Richard Scudamore addressing the press at The London Nautical School on October 23, 2013 in London. Photo: Getty Images
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Scudamore's sexist emails reveal the Premier League to be an unaccountable institution

If asking why there is one rule for the person who runs the richest league in the world and can control access to its key figures and another for the chief executive of a fans’ organisation counts as grinding an axe, we’re in deep trouble.

As feminist issues go, observed the Guardian’s Marina Hyde, the email exchange between Premier League chief executive Richard Scudamore and DLA Piper media lawyer Nick West is “non-league feminist irk”, coming in some way below “equal pay, female genital mutilation, access to abortion and rape reporting rates”. Laura Jones said, in an excellent piece on The Offside Rule blog headlined "Why I’m not offended by Scudamore’s sexist emails", that: “In the context of what’s happening in this country it is a mere pimple on the arse of the game.”

Both articles provide a welcome sense of perspective in a debate that has, at times, seemed destined to become another one in which the use of words and whether or not people could be, should be or even have the right to be offended – that word again – threatens to obscure more substantial points. Once the debate centres on linguistic gymnastics, it’s easy for the old ‘PC gone mad, you can’t say anything these days’ brigade to leap in and dismiss the underlying issues.

Sure enough, after Scudamore’s friend and shooting partner (and yes, it’s hard not to hum the theme to Downton Abbey as I type) Bruce Buck from Chelsea FC brought in the club’s PR company to firefight, a slew of articles appeared along those lines.

Martin Samuel railed against “a cabal of the useless, the over-promoted and professionally outraged” who were “in league against” Scudamore, while conceding that “Scudamore was an ass. He needs to be told to stop behaving like an ass”. Matthew Syed wrote that “there is something deeply fraudulent about the idea that Scudamore should resign because of his ‘unacceptable attitude’.” Matt Scott said on Twitter that “everyone deserves a second chance if they are egregious in private among consenting adults”, while also worrying about the effect firing the man who spearheads the megabucks Premier League would have on “UK plc”. And there was plenty more like that.

Now, as it happens, I agree with a lot that’s said in those articles – although use of the phrase “UK plc” makes me grind my teeth. I agree very much with Syed’s point that few, if any, of us could confidently say that if every email, text and Twitter utterance we’d ever sent over the years was examined and then presented in a different context it would not reflect badly on us. And I’m as scornful as Samuel of the high-profile figures who sent private messages of support to Scudamore just days before taking a more critical stance in public.

But the outrage of much of the sports press at people who jump on mere words to attempt to take someone out is rather selective. When the former chief executive of Supporters Direct sent some ill-advisedlysweary emails a few years ago, Samuels’s Daily Mail colleague Charlie Sale said that “for most other CEOs in sport, such loose-lipped talk would be an immediate resignation issue”. Scudamore and his allies seized their chance and pulled all funding to Supporters Direct – despite the immediate resignation of the man in their sights. It took months for the organisation and its 10 staff to reach agreement that funding would continue.

To quote Marina Hyde – who has been crystal clear throughout this whole affair – again, Scudamore’s actions were “petulant, spiteful, imperious”. Hyde talks of hypocrisy in her piece, and it’s a word that may also spring to mind when reflecting on why similarly outraged condemnations did not appear in the press at the time of Supporters Direct’s travails. And in all the sound and fury about invasions of privacy, it’s perhaps worth wondering how the private comments of those leading figures I mentioned earlier got into the public domain.

The phrase “people with an axe to grind” has also been used by a number of commentators to counter criticism of Scudamore. If asking why there is one rule for the person who runs the richest league in the world and can control access to its key figures and another for the chief executive of a fans’ organisation counts as grinding an axe, we’re in deep trouble.

As University of Manchester research fellow Daniel Fitzpatrick argues: “The danger of reducing the debate to familiar tabloid terrain on the boundaries of political correctness is that it neglects the deeper tensions at play.” The issue is about power, responsibility, accountability – about the way an organisation is run. The questions raised by David Conn, always a measured and forensic analyst of the football business, are central. The Premier League loves to present itself as a modern business, in contrast to the clubby blazer brigade more traditionally associated with sport. And yet this case shows it is just another unaccountable, closed elite.

Scudamore’s critics aren’t using the email exchange as a means to settle other scores, they are using it as further evidence of why their long-standing criticisms are valid. Scudamore was judged by a committee composed of people who rely on his patronage, and is responsible to a two-man board consisting of himself and a part-time chairman. Staff at the Premier League havesaid they support the people who pay their wages. And the PA at the centre of the storm, Rani Abraham, has been accused of gaining unauthorised access to the emails. She says : “My job was to sit down at my desk outside his office and log into my system where his emails would automatically come up on screen for me to look after for him”. It’s an explanation plausible to anyone familiar with how executives’ PAs work. But despite the Premier League’s insistence that it has conducted a “rigorous” investigation, Abraham has never been contacted. “No one from either organisation has contacted me directly. All they’ve done is threaten me with legal action,” she says. It all falls far short of modern corporate good practice.

The two writers I began by quoting seem to have little trouble identifying the content of the emails for what they were – sexist and offensive – while recognising that the way people use words is not the main issue. Is it a coincidence those two writers are women? Women in Football, an organisation representing over 1,000 women working in the sport and which has done much of the work in ensuring the issue is not brushed under the carpet, focuses its criticism on organisational good practice.

The willingness to take offence may well be a debilitating feature of the times, not least because it can hinder efforts to make a real difference. In the Scudamore case, as in football, keeping your eye on the ball is key.

Martin Cloake is a writer and editor based in London. You can follow him on Twitter at @MartinCloake.

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Levi Bellfield, Milly Dowler and the story of men’s violence against women and girls

Before she was so inextricably connected to the phone hacking scandal, Milly Dowler was one of many women maimed and killed by a violent man.

The name Milly Dowler has meant phone hacking since July 2011. The month before that, Levi Bellfield (already imprisoned for the murders of Marsha McDonnell and Amelie Delagrange, and the attempted murder of Kate Sheedy) had been convicted of killing her, nine years after her death. But almost immediately, she became the centrepiece of Nick Davies’s investigations into Fleet Street “dark arts”, when it was revealed that News of the World journalists had accessed her voicemail during the search for her.

Suddenly her peers were not McDonnell, Delagrange and Sheedy, but Hugh Grant, Leslie Ash, Sadie Frost, Jude Law. People she could only have known from TV, now her neighbours in newsprint. Victims of a common crime. She had attained a kind of awful fame, and remains much better known than McDonnell, Delagrange and Sheedy.

There is a reason for that: with Milly Dowler, there was hope of finding her alive. Weeks of it, the awful hope of not knowing, the dull months of probability weighing down, until finally, in September 2002, the body. McDonnell, Delagrange and Sheedy were attacked in public places and found before they were missed. It is not such an interesting story as the schoolgirl who vanishes from a street in daylight. Once there were some women, who were killed and maimed by a man. The end.

Even now that Bellfield has confessed to kidnapping, raping and killing Milly, it seems that some people would like to tell any story other than the one about the man who kidnaps, rapes, kills and maims girls and women. There is speculation about what could have made him the kind of monster he is. There must be some cause, and maybe that cause is female.

Detective Chief Inspector Colin Sutton (who worked on the McDonnell and Delagrange murders) has said insinuatingly that Bellfield “dotes on his mother and her on him. It's a troubling relationship.” But it was not Bellfield’s mother who kidnapped, raped, killed and maimed girls and women, of course. He did that, on his own, although he is not the first male killer to be extended the courtesy of blaming his female relatives.

Coverage of the Yorkshire Ripper accused his wife Sonia of driving him to murder. “I think when Sutcliffe attacked his 20 victims, he was attacking his wife 20 times in his head,” said a detective quoted in the Mirror, as if the crimes were not Sutcliffe’s responsibility but Sonia’s for dodging the violence properly due to her. Lady Lucan has been successfully cast by Lucan’s friends as “a nightmare” in order to foster sympathy for him – even though he systematically tried to drive her mad before he tried to kill her, and did kill their children’s nanny, Sandra Rivett. Cherchez la femme. Cherchez la mom.

I know little about Bellfield’s relationship with his mother, but one of his exes spoke about him earlier this year. Jo Colling told how he had terrorised her while they were together, and stalked her after she left. “When I knew he was with another woman and not coming home it was a relief, but now I know what he was capable of, I feel guilty,” she said. “I did get an injunction against him, but it only made him even angrier.”

Colling fears that she could have prevented Bellfield’s murders by going to the police with her suspicions earlier; but since the police couldn’t even protect her, it is hard to see what difference this could have made, besides exposing herself further to Bellfield’s rage. Once there was a woman who was raped, beaten and stalked by the man she lived with. The end. This is a dull story too: Colling’s victimisation is only considered worth telling because the man who victimised her also killed Milly Dowler. Apparently the torture of a woman is only really notable when the man who does it has committed an even more newsworthy crime.

Throughout his engagements with the legal system, Bellfield seems to have contrived to inflate his own importance. Excruciatingly, he withheld his confession to murdering Milly until last year, leaving her family in an agony of unknowing – and then drew the process out even further by implicating an accomplice, who turned out to have nothing at all to do with the crime. He appears to have made the performance into another way to exercise control over women, insisting that he would only speak to female officers about what he did to Milly.

It is good that there are answers for the Dowler family; it is terrible that getting them let Bellfield play at one more round of coercions. And for the rest of us, what does this new information tell us that shouldn’t already be obvious? The story of men’s violence against girls and women is too routine to catch our attention most of the time. One woman killed by a man every 2.9 days in the UK. 88,106 sexual offences in a year.

Once there were some girls and women, who were tortured, stalked, kidnapped, raped, killed and maimed by a man. Dowler, McDonnell, Delagrange, Sheedy, Colling. More, if new investigations lead to new convictions, as police think likely. All those girls and women, all victims of Levi Bellfield, all victims of a common crime that will not end until we pull the pieces together, and realise that the torture, the stalking, the kidnaps, the rapes, the killing and the maiming – all of them are connected by the same vicious logic of gender. Then, and only then, will be able to tell a different story. Then we will have a beginning.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.