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2 October 2019updated 25 Jul 2021 3:24pm

John Barnes, football race rows and the soul-corrupting economy of today’s new media

Whenever there’s race to be debated, just page Barnes and up he pops, effortlessly filling airtime. 

By Jonathan Liew

Perhaps it won’t be any great surprise to you that football is in the passionate throes of its latest race row. Football race rows are a bit like London buses: frequent, largely devoid of meaningful human interaction and liable to change direction at a moment’s notice. Thus it was with the recent case of Bernardo Silva, Benjamin Mendy and a brand of Spanish chocolate-covered peanuts.

Silva is the slippery Portuguese midfielder who plays for Manchester City, the Premier League champions. Mendy is his friend and City team-mate, a French international of Senegalese descent. The peanuts, meanwhile, are called Conguitos – Spanish for “little people from the Congo” – and feature a logo of a chubby black cartoon baby with big red lips. In a decision he now possibly regrets, Silva tweeted a picture of the Conguitos logo alongside a childhood photo of Mendy, inviting viewers to chuckle at the resemblance.

The fallout was sharp and sour. The tweet was swiftly deleted, but not before it had been condemned by anti-racism charity Kick It Out and attracted the attention of the Football Association, which could ban Silva for six matches if he is found guilty of discrimination. Yet amid the sounds of bloodlust came a lone gallant voice, riding over the hill to Silva’s defence. Step forward John Barnes. For Barnes, the former Liverpool and England midfielder and now a popular media pundit, there was nothing to see here. “It’s ridiculous,” he said of the furore on Sky Sports News. “There’s absolutely nothing wrong with it. I think he’s quite cute, the little black caricature, so I don’t see what the issue is.”

It wasn’t the first time Barnes had been invited on television to explain why something racist wasn’t actually racist at all. The previous week, he had sprung to the defence of his former England team-mate Peter Beardsley, after the FA found him guilty of making racist comments to young black players while Newcastle under-23s coach. “It’s unfortunate,” Barnes insisted. “The intent is the most important thing, and I never felt Peter’s intent was to be racist.”

Then there was the time he criticised the “witch-hunt” of Luis Suarez, the Liverpool striker found to have racially abused an opponent in 2011. Or expressed his “empathy” with John Terry, banned and fined the following year for a similar offence. In fact, go back through virtually any racist incident in football over the last decade, and the one common denominator linking them all is that Barnes didn’t think it was that big a deal.

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You would think all this might have vaguely bedimmed his credibility as a commentator on such issues. On the contrary: two decades after he hung up his playing boots, a decade after his last managerial job, Barnes is more in demand than ever. Not just on football matters, either: whenever there’s race to be debated, just page Barnes and up he pops, effortlessly filling airtime, generating views and clicks, attracting coos of approval from white people everywhere.

And so there he is on Radio 5 Live, explaining why Liam Neeson “deserves a medal” after admitting to a racist lynching fantasy. There he is on LBC, defending Amber Rudd for calling Diane Abbott a “coloured woman”. There he is on Sky News, dropping GCSE History-level truth bombs about how racism is a problem for the whole of society, and is therefore everybody’s fault, and therefore nobody’s.

Of course, he doesn’t book himself on to these shows. Rather, the rise of Barnes as the Authentic Voice of Racism says more about the culture that has enabled him: the crushing, soul-corrupting economy of today’s news media, and who gets to speak, and what they’re expected to contribute to what we laughably describe as public debate.

Last month the BBC reprimanded its presenter Naga Munchetty for breaching its impartiality rules in comments on President Trump’s “go home” tweet. Though it was forced to reverse its decision after a staff backlash, the very idea of subjecting racism to impartiality rules demonstrates the extent to which it has been conceptualised and trivialised to the point of abstraction: racism as theoretical exercise, as entertainment product to be debated and chopped into two-minute viral video segments.

And so into the content void slides Barnes: an intelligent, articulate speaker with an irresistible backstory and the sort of instinctive contrariness so beloved of producers. A decorated black ex-footballer, a victim of egregious terrace racism during his playing days in the 1980s and 1990s, there’s a certain irony in the fact Barnes has become a sort of poster boy for the xenophobes who once abhorred him: expunging their guilt, salving their qualms with a nod and a wink and an assurance that deep down, we’re all
a little bit racist sometimes.

Perhaps the dissonance is partly generational. While today’s young black stars such as Raheem Sterling, Paul Pogba and Jadon Sancho feel emboldened to speak out about the discrimination they receive, Barnes suffered the monkey chants and the banana skins in silence, and now largely scorns the activism of the current generation. “Has [online racial abuse] negatively impacted on Paul Pogba? No, it hasn’t,” he insists, while inviting Sancho to “give up football” and find out “what real discrimination is about”.

Nobody would seriously deny that racism in English football is underpinned by a multitude of factors: some societal, some structural, some cultural. It’s characterised by invisible forces as much as visible incidents. Equally, it’s not hard to see how downplaying individual acts of racism can contribute to a climate in which they are more likely to keep happening. Still, as long as they do, it seems Barnes will never be short of work. 

Jonathan Liew is chief sports writer of the Independent

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This article appears in the 02 Oct 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit revolutionaries