The Sun has suspended Kelvin MacKenzie after Merseyside police said they were investigating a column in which he compared the footballer Ross Barkley, who is of mixed race, to a gorilla.
The paper’s former editor, who writes a weekly column, claimed he was not surprised that the Everton player, whose grandfather is Nigerian, was punched in a nightclub because he was similar to an animal in a zoo.
The paper removed the article from their website on Friday afternoon and later suspended MacKenzie. News UK, the owners of the Sun, said: “The views expressed by Kelvin MacKenzie about the people of Liverpool were wrong, unfunny and are not the view of the paper. The Sun apologises for the offence caused. The paper was unaware of Ross Barkley’s heritage and there was never any slur intended. Mr MacKenzie is currently on holiday and the matter will be fully investigated on his return.”
Merseyside police confirmed they had launched an investigation in relation to the column after receiving an online complaint from a member of the public alleging that “comments written about a third party constituted a racial hate crime”.
The mayor of Liverpool, Joe Anderson, tweeted to say he had reported the article to Merseyside police and the Press Complaints Commission for being a “racial slur”.
He also accused Everton of letting the city down by not banning the paper’s journalists from press conferences.
Liverpool football club banned Sun reporters from matches at Anfield and press conferences at Melwood in February owing to the paper’s coverage of the Hillsborough disaster.
The paper was also refused access to interviews with the players or the manager, Jürgen Klopp. This decision is understood to have been taken after club directors held talks with the families of those who died in the tragedy in 1989.
MacKenzie had made the comments after an incident at a Liverpool nightclub this week in which Barkley, 23, was punched in what his lawyer described as an “unprovoked attack”.
In the piece, MacKenzie insinuated that Barkley deserved to be beaten up. Alongside the column, the paper ran a picture of the player’s eyes superimposed on to the face of a gorilla.
MacKenzie wrote: “Perhaps unfairly, I have always judged Ross Barkley as one of our dimmest footballers. There is something about the lack of reflection in his eyes which makes me certain not only are the lights not on, there is definitely nobody at home.
“I get a similar feeling when seeing a gorilla at the zoo. The physique is magnificent but it’s the eyes that tell the story.”
After the outcry, MacKenzie told the Press Association: “I had no idea of Ross Barkley’s family background and nor did anybody else. For the mayor of Liverpool and a handful of others to describe the article as racist is beyond parody.”
Footballers and local politicians had used social media to criticise the piece.
Burnley player Joey Barton, who is from Liverpool, questioned how the column had passed editorial and legal scrutiny.
In a series of tweets, he said:
Those comments about Ross Barkley, a young working class lad are disgusting. Then add in the fact he is mixed race! It's becomes outrageous.— Joseph Barton (@Joey7Barton) April 14, 2017
Everybody knows the authors relationship with the city. He simply has to be held accountable for these words. It's an absolute disgrace.— Joseph Barton (@Joey7Barton) April 14, 2017
Meanwhile, former Liverpool player Stan Collymore tweeted: “Verified S** column by Kelvin MacKenzie today. Implied racism at its finest. Time to boycott sponsors and associated companies.”
MacKenzie and the Sun are despised on Merseyside following the paper’s coverage of the Hillsborough disaster.
The 70-year-old oversaw the publication of the notorious “The Truth” front page, which claimed Liverpool fans had picked the pockets of dead fans and urinated on police.
Those claims were found to be completely baseless at the Hillsborough inquests, which recorded that the 96 fans were unlawfully killed and that the Liverpool supporters who attended the FA Cup semi-final played no role in causing the tragedy.
MacKenzie’s column was published a day before the anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster.
The media commentator Roy Greenslade said: “What was truly extraordinary was that his piece ever got into the paper at all. Did the Sun executives responsible for his column not realise he should never be allowed to write about Liverpool?”
He speculated that this could be the end of MacKenzie’s relationship with the paper. “This time, surely, MacKenzie’s great supporter, Rupert Murdoch, cannot save him.”
Anderson, the Liverpool mayor, has also called for MacKenzie’s sacking and dismissed the writer’s defence of his column. He said: “It’s no defence, is it, just because he didn’t know - he should have found out, as if he was calling himself a professional journalist. To call it a parody or whatever is a just nonsense - he’s a parody of a journalist.”
The Independent Press Standards Organisation, the press watchdog, said it would know the number of any complaints by Tuesday after the long Easter weekend.