There’s nothing black and white about these racism allegations

Why we should resist passing judgement on these racial abuse accusations.

It would be easy to look at recent events in the world's two most lucrative and popular football leagues and conclude that in the last 10 days, racism has made an unwanted reappearance in modern football. Luis Suarez's infamous spat with Patrice Evra during Liverpool's game against Manchester United on October 15, was followed by two further incidents of alleged racism this weekend; one involving John Terry and Anton Ferdinand during the west London derby at Loftus road this Sunday, the other involving former north London rivals Cesc Fabregas and Frédéric Kanouté as Barcelona hosted Seville on the same day. But just because it would be easy to make this conclusion, doesn't mean that it would be right.

Each of the three incidents involves two opponents, one white and one black, sharing some choice language. The question is just what did they choose to say. In the case of Suarez and Evra, the Manchester United player accuses the Liverpool striker of calling him "certain word at least ten times." The word in question is clearly a well-known racial pejorative and one which Suarez denies using. The Football Association is currently investigating the incident. The allegation which caused John Terry to issue a statement in which he said "I would never say such a thing and I'm saddened that people would think so" is slightly different. Ferdinand hasn't accused Terry of anything, rather television footage from the game circulated on the internet shows Terry shout something at the QPR defender. Evidence in this footage is far from concrete and although the second word Terry appears to say wouldn't be considered very polite, it is unclear whether the word which precedes it relates to the colour of Ferdinand's skin or the quality of his eyesight. In Spain, the clash between Fabregas and Kanouté, the only incident of the three which lead to disciplinary action on the pitch (Kanouté was sent off for grabbing Fabregas), continued on Twitter, where Kanouté insisted "there was provocation and an insult", while Fabregas categorically denied it was of a racial nature "to cry racism is cowardly and an easy option to excuse your own poor behaviour."

In an era in which the public expects the most contentious incidents in high profile matches to be settled retrospectively through intense media scrutiny, it is a source of great frustration to both football fans and pundits that altercations such as those discussed above are likely to remain inconclusive. It doesn't matter how many cameras are packed into a ground, there's always likely to be instances where the only evidence for the nature of a spat will be one player's word against another's. Consequently in many cases, the Suarez/Evra incident being a good example, both parties involved become negatively tainted: one is suspected of lying, the other of being racist.

It is a mark of how far public attitudes towards racism in sport have progressed, that modern players now view being branded a racist as beyond contempt. Indeed if there is one thing the game seems to hold in lower regard than racists, it's those who are thought to have made false accusations of racism. Terry justified his aggressive response to Anton Ferdinand saying, "I thought Anton was accusing me of using a racist slur against him" and Fabregas signed off his signed off his Twitter defence stating "I will not tolerate anyone accusing me of things that I'm not". All too aware that mud sticks if you are seen to let it, the ferocity with which these charges are denied invites us to question the integrity of the accuser. The mistake we make is by accepting.

On the Monday following the Liverpool v Manchester United match the Guardian launched an online poll asking "Should Evra be banned if his claims prove false?" second guessing the outcome of an FA investigation that was barely 24 hours old. And today the Daily Mail has cast its considered and balanced view on both domestic incidents suggesting to Messers Evra and Ferdinand that they "could just put up with it and get on with the game." Both newspapers seem keen to draw a line under events, without the necessary information available to do so. It is unlikely that any of the above episodes will be concluded decisively, but that doesn't mean we should succumb to our desire to treat accusations of racial abuse as simple black and white issues.

 

 

 

 

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In focusing on the famous few, we risk doing a disservice to all victims of child sexual abuse

There is a danger that we make it harder, not easier, for victims to come forward in future. 

Back in the 1970s when relations between journalists and police were somewhat different to today a simple ritual would be carried out around the country at various times throughout the week.

Reporters, eager for information for their regional newspaper, would take a trip to the local station and there would be met by a desk sergeant who would helpfully skim through details in the crime Incident Book.

Among the entries about petty thefts, burglaries and road accidents there would occasionally be a reference to an allegation of incest. And at this point the sergeant and journalist might well screw-up their faces, shake their heads and swiftly move on to the next log. The subject was basically taboo, seen as something ‘a bit mucky,’ not what was wanted in a family newspaper.

And that’s really the way things stayed until 1986 when ChildLine was set up by Dame Esther Rantzen in the wake of a BBC programme about child abuse. For the first time children felt able to speak out about being sexually assaulted by the very adults whose role in life was to protect them.

And for the first time the picture became clear about what incest really meant in many cases. It wasn’t simply a low level crime to be swept under the carpet in case it scratched people’s sensitivities. It frequently involved children being abused by members of their close family, repeatedly, over many years.

Slowly but surely as the years rolled on the NSPCC continued to press the message about the prevalence of child sexual abuse, while encouraging victims to come forward. During this time the corrosive effects of this most insidious crime have been painfully detailed by many of those whose lives have been derailed by it. And of course the details of the hundreds of opportunistic sexual assaults committed by Jimmy Savile have been indelibly branded onto the nation’s consciousness.

It’s been a long road - particularly for those who were raped or otherwise abused as children and are now well into their later years - to bring society around to accepting that this is not to be treated as a dark secret that we really don’t want to expose to daylight. Many of those who called our helpline during the early days of the Savile investigation had never told anyone about the traumatic events of their childhoods despite the fact they had reached retirement age.

So, having buried the taboo, we seem to be in danger of giving it the kiss of life with the way some cases of alleged abuse are now being perceived.

It’s quite right that all claims of sexual assault should be investigated, tested and, where there is a case, pursued through the judicial system. No one is above the law, whether a ‘celebrity’ or a lord.

But we seem to have lost a sense of perspective when it comes to these crimes with vast resources being allocated to a handful of cases while many thousands of reported incidents are virtually on hold.

The police should never have to apologise for investigating crimes and following leads. However, if allegations are false or cannot be substantiated they should say so. This would be a strength not a weakness.

It is, of course, difficult that in many of the high-profile cases of recent times the identities of those under investigation have not been officially released by the police but have come to light through other means. Yet we have to deal with the world as it is not as we wish it would be and once names are common knowledge the results of the investigations centring on them should be made public.

When it emerges that someone in the public eye is being investigated for non-recent child abuse it obviously stirs the interest of the media whose appetite can be insatiable. This puts pressure on the police who don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past by allowing offenders to slip through their hands.  And so there is a danger, as has been seen in recent cases, that officers lack confidence in declaring there is a lack of evidence or the allegations are not true. 

The disproportionate weight of media attention given to say, Sir Edward Heath, as opposed to the Bradford grooming gang sentenced this week, shows there is a danger the pendulum is swinging too far the other way. This threatens the painstaking work invested in ensuring the public and our institutions recognise child abuse as a very real danger. 

Whilst high profile cases have helped the cause there is now a real risk that the all-encompassing focus on them does both victims of abuse and those advocating on their behalf a fundamental disservice.

As the public watches high -profile cases collapsing amidst a media fanfare genuine convictions made across the country week in week out go virtually unannounced. If this trend continues they may start to believe that child sexual abuse isn’t the prolific problem we know it to be.

So, while detectives peer into the mists of time, searching for long lost clues, we have to face the unpalatable possibility that offences being committed today will in turn only be investigated fully in years or decades' time because there is not the manpower to deal with them right now.

So, now the Goddard Inquiry is in full swing, taking evidence about allegations of child sex crimes involving ‘well known people’ as well as institutional abuse, how do we ensure we don’t fail today’s victims?

If they start to think their stories are going to be diminished by the continuing furore over how some senior public figures have been treated by the police they will stay silent. Therefore we have to continue to encourage them to come forward, to give them the confidence of knowing they will be listened to.

If we don’t we will find ourselves back in those incestuous days where people conspired to say and do nothing to prevent child abuse.

Peter Wanless is Chief Executive of the NSPCC.