John Terry's Trial And The Press: Not Guilty, Not Doomed

LONDON, ENGLAND - JULY 12: Chelsea FC football player John Terry arrives at Westminster Magistrates court on July 12, 2012 in London, England. The former England captain allegedly made racist comments to Queens Park Rangers defender Ferdinand during a match on October 23rd last year, at Queens Park Rangers' ground, Loftus Road, in west London and a verdict is expected to be reached tomorrow morning. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

How John Terry's court case has made the press look silly.

When Crown prosecutor Duncan Penny reassured John Terry in court on Monday, "please do not worry about the language", he released a veritable poo-tempest. Not only was Terry's tongue loosened, so were those of the Fourth Estate. Like the bit in Demolition Man when Sly runs out of bog-roll, curses were converted into paper with phenomenal abandon.

The magistrate's verdict, of course, was not guilty. The consensual verdict of the press was that there are places -- broadsheet newspapers, courtrooms -- policed by We The Middle Class where it is okay to use The Three Words, and others - the football pitch, the changing rooms beside football pitches - where it isn't.

This is broadly right, of course. Society depends on distinctions of this sort. Obviously different situations require different mores. Wrapping the Old School Tie round your head, wafting coke up your nozzer and bawling ‘Your Sex Is On Fire' at a bored lap-dancer is The Done Thing at the Bullingdon. It's A Bit Off at Prime Minister's Questions though. A well-executed slide-tackle is politely applauded at Craven Cottage but frowned upon in the condiments aisle of your local Tesco Metro. Both rational and consistently applied, these are important distinctions (as I found to my cost after an incident in the condiments aisle of my local Tesco Metro).

The above distinction was prevalent in the press this week. This distinction, however, depends on an incredibly widespread but almost wholly unexamined hypocrisy. National newspapers across the spectrum have published extraordinarily vacuous ‘He-Said-Whattery' from a range of writers united by a strong sense of opprobrium and a total lack of self-awareness; broadcasts of Those Three Words have been followed, unthinkingly, by outraged demands for censorship. Down With This Sort of Thing, etc.

Graham MacAree has written some good stuff about this on We Ain't Got No History and Andi Thomas made a sensible case for the necessity of FA sanctions for Terry on these pages yesterday. As a substantiating aside to which, the maximum fine Terry could have faced was £2,500. Further proof that the courtroom was the wrong place for a footballer's on-pitch crimes to be ruled upon, imagine the outcry were he to have been found guilty; "That's pocket-money!", "The FA is the only body competent enough to actually punish Terry, by banning him and removing him from the limelight!", along with more cynics and shinpad jokes and the like.

But others have written sensible things in other places. David Conn's assertion in the Guardian (Conn's article is the exception to the rule of the Guardian's blanket coverage of the saga) that football contains more abuse than is healthy is, for example, fair enough. Generally, though, there has been some embarrassing nonsense spouted.

The spouters need to have a think about things, really. Basically, if they think that Those Three Words have no place in the world then they shouldn't use them (blanking them out is not the same as not using them). If they think that such language is wrong in itself but right in a more contemplative environment (a discussion of the whys and wherefores of a court ruling, for example), then they should make a case as such. Simply assuming your right to say it, while denying Terry his, is to assume superiority as a moral arbiter which, ladies and gentlemen of the press, you have yet to earn.

I'm not going to link to the pieces because they are rubbish. I am not censoring them, or bleeping them out, they exist and have a right to exist; you can find them very easily if you like. Just like, in fact, you can find out what John Terry said to Anton Ferdinand, and what Ferdinand said to Terry, without me telling you.

John Terry, for all that he was sneered at for saying please four times, is commended in Chief Magistrate Mr. Howard Riddle's verdict for his respectfulness and his co-operation throughout the process. He at least hesitated before repeating comments that, his reticence indicates, he knows to be unacceptable in polite society. The broadsheet press didn't. Insulated by inverted commas (and in some cases dashes and stars), they reveled in the sort of smutty licence usually denied even to their enemies in the Red Tops.

This resulted in an output of the most arrogant hypocrisy. The narrative of the week has placed football as some kind of seedy societal underbelly, metonymic of the problems we all wish to hide and exposing the worrisome, gaping holes in our legal system. The brave journo, not scared even of The C-Word, has looked this demon in the eye and did not like what he or she saw there. But such is her or his commitment to The Truth, that they'll tell us all about it. In glorious Twitnicolour.

But it's bullshit. Unexamined bullshit. John Terry was found not guilty precisely because football IS NOT the same thing as society. (Which is not to say that racism is fine in football; it isn't. But that the thing is a bit more complicated than that). These reports, tweets and opinion pieces tell us more about the state of journalism in Britain than they do about the prevalence of racism. An infinite number of monkeys given an infinite amount of time (and typewriters) would eventually produce the works of Shakespeare. But it would probably only take one an iPhone and a couple of hours to bang out: F*#$/-g B@!-k C-*t #brokenbritain.

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