Pressure is growing on the Sun to sack its columnist and former editor Kelvin MacKenzie, as the chair of the equalities watchdog called on newspapers to think carefully before publishing comments that could promote social division.
David Isaac, chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, made the warning on Saturday after Everton football club banned the tabloid’s journalists from its ground following fury at a MacKenzie column in which he compared the club’s star midfielder, Ross Barkley, who has a Nigerian grandfather, to a gorilla, and made contemptuous remarks about the people of Liverpool.
Everton said it had informed the Sun on Friday that its journalists were banned from its stadium, its training ground and all areas of the team’s operations. Everton added: “While we will not dignify any journalist with a response to appalling and indefensible allegations, the newspaper has to know that any attack on this city, either against a much-respected community or individual, is not acceptable.”
Isaac said: “At a time when we need to heal divisions in our country, these comments are at best careless and poorly timed. Free speech is the cornerstone of our democracy, but in exercising that right the media must act sensibly and consider the impact that publishing material like this will have. Many people will be rightly offended by these comments.”
Everton announced the ban as football fans, pundits, players and celebrities took to social media calling for the Sun to sever all links with MacKenzie, who edited the paper between 1981 and 1994. Questions have also been asked about who among the paper’s senior staff approved the column. “Verified S** column by Kelvin MacKenzie today,” the former England player Stan Collymore tweeted. “Implied racism at its finest. Time to boycott sponsors and associated companies.”
In his column for the paper on Friday, 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.”
When accused of racism, MacKenzie said he had no idea of Ross Barkley’s family background. Numerous press articles have made it clear that Barkley, who has 22 England caps, was eligible to play for Nigeria. Amid strong support from his home crowd on Saturday, he was instrumental in Everton’s second goal against Burnley.
Liverpool’s mayor, Joe Anderson, reported MacKenzie to the police for what he said were “racial slurs”. Merseyside police said inquiries were under way to “establish the full circumstances of the incident”.
Barkley was punched in a Liverpool bar last weekend in what his lawyer said was an “unprovoked attack”. In response to that incident, MacKenzie wrote: “The reality is that at £60,000 a week and being both thick and single, he is an attractive catch in the Liverpool area, where the only men with similar pay packets are drug dealers and therefore not at nightclubs, as they are often guests of Her Majesty.”
Coming the day before the 28th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster, his comments were seen by many as deliberately timed. MacKenzie was editor of the Sun when it published a front-page article headlined “Hillsborough: The Truth” in the aftermath of the 1989 disaster at Sheffield Wednesday’s football stadium. The article falsely claimed that Liverpool fans were to blame for the tragedy. MacKenzie later apologised.
Steve Kelly, an Everton fan who lost his brother, Mike, in the tragedy and who was a leading light in the Hillsborough Justice Campaign, said MacKenzie’s latest comments proved there was no genuine remorse.
“He knew what he was doing, he’s got an opinion of Liverpool people and he’s sticking to it,” Kelly said. “We’ve had a hard time in this city and it’s taken us 28 years to recover, but we never will when there’s the likes of him. It’s all about MacKenzie and keeping himself in the limelight. It’s a form of narcissism.”
Kelly said the Sun, which pays MacKenzie a reputed £300,000 a year for his column, needed to take firm action to show that it no longer shared its former editor’s views.
Many of the Sun’s critics pointed out on social media that the piece would have been seen by a chain of journalists and editors before publication. The comedian David Schneider tweeted: “The impressive thing about Kelvin MacKenzie is how he hacked the Sun and smuggled his article into the paper without any editor reading it.”
Ellis Cashmore, a professor of sociology at Aston University, said it was difficult to see how MacKenzie could now continue working for the Sun. “I sense Kelvin will tread the same path to oblivion as Ron Atkinson,” Cashmore predicted, a reference to the former manager who lost his job as a TV pundit after making a racist comment.
A spokesman for the Sun did not respond to calls for comment.