The words had barely left his fingertips before they ignited a fire that swept through the media devouring everyone in its path and leaving behind only ferocious comment or, at the scorched edges of the blaze, a slightly more considered but no less charred rhetoric. In the weeks that followed an elderly statesman has attempted to douse the flames, but don’t most fires ultimately just burn out anyway?
The individual that sparked the blaze in question is Ashley Cole, who a week ago took to Twitter to brand the FA a ‘bunch of t***s’ after English football’s governing body announced that, following their investigation into the allegation that John Terry racially abused Queens Park Rangers defender Anton Ferdinand at Loftus Road last November, the Chelsea captain’s defence against the charge was “improbable, implausible and contrived”.
The implication of the FA’s comments were that Terry, Cole and Chelsea secretary David Barnard had conspired to fabricate a defence with the sole purpose of seeking to exonerate Terry from the accusations levelled at him. Cole’s reaction to this was to take to the internet to abuse FA, prompting a fresh disciplinary charge for the much maligned full-back who, within hours of posting his offensive message online, had issued a full and frank apology.
Still Cole’s latest online misdemeanour seems to have served as the final straw for FA Chairman David Bernstein, who following the incident announced his plans to introduce a mandatory code of conduct for England internationals. Those found to be in violation of Bernstein’s regulations would face an international ban, and the current climate of high profile footballers, such as Cole, starting fires with ill conceived online outbursts is such that Bernstein’s proposal has been almost universally welcomed.
But there is a wider context that should be considered. Equally guilty of playing with matches was former News of the World reporter Clive Goodman whose famous royal scoops of 2007 led to the revelation that he and private investigator Glenn Mulcaire had been unlawfully intercepting telephone voicemail communications from Clarence House, paving the way for the surge in opinion that has led to the establishment of the Leveson inquiry.
Mulcaire and Goodman were both jailed for their actions, and the News of the World has of course since folded as the full details of their extensive phone hacking campaign came to light. Yet David Cameron still felt it necessary to establish the Leveson inquiry to investigate the culture, practices and ethics of the British press. You could of course argue that it was the surge of attention in the build up to the Leveson inquiry that brought about the closure of the News of the World, but as some of their activity had been exposed as illegal, shouldn’t the courts have just been left to sift out the bad apples?
Because, should Lord Justice Leveson upon the culmination of his inquiry recommend a new set of press regulations or regulatory body to government, the likelihood is that the landscape of the British press will dramatically change, as standardised, sanitised, watered down journalism becomes the norm. You only have to look through the pages of the Mirror on Sunday, the newspaper that stepped in to fill the void left by the closure of the News of the World, to get an idea of the kind of bubblegum nonsense that is now common place. Whatever your opinion of the News of the World, they broke some big stories in their time, and produced some quality pieces of investigative journalism.
At the centre of both the Leveson inquiry and Bernstein’s proposals are the key issue of our right to freedom of expression. A new, post Leveson regulatory body to replace the Press Complaints Commission, and an FA code of conduct for England internationals are, in my mind, grossly unnecessary, and potentially damaging. We already have laws that make phone hacking and similar practices illegal. The FA already bring charges for those who bring the game into disrepute. Over regulation would simply homogenize our press and our footballers.
Cole’s actions are of course foolish, rather than criminal, but the point still stands. Though many were quick to condemn Cole, the fact is football would be a duller place without individuals like him. Let people speak their minds, let them cause outrage if they can justify it, but don’t bury them beneath a landslide of rules to the point where their personalities come pre-defined by what the FA deem to be correct behaviour.
If we feel our footballers, or our journalists have truly lost their way, perhaps what is needed is not regulation, but a renaissance of Confucian thought. Let individuals cultivate their own concept of personal integrity, and reward those shown to be acting with virtue or benevolence, whether that be with an England cap or an editorial role. Where Confucian ethics or an individual’s own moral compass malfunctions, whether they be a journalist or a footballer or neither, society and the courts if necessary, can judge them.
The alternative at its extreme is a limping, flaccid press, and a conveyor belt of uniform footballers lacking any spark of individuality. Bernstein and Leveson could be laying the foundations for that as we speak. But feel free to disagree, you have that right. Unless you’re an England international of course.