MacKenzie and Sun Equally Culpable For Horrendous Barkley Own-Goal

Ross Barkley celebrates Everton’s second goal against Burnley on Saturday

In my six years of adjudicating on complaints against the press,1 I am struggling to think of a case as bad as Kelvin MacKenzie’s assault on footballer Ross Barkley last Friday.

This has nothing to do with the ability of journalists to be offensive or controversial. Both are the price of our relatively free press. But from a regulatory point of view, MacKenzie’s article scrapped well below the bottom of the barrel.

I’m not going to reprise his rant – why recirculate and give fresh impetus to such bile?  But the piece was inaccurate, and so misleading.  It failed to differentiate opinion from fact.  And it used a “protected characteristic” in way that was pejorative and gratuitous.  All these things cross the red lines of the self-regulatory Editors’ Code.

But there are two things in addition  that take us to a new level. First,  the timing.  The article was published on the eve of the anniversary of the Hillsborough tragedy, when 96 supporters from Liverpool lost their lives at the afore-mentioned stadum.  Either MacKenzie was aware of the date and ploughed on regardless.  Or he wasn’t which given his own personal involvement in mis-reporting the event in question is a profound act of self-serving amnesia.  Irrespective of the explanation, it is spectacularly insensitive.

And second, how did the article get from MacKenzie’s keyboard into the Sun?  Who proofed it? Who subbed it?  Who found the images and who laid out the page?  Again, two possible explanations:  Either MacKenzie, as a former editor and long-established figure, was given “carte blanche” to do as he pleased.  Or the editorial control was utterly lacking.  Either way, the failure of effective editorial oversight is truly shocking.  That is surely a question of standards that must be addressed.

The failure of editorial oversight is not just about the specific article, it is about the Sun’s standing and sales.  Other commentators have already speculated that commercially this episode could prove counter-productive in an almost existential sense. I am not so sure, but I do know that writing-off a whole region of the UK is a curious way to try to increase influence and revenue.

What was going on in the editor’s office of the Sun last Thursday night?  Was it some inexperienced southerner who has no idea of what this means on Merseyside and the North West generally? Was it someone who had the experience and knowledge but thought the notoriety would be somehow worth it?

I was at Goodison Park on Saturday and I have to say how wrong you can be. You could feel the resilience and unity of the capacity crowd over Hillsborough and Barkley. (And just by the way, referee Clattenberg was also wrong to book Barkley for his post-goal celebrations.  After the week he had been through, greater humanity should have been shown.)

However, there are two positives than we can take from this sorry mess.  The first is that People Power can and does work.  The public and business boycott of the Sun on Merseyside, now more widespread than ever, hits the company harder than can be quantified.  And second, that the ‘paper themselves suspended McKenzie shows that the reconfiguration of   how press complaints are investigated –so that they have a primary hard-wired responsibility to own and act on complaints – is having some effect.

But what we surely need is a proactive culture rather than a reactive remedy.  This was serious error of both judgement and procedure by the Sun.  With freedom comes responsibility. They need to stop up the bottle and leave the last-chance saloon, dispense with Kelvin MacKenzie – and to programme their IT systems to delete any copy containing the words “Football” and “Merseyside”



1 I was a Press Complaints Commissioner 2008-2014

2016: Football’s new year’s resolution?

Argentina’s Lanus footballers argue with Ecuadorean referee Roddy Zambrano (C) during the Copa Sudamericana 2014 match against Paraguay’s Cerro Porteno. Photo credit:JUAN MABROMATA/AFP/Getty Images)
Alert: If you have no interest in football, stop here!

An annual Christmas pleasure is spending time with my Evertonian in-laws. This year gave us an absorbing game against Stoke (match report here) decided, as you may recall, by a controversial penalty in stoppage time. Roberto Martinez must be one of the most civilised men in football, so his outrage was all the more telling!

Surely it is now time to try and fix the increasingly costly consequences of bad decisions. And as we look back on 2015, I do think we can import some aspects from other sports into the nation’s favourite.

So how about giving a form of  rugby’s “TMO” or cricket’s “DRS” a go?  Just for a trial season, just for penalty area incidents. And just limited to two “appeals” for each manger per 90 minutes. We have the technology.  The other rules of the game could accommodate the interruption with minimal adjustment.

I say “interruption” but look at the benefits – not just of improved decision-making, but in how the game is played.  We acknowledge that referees are human and can occasionally make mistakes.  But in allowing   a limited challenge, we support their authority, not undermine it.

When you are thinking  about the thoroughly distasteful but endemic  “crowding”  of referees  by players, anything to give the  man in black (forgive the stereotype,  which  I know is increasingly  outdated) the respect and space  to do  the job  is surely worth considering.

Also I would take the opportunity to go further.  If part of the role of the TMO is to diffuse controversy on the pitch, why not make improvements in player behaviour also part of the trial.  No crowding of the ref.  Discussion through the captain, not everyone. A much lower thresh-hold for dissent-related yellow and red cards. And in return, as a meaningful gesture to greater transparency, let’s put a mic on the ref. That seems to work very well elsewhere!

I’m by no means alone is wrestling with this issue.  George Riley wrote well on it in 2011 (read his blog here) So it is not unthinkable. Yes, there would be a few more cards over the first two or three games next season, but people will soon get the idea!

In return we get a better game and better role-models.  Investors can be more confident of getting a fair return for their input.  Gamesmanship diminishes and skill levels should predominate.

Time to wake up Simon, I hear you say – but the above is achievable if enough of us want it. The custodians of the rules are not hermetically insulated from the rest of us.  Why shouldn’t we expect and insist that the game not only confronts its problems but does so with zeal and imagination?

A happy new year to all!