football must adopt higher ethical standards than the world outside, in order to set an example to us ignorant fans.
As we have argued before on spiked, football is now seen as an instrument for the re-education and disciplining of the masses, in particular the white working class whom the authorities fear and loathe. That is why the ridiculous decision was made to take the Terry case to court and turn it into a moral parable for our times. It is also why there has been such a furious reaction to the failure of the magistrates to read the script written for them by the likes of the Kick it Out lobby.
There are plenty of reasons to be angry about the Terry trial. Not because of the verdict, but because the entire fiasco has been a showcase for trends in our culture that might infuriate anybody who cares about football, free speech or real anti-racism. These include:
- Soccerism – the fashion for inflating the importance of football as a substitute for other things, in a bid to fill the gap where our political and public life ought to be. The soccerists tend to view football pretty much as Homer Simpson sees beer – as the cause of, and the solution to, all of life’s problems. Hence the emphasis on treating the overgrown schoolboys who are professional players as role models for the moral education of youth, the constant phoney moral crusades against racism and homophobia in football – and the frankly bonkers decision to turn a minor verbal exchange between footballers into a theatrical national event. Soccerism is bad for football, and for politics and society.
- The obsession with official anti-racism. It seems that the fewer examples there are of genuine racism in and around football, the more official crusades against it we see launched. The Terry case, like the Luis Suarez affair before it, shows how the authorities are now trawling for any incident that can be seen as racist to make an example of those involved and teach a moral lesson to the rest of us – who have long since largely ‘kicked it out’ of football without any help from on high.
- The diminished meaning of racism. By trying to see racism everywhere, the authorities have succeeded in redefining and diminishing what it means. Some in the media were keen to pick up on the presence of Doreen Lawrence, Stephen’s mother, in court with Anton Ferdinand’s family, as if having allegedly been called an ‘FCB’ made Ferdinand a victim like Lawrence. This served as a reminder that much of the redefinition of racism goes back to the Macpherson Report into Stephen Lawrence’s murder, which created a template for rewriting the law. After Macpherson, any incident can be legally defined as racist if anybody – not just the victim – feels it is. Thus Terry could be hauled into court after a complaint, not from Ferdinand, but from an off-duty policeman who saw the incident on television. And he could be charged with the post-Macpherson crime of a ‘racially aggravated’ public-order offence, which effectively means prosecuting somebody not just for what they did, but what was in their mind at the time – aka, a thought crime
- The war on words. Football has long been in the front line of the free-speech wars, as the authorities seek to crack down on one area of life where ‘normal’ rules of behaviour do not apply. Now this has gone a stage further, to become a war on words. By any reasonable standard, you should judge what people say according to the context in which they say it. The same words can have very different meanings and intent in different circumstances. By contrast, the message of the Terry case is that regardless of the context, the heat of the moment or what was meant by the words, language deemed offensive must be punished and banned. This too goes back to Macpherson and the notion of ‘unwitting racism’ – the idea that people, especially the great unwashed and uneducated, can be racist whether they know it or not.
There have been dire warnings that the tragic Terry verdict will give the ‘green light’ to racism in football. In fact, with the powerful trends noted above all brought into play, the opposite will be the case. As the new season approaches we can look forward to more phoney moral crusades, more re-education programmes, and more attempts to stamp out free speech at football.
Unlike those few gormless-looking Chelsea supporters celebrating outside the court on Friday, many of us are far from being John Terry fans. Despite his self-image as ‘JT’, the popular hero, he appears more like, as one friend texted me last week, ‘the people’s cunt’. It would be hard to argue that John Terry is an innocent individual. But that does not mean we should want to see him roasted as a bad ‘role model’. (Would you want the likes of Terry teaching your children how to behave, anyway?) There is more at stake here than the personal standing of one puffed-up player.
Some of us have not previously been big off-pitch admirers of Chelsea and England defender Ashley Cole, either. But Cole was surely right to tell the court last week that ‘we shouldn’t be sitting here’. If Terry had called Ferdinand an ‘FCB’, he should have been judged accordingly by his peers and the public. But even if that was true, he should surely not have been hauled into court for using offensive language in the cockpit of a football match.
While we are supporting the less attractive personalities in football, let us recall that the reviled FIFA boss Sepp Blatter had a point when he first said of the Terry incident that angry words during the game were not the same thing as racism, and could be forgotten afterwards. Or as the old-timers used to say, what happens on the pitch should stay on the pitch – and should certainly not end up being dragged through the courts and all over the media as part of a campaign to wash football’s mouth out with soap.
Mick Hume is spiked’s editor-at-large. His new book There is No Such Thing as a Free Press… And We Need One More Than Ever will be published by Imprint Academic this Autumn. (Pre-order this book from Amazon(UK).)
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