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24 January 2024

The Joey Barton conundrum

Is it possible to condemn bullying without also enabling it?

By Emma John

From ancient mythology to comic books, there have always been monsters and villains with the ability to absorb their opponent’s strength. Hercules had Hydra; the Fantastic Four had the Silver Surfer. It’s a well-established dilemma from fantasy to sci-fi – how do you defeat an opponent that feeds on battle, that becomes more powerful the moment you fight them? Such is the problem the media and its consumerati face every day. When public nuisances spout hatred – be it a former president of the United States hoping for re-election, or an unappealing ex-footballer with a podcast to promote – how do we dismiss and disown them, without fuelling their very existence? 

A man whose name isn’t worth the search-engine hits it engenders – so let’s call him Brandon Joseph – tosses a sputtering little firework into the overflowing dustbin of social media. He is touting for publicity with some nakedly sexist jibes at female football pundits. The sports minister calls them “dangerous comments” and promises to voice his dismay with X, formerly known as Twitter, and Meta. “But I’m always slightly wary in these situations that these sorts of people want the oxygen,” warns the minister, whose own name is lamentably forgettable, “and I don’t want to fuel that.”

A pioneering footballer and commentator – her name is Eni Aluko – makes a stand. She has been one of the chief victims of the vicious and potentially libellous comments, and she speaks openly on Instagram of the hounding and fear she has experienced since the campaign of bile was launched against her. “I’ve felt under threat this week,” she says. “I’ve felt like something is going to happen to me.” Her words carry echoes of the threat of violence against other women in the public sphere – threats that have been acted on in the past – and they worry us. They should worry us.

Having once plied her trade as a lawyer at the magic circle firm Slaughter and May, Aluko is too smart to imagine that such a speech will cause a change of heart in either her antagonist or his followers. But then, that isn’t the point. Her announcement is never going to be a suffocating blanket thrown over her adversary’s heat-seeking objective. She is Red Adair, fighting fire with her own carefully controlled explosion. In this case, it is the announcement that she has taken legal advice on the words that have been used about her.

Inevitably, immediately, her tormentor hits back: his hyperbolic insults become targeted personal attacks.

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You don’t need a magnifying glass to identify the ugliness in the original posts – there’s nothing classy or clever in comparing people who commentate on sport for a living to serial killers or murderous tyrants. Then Joseph tweets about Aluko’s family and upbringing, scenting the trail for his followers with rancid bait. It’s all very well to put on a pair of Ryan Reynolds glasses in an attempt to pass as a thinking man with a keen eye on the world about you, but that disguise doesn’t hold up to scrutiny for long. The more Joseph acts, the more thuggish his behaviour is revealed to be.

The pile-on, of course, is the point. Emma Hayes identified that in her magisterial takedown of the affair back in December. “If you haven’t experienced systemic misogyny like lots of us have, you can’t for one moment understand how detrimental some of these conversations are,” she said. “Particularly on social media which, let me be clear, doesn’t take a lot for people to pile on women.”

Hayes herself refused to name the person she was talking about – “I’m not going to pollute or dilute that conversation by making it about [the] personality of individuals,” she said. Starve the fire-breather’s spitting flames of the oxygen of publicity and, we hope and trust, the issue may go away. The problem is that while the grown-ups in the room sit on their hands to resist fanning the flames, there’s always a carpet of trash to feed them, and plenty more mischievous hands that are happy to work the bellows. 

There is no easy answer. If there were, the world might not have been forced to endure a Trump presidency, or an Andrew Tate manosphere. But if ex-sportspeople trying to make a buck from their fading profile believe they can do it through misogyny, and if they’re providing cover for others who feel the same, they need to be challenged rather than ignored. It can never be wrong to call out a bully. His name is Joey Barton.

[See also: How the City of London keeps Putin’s oil flowing]

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