John Terry's not guilty, but football's still in trouble

Everyone has to stop racism from blighting our showpiece sport.

Football's coming back. The adverts for the new Premier League season will be hitting our screens soon, promising the usual drama, more amazing goals and plenty of action. What they won't mention is the ugly face of the game - the claims of racism which have tainted the family-friendly image of the self-proclaimed 'best league in the world'.

After several months during which ill feeling festered on both sides, the Anton Ferdinand-John Terry case has finally concluded with Terry being found not guilty of the charges. With the case coming so soon after the Luis Suarez-Patrice Evra incident, which saw the Liverpool player banned for eight matches, we have to ask the question  whether this represents a crisis in the elite game or just two unfortunate, isolated incidents.

Terry's words were caught on camera and seemed to be decipherable to most amateur lipreaders - although the sound of what he said was not recorded. His defence, which was upheld, was that he was using them sarcastically, claiming that Ferdinand had wrongly accused him of racial abuse.

Both players admitted laying into each other with swearing and trash talk - not doing a great service for the sponsors and brands who attach themselves so keenly to the English Premier League, or being terrific role models for the millions of young fans who look up to their favourite stars as players (if not necessarily as people).

The incident had wider implications too. Ferdinand's brother, the former England captain Rio, found himself booed when he played against Chelsea - and there were later suggestions that the bad blood between the two was behind England's decision not to take both players to the tournament in Ukraine and Poland. Terry was found not guilty of the offence for which he was charged, so let that be an end to the matter. It shows that England's decision to keep him in the Euro 2012 squad, presuming innocence, was probably the right one.

The not guilty verdict for the former England captain will leave many - players, sponsors and those with a vested interest in seeing the game making a healthy profit - breathing a sigh of relief that the top flight wasn't tainted by this trial. Perhaps they can think that racism on the pitch can be relegated to a misunderstanding, or a vendetta. But that doesn't mean that racism is never, was never, and will never be a problem.

The Terry-Ferdinand spat came soon after the Luis Suarez-Patrice Evra affair, which poisoned what was already arguably the fiercest rivalry in the Premier League: between Liverpool and Manchester United.

The United skipper accused Suarez of making a racist remark; the Uruguayan defended himself and said it was a cultural misunderstanding of the term "negrito"; his clubmates wore T-shirts in support ahead of a match; but Suarez was found guilty. When the two sides met again in the league, at Old Trafford, Evra wildly celebrated United's at the final whistle right in front of Suarez. Again, it was hard for anyone to find the moral high ground.

Gone are the days in England when the major focus of racism in football was off the pitch, where disgraceful racist chanting, banana-throwing and abuse were a sad reality for many black players. But while that kind of behaviour has mainly been eradicated from the terraces, it's now the players who face closer scrutiny.

It's probably the case that trash-talking has spilled over into hate speech for many years, but the issue has come to a head now, and the authorities must be seen to take a stand. When there are 40 or more cameras trained on the action at top-flight games, the top players' every cough and spit is likely to be broadcast. There is no use in pretending it hasn't happened, or hoping that the problem will go away.

Some will argue that victims of racism should just - to use that horrible phrase - "man up" and get on with it rather than complaining. Some will say that psyching out an opponent is part and parcel of the game, like sledging in cricket - and there may be some merit in that. But it has to be made clear that certain lines cannot be crossed, and certain types of abuse are completely unacceptable - not on a park, not on a pitch, not in a stadium in front of 70,000 paying punters.

Don't blame the victims for coming forward. Don't blame the cameras for zooming in on the players' faces. And don't hide behind fandom and club loyalty to protect "your" players when they behave appallingly - if you do, you are just as guilty as they are. Everyone has to work together to stop racism from blighting our showpiece sport, and it starts with the fans. If some will continue to believe that 'their' players have done nothing wrong, and line up to defend those who have done indefensible things, we will get nowhere.
 

John Terry at Westminster Magistrates court in London. Photograph: Getty Images
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Craig Oliver, Cameron's attack dog, finally bites

A new book reveals the spiteful after life of Downing Street's unlikely spin doctor.

It must be hard being a spin doctor: always in the shadows but always on-message. The murky control that the role requires might explain why David Cameron’s former director of communications Craig Oliver has rushed out his political memoirs so soon after his boss left Downing Street. Now that he has been freed from the shackles of power, Oliver has chosen to expose the bitterness that lingers among those on the losing side in the EU referendum.

The book, which is aptly titled Unleashing Demons, made headlines with its revelation that Cameron felt “badly let down” by Theresa May during the campaign, and that some in the Remain camp regarded the then home secretary as an “enemy agent”. It makes for gripping reading – yet seems uncharacteristically provocative in style for a man who eschewed the sweary spin doctor stereotype, instead advising Cameron to “be Zen” while Tory civil war raged during the Brexit campaign.

It may be not only politicians who find the book a tough read. Oliver’s visceral account of his side’s defeat on 24 June includes a description of how he staggered in a daze down Whitehall until he retched “harder than I have done in my life. Nothing comes up. I retch again – so hard, it feels as if I’ll turn inside out.”

It’s easy to see why losing hit Oliver – who was knighted in Cameron’s resignation honours list – so hard. Arguably, this was the first time the 47-year-old father-of-three had ever failed at anything. The son of a former police chief constable, he grew up in Scotland, went to a state school and studied English at St Andrews University. He then became a broadcast journalist, holding senior posts at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

When the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned as No 10’s communications director in January 2011 because of unceasing references in the press to his alleged involvement in the phone-hacking scandal, Oliver was not the obvious replacement. But he was seen as a scandal-free BBC pen-pusher who exuded calm authority, and that won him the job. The Cameron administration, tainted by its association with the Murdoch media empire, needed somebody uncontroversial who could blend into the background.

It wasn’t just Oliver’s relative blandness that recommended him. At the BBC, he had made his name revamping the corporation’s flagship News at Ten by identifying the news angles that would resonate with Middle England. The Conservatives then put this skill to very good use during their 2015 election campaign. His broadcast expertise also qualified him to sharpen up the then prime minister’s image.

Oliver’s own sense of style, however, was widely ridiculed when he showed up for his first week at Downing Street looking every inch the metropolitan media male with a trendy man bag and expensive Beats by Dre headphones, iPad in hand.

His apparent lack of political affiliation caused a stir at Westminster. Political hacks were perplexed by his anti-spin attitude. His style was the antithesis of the attack-dog mode popularised by Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride in the New Labour years. As Robert Peston told the Daily Mail: “Despite working closely with Oliver for three years, I had no clue about his politics or that he was interested in politics.” Five years on, critics still cast aspersions and question his commitment to the Conservative cause.

Oliver survived despite early wobbles. The most sinister of these was the allegation that in 2012 he tried to prevent the Daily Telegraph publishing a story about expenses claimed by the then culture secretary, Maria Miller, using her links to the Leveson inquiry as leverage – an accusation that Downing Street denied. Nevertheless, he became indispensable to Cameron, one of a handful of trusted advisers always at the prime minister’s side.

Newspapers grumbled about Oliver’s preference for broadcast and social media over print. “He’s made it clear he [Oliver] doesn’t give a s*** about us, so I don’t really give a s*** about him,” a veteran correspondent from a national newspaper told Politico.

Yet that approach was why he was hired. There was the occasional gaffe, including the clumsy shot of a stern-looking Cameron, apparently on the phone to President Obama discussing Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, which was widely mocked on Twitter. But overall, reducing Downing Street’s dependence on print media worked: Scotland voted against independence in 2014 and the Tories won a majority in the 2015 general election.

Then came Brexit, a blow to the whole Cameroon inner circle. In his rush to set the record straight and defend Cameron’s legacy – as well as his own – Oliver has finally broken free of the toned-down, straight-guy persona he perfected in power. His memoir is spiteful and melodramatic, like something straight from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Perhaps, with this vengeful encore to his mild political career, the unlikely spin doctor has finally fulfilled his potential. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories