Now John Terry has departed, the pressure is all on the FA

Muddying the waters of sport’s great taboo does no one any favours.

 

"We are in a game, and at the end of the game, we shake hands, and this can happen, because we have worked so hard against racism and discrimination."

Sepp Blatter, November, 2011

Ten months is a long time in football.

This weekend, the same people who called for Sepp Blatter to resign from his post as the head of FIFA for suggesting that victims of racist abuse should “shake hands” with the perpetrators, have forced Patrice Evra into doing just that when he took Luis Suarez’s hand before Manchester United’s game with Liverpool at Anfield.

The gesture brought widespread acclaim across several media outlets.

Former Liverpool hero Robbie Fowler went so far as to suggest that the pair should have come together and each lay some sort of tribute in the memory of the 96 fans who lost their lives at Hillsborough 23 years ago.

The events of 15 April 1989 were undoubtedly tragic, painful and a source of great anger for different parties but you cannot use it to try and paper over an issue that goes back even further than the terracing problems around Europe throughout the 1980s.

To specifically ask Evra and Suarez to acknowledge each other makes a mockery of the indignation from every corner that surrounded the Liverpool striker’s vocal outburst last year. Expressing sorrow, regret and sympathy at the events of Hillsborough is one thing, but hoping it can resolve all ills between the two clubs and forcing two of the main protagonists into a ham-handed gesture is naïve and painfully unrealistic.

Did it make any difference? After the tributes from Ian Rush, Sir Bobby Charlton, Steven Gerrard and Ryan Giggs, it took all of 35 minutes for some small sections of Anfield to start booing Patrice Evra for his role in the Suarez racism row. So much for unity and forgiveness.

The wounds of a rivalry that has existed for over 100 years cannot be magically repaired by sorrow - no matter how tragic and desperate an event it was.

Late last night, on the eve of his Football Association misconduct hearing for allegedly racially abusing Anton Ferdinand in a league fixture last year, John Terry called time on his England career. The Chelsea captain suggested the charge, pursued after he was cleared of the same offence at Westminster Magistrates’ Court over the summer, made his position within the national side “untenable”.

I believe that during his trial Terry would have been best placed to illustrate just how often racist language is used in the professional game and demonstrate to all just how much of a problem he believed it to be, rather than focus solely on his own plight.

The problem is that, regardless of indignant suggestions to the contrary, we all know that racist abuse is prevalent in the game.  

No amount of independent reports or calls from government will hammer this message home. Inducing players to visually respect each other for the benefit of the cameras serves only to further the Premier League brand rather than actually facilitate an improvement in race relations.

The open displays of racism and xenophobia that were common place 20 or 30 years ago in this country, and still visibly dog other European nations, have diminished, but it would be naïve of everyone to believe that the incidents involving Suarez and Terry represent a sudden resurgence in such abuse.

Despite this, the English FA and wider media have struggled to accurately define how racism should be tackled.

Can Suarez be rehabilitated in English football? Does every Evra handshake now represent some sort of acceptance of racism? Is Sepp Blatter’s utopian vision for world football vindicated because the FA and Premier League refuse to call a halt to pre-match handshakes and try and compel everyone to respect each other?

These are all questions and problems that should have been answered before the first charge was administered under this current crackdown to push racism out of the game. Because these questions remain to be answered, the FA’s stance is irreparably weakened.

As John Terry prepares to face his personal hearing with the prize he holds dearest, his England shirt, now no longer something he can lose, the pressure is all on the FA.

The independent disciplinary board are in an impossible position. Regardless of their decision, it is clear that Anton Ferdinand will not suddenly start shaking the hand of his former friend simply because it is found that Terry has no case to answer.

The hearing is not going to suddenly bring up a barrage of new evidence - the only difference will be that the standard of proof required to find Terry guilty is significantly reduced. 

If it is decided that Terry has no case to answer, how long before Ferdinand’s prolonged refusal to shake hands lands him with a charge of bringing the game into disrepute?

Similarly, what if, no longer compelled by the emotion of Hillsborough, Patrice Evra decides he cannot forgive Luis Suarez for his abuse - what course of action can be taken then?

In the last 12 months, the FA have allowed Fabio Capello to resign over the farcical way in which Terry was stripped of the captaincy and then enabled his replacement, Roy Hodgson, to publicly suggest that he would prefer it if the former captain of the national team was found not guilty- how is that for degrading the integrity of the organisation’s disciplinary process?

The media spotlight may be on John Terry this week, but the most difficult questions must be answered by the Football Association. 

John Terry. Photograph: Getty Images

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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder