Racism & Football’s New Balance

by | Dec 27, 2019

Sky Sports’ David Jones is, IMO, currently British telly’s best football presenter. Narrowly beating the Beeb’s Mark Chapman, who has restored Match of the Day 2 to its initial, Adrian Chiles-era glories Miles above the rest. And possibly the best since James Richardson’s halcyon days getting away with broad insinuations about Cliff Richard’s sexuality on Channel Four’s Football Italia shows in the 1990s.

Jones may be too understated for some. But after the execrable Richard Keys, well-informed and understated professionalism is both a godsend and an effective counter-balance to the punditry stridency of Graeme Souness and Gary Neville. So, his effort to introduce “balance” to last Sunday’s studio discussion after Frank Lampard’s comprehensive win over Jose Mourinho (disguised as Tottenham/Chelsea) struck a particularly jarring note.

In discussing the racist abuse of Chelsea’s German defender Antonio Rudiger by some inferior humans among Spurs’ fanbase, Neville addressed contemporary English society’s racism. He considered how football authorities, players and players’ representatives should react, suggesting that English football should fix domestic problems before lecturing other nations’ associations. He mentioned his shame at his own inaction as a player. And he noted certain conduct in the recent general election campaign.

But towards the end of a 117-second clip which quickly went viral, Jones, clearly under earpiece instruction, monotoned this disclaimer: “I am compelled to say they are the opinions of you, Gary Neville, and not those of Sky Sports. That is my duty.” Neville snapped back: “Do you not agree with it?” Jones said that was “completely irrelevant,” (which Neville accepted) and launched a twitterstorm with: “I’m here to try and hold a balanced debate.”

Neville’s, correct, reaction, “that was balanced, I wasn’t accusing anybody of racism,” soon covered the twittersphere, with the hot-takes being variants on “what’s the balance, racism is OK?” I thought Jones maybe misheard Neville’s closing comment, “we have to deal with our own ship here,” as changing ‘ship’ to ‘sh*t’ would only have made Neville’s message more powerful. As it was, Jones’ disclaimer distracted from that message.

A run through Neville’s comments, something not afforded Jones or the voice in his earpiece, hinted at what might have given that voice’s owner palpitations. Neville noted that during the recent election campaign “the leaders of both main parties” were “accused constantly” of “fuelling racism and accepting racism within their parties.” So far, so balanced. The Liberal Democrats wouldn’t mind being left out of THIS debate.

But then Neville referenced racism’s acceptance in “the highest office in the country.” And however correct that was, or however libellously the main parties may have conducted their campaigns, without fearing or facing consequence, such words would scream “disclaimer” to any earpiece voice. Especially as, fifteen days earlier, after Manchester United players were racially abused at Manchester City’s Etihad Stadium, Neville called “the Prime Minister talking about people coming into this country” an example of what “fuels (racism) all the time.”

Maybe, then, Jones wasn’t suggesting imbalance in Neville’s comments about racism. Just that Neville had directly labelled Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson a fueller of racism, when Johnson’s special adviser (Dominic Cummings) has threatened retribution against his critics, including parliament itself and a supposedly pro-Labour BBC.

Well…no. Jones was soon on Twitter apologising for having “spoiled such an important discussion on racism” and stating that he would “never purposefully shut down” such a discussion. And he clearly was “so very disappointed and sorry” for what he’d done. Yet he added that “I had to intervene when Gary suggested the two main political parties were to blame” and was apologising “unreservedly” for not making that “clear enough.”

But Neville hadn’t said that. He’d reported accusations against both main party leaders. Which there were, even if they were largely examples of the dismal old Bolshevik tactic of “whataboutery,” responses to accusations of Labour anti-Semitism and Conservative Islamophobia; although Johnson’s crude public-schoolboy-humour comments, which I won’t dignify with repetition here, were more hateful than “irrational fear.”

And, in fairness, Jones didn’t shut down the discussion. Indeed, Sky Sports Premier League’s twitter account posted six subsequent minutes, including more direct comments from Sunday’s third pundit, Ashley Cole (“It goes down to the government, you’re reading in the paper, ‘this party is racist but they’re letting it go’”) which didn’t inspire a disclaimer, possibly because the earpiece voice was rendered speechless (of course, the most extremist elements in both main parties might consider such accusations a badge of honour, rather than defamatory, but that’s another argument).

It seems, therefore, that the curse of (media) balance has struck, with Jones caught in the crossfire and Neville submerged by it. As were connected side-issues, such as the contrasting reactions to Neville’s and rapper Stormzy’s recent calls-out of domestic racism, reactions which fuelled the duo’s arguments.

In March 2018, LBC radio’s James O’Brien noted, via New Statesman article headline, that “media impartiality is a problem when ignorance is given the same weight as expertise.” And, on LBC, he highlighted the BBC’s skewed sense of balance. If “Chris Patten” stated some facts, “you’d have to invite Jacob Rees-Mogg on to tell you when the unicorns arrive.” Flat Earth Society spokespeople “get as much time and attention as the fellow with pictures taken in space to show the earth is round.” As Gaelic Football pundit Joe Brolly said: “You’ve got to give the looney the same platform as the logical.”

But balance itself a side-issue here. For David Jones, it’s apology very much accepted and let’s move on to many more years of being far better than Richard Keys. There is no moving on from Neville’s comments.

In the viral clip, Neville said: “We have a racism problem in the Premier League in England (and they) hide behind the FA on this. We’ve just had a general election where…the leaders of both main parties are accused constantly of fuelling and accepting racism within their parties. So, if its accepted in the highest office in the country, we’re talking about it at an enormous level. It’s the same here. We’ve seen an incident (with) one individual. But it’s a far bigger problem than that.

“We maybe have to empower the players to walk off the pitch and stop the entertainment whilst it’s happening. Because I didn’t walk off the pitch when Ashley was abused 15 years ago, you might argue that its now OK for me to sit in my ivory tower of a commentary box and suggest that players should walk off the pitch. But I would be as ashamed of myself for not doing it 15 years ago as I would be absolutely proud of players empowered to think ‘do something about it, take it into your own hands.’

“The PFA are there to protect football players in this country (who) are receiving abuse whilst they are playing football and doing their jobs. That is unacceptable. So, the PFA might have to take it into their own hands, and the Premier League and the FA stop pointing the finger towards the Bulgarian FA and the Spanish FA. Because we have to deal with our own ship here.”

That is the legitimate takeaway from Sunday’s debate. And Jones’ live reaction is no excuse for ignoring it.