There are two characters in this strange story of our times.
First, there is a chap called Ross Barkley. He earns his living from playing football (that sounds strange but I am told that many footballers are now paid to play the game). Not only is he paid for indulging in his hobby, but rumour has it that he is paid a very great deal (this is probably fake news, but some newspapers have suggested he is paid £60,000 a year – they said it was a week but that must be a misprint). He plays, and this is important, for a football club in Liverpool.
Next, there is an almost equally unbelievable man called Kelvin MacKenzie. He is said to be a former editor of the Sun Newspaper who now has a column in that newspaper. He, too, is paid a very large salary, almost certainly even higher than £60,000 a year.
Those are our two characters. What have they been up to?
Well, Mr Barkley doesn’t seem to have done anything except play the game he loves. I hope he is being sensible and saving up for a deposit on a small house (£60,000 a year seems a lot for a young man to earn but he won’t be able to play football professionally for ever). He strikes one as being a harmless enough chap.
Mr MacKenzie, however, has got into a bait about Mr Barkley. He has written an article in which he accuses Barkley of being thick. Furthermore, he has taken against Mr Barkley’s appearance. His eyes, in particular, have annoyed the journalist. They are, we are told, like the eyes of a gorilla.
There is nothing remarkable about all this so far. My understanding is that it is absolutely normal for tabloid journalists to be rude about football players. Perhaps they fear that the time may come when footballers will be paid more than journalists (though that seems unlikely).
But there is a twist. It turns out, and this is surprising to anyone who has seen a photograph of Mr Barkley, that he had a Nigerian grandfather. Mr MacKenzie didn’t know that when he wrote his piece. But the general view seems to be that, despite his entirely understandable ignorance of Mr Barkley’s African ancestry, Mr MacKenzie was guilty of racism in suggesting that Mr Barkley’s eyes were like those of a gorilla (gorillas, you see, are black). Furthermore, describing Mr Barkley as being thick is seen as an attack on all the people of Liverpool.
As the whole world has apparently ganged up to say Mr MacKenzie is a racist and has committed the major crime of being rude about Liverpudlians, the Sun (which was happy to print the offending article) has decided to suspend him while an investigation is carried out.
My own opinion is that it is horrid of tabloid newspapers to carry gratuitously rude pieces about football players. It may be understandable that tabloid journalists dislike the idea that the time may come when uneducated football players will earn as much as they do (though I do think that to be a far-fetched notion). But, even if Mr Barkley really did earn £60,000 a week rather than £60,000 a year, it would still, I reckon, be very bad form to allow envy to lead a journalist to accuse him of being thick and of having eyes like those of a gorilla. No sane observer could possibly excuse Mr MacKenzie’s dreadful rudeness.
But I am assured that rudeness of the sort Mr MacKenzie has manifested is quite normal in our tabloid ‘papers. Mr MacKenzie would have had nothing but praise from his employers if he had said what he said of Mr Barkley about someone who had no African blood and who didn’t come from Liverpool.
The charge of racism is obviously nonsense. Mr MacKenzie assumed that Mr Barkley was English through and through. He had no idea that the youngster had an African ancestor. But I suppose it is not so easy to excuse him for saying that a Liverpudlian was thick. It is now a requirement for us all to accept that every inhabitant of Liverpool is an aspiring fellow of All Souls. To suggest that any Liverpudlian is not a genius is to be guilty of a major crime. No, Mr MacKenzie has no defence to that charge. The world is right to demand his dismissal.