BY PAUL BREEN           

You might think that talk is cheap, especially in this age of text and Twitter, but it can prove costly for those who stray outside the boundaries of what’s acceptable as banter and what’s not. Malky Mackay’s appointment as manager of Wigan Athletic has once again focused attention on an issue that was briefly forgotten. Lately, the sports pages have focused on a series of internationals between the home nations, while football’s contribution to the front-page headlines has come in the form of Ched Evans and the fires of anger stoked up by his possible return to football.

It’s ironic then that on the day Sheffield United appear to reach a decision about his future, that the storms of outrage should have shifted westwards, out of South Yorkshire, towards Manchester and beyond. Dave Whelan, a wealthy entreprenuer of Irish ancestry and an old-school mentality, suddenly finds himself in the eye of a storm – after attempting to defend the new manager of his football club.

This is the same Dave Whelan you may remember as the local lad come good, a former footballer whose playing career was never quite the same after he suffered a broken leg in the 1960 FA Cup final playing as a full-back with Blackburn Rovers (he might have mentioned it a couple of times). Moving to Crewe Alexandra, he retired early and went into business – building up an empire that culminated in ownership of Wigan Athletic, which brought him into the public eye once more. Twice in the past two years, he has taken his Wigan team to Wembley, as commentators choke up with all the emotion of Grand National Day, when some underdog (or under-pony) with a sob story softens the hearts of the public, and lines the pockets of punters.

Today though you won’t see too many images of that Dave Whelan, even though he still exists the very same as before. Instead the sports pages are full of the frazzled, stereotypical statements that he made about people of other races. For a man in his 70s, the uncomfortable truth is that he probably grew up with this language in a generation before today’s manufactured outrage. The reason I say it’s manufactured is because if you look at what he said, some elements of the media have chosen to focus only on some parts, as if it’s they who decide what’s okay to say and what not to say. Mr. Whelan, in practically the same breath talked of chinks, paddies, and Jews. Had he said Jocks, Paddies, and Arabs (let’s at least give them capital letters) would there have been the same outrage? I think not. And that’s another wrong aspect of this – that there’s still a hierarchy of what’s insulting and what’s not.

We can say what we like about the Scots, French, Germans, Irish, and certain other groups but there are some things we can’t touch. Of course it’s not just in football. What Dave Whelan said reflects a lot of what happens in ordinary, working class societies in this country. Does anybody really believe that racism and homophobia no longer exist just because it is no longer shouted from terraces? Also, do people like Dave Whelan have any kind of deep and dangerous hatred for the people they insult? Again, I don’t think so, but they need to know why it’s wrong to say these things, and not because more educated people happen to believe it’s wrong.

It’s wrong because this kind of language makes people feel unwelcome on the terraces of football grounds and in this country as a whole. I don’t think Dave Whelan can see the problem with his assertion that Brits can be equated with words like chink or paddy, as he implied to the media. Maybe in Belfast in the 80s and 90s, Brit was an insult, but more often than not it’s used these days in the context of music, holidays, and popular culture. You don’t get The Chink Awards or talk about Paddies Abroad in Tenerife. Americans and others use this term as a compliment. And maybe in the case of the Irish or Scottish, words like Paddy or Jock are meant in the same way. A quarter of this country has Irish or Scottish blood, so there’s the same irony in all this as when Muhammad Ali, in the 70s, made fun of Joe Frazier’s appearance.

So basically Dave Whelan has done a botched job of defending Malky Mackay, whose texts do seem a bit more sinister in nature but still nothing compared to the disgusting abuse suffered by some female supporters of Sheffield United who voiced concerns about the return of Ched Evans to the club. That’s another matter and not one to be discussed here, but we’ve really got to ask why it takes the media to make us feel outrage at banter in society. Having recently gone to see the LGBT-related film Pride, you wonder why thirty years ago, during the miners’ strikes, people were not as offended by the tabloid abuse of the gay community who happened to stand up to Margaret Thatcher and raise funds for people on the picket lines. It was okay to use words and phrases ten times worse than any of the taunting songs that are sometimes directed towards Brighton & Hove Albion supporters – as an example of the homophobic ‘banter’ still found at football matches.

Today the papers would never use the language that was commonplace in the 80s, but the problem is that some of this language is still found in parts of society and those papers themselves have never shown any genuine remorse for their past castigations. The very same papers that used staunchly homophobic and vitriolic language to to castigate campaigners such as Irishman Mark Ashton are today championing outrage against parts of what Dave Whelan said regarding races. That’s not to reduce what he said in any way, because I am Irish and have been called a Paddy, and heard the word Paddy used to describe the Irish, even by educated middle-class people.

Once a former colleague who had travelled to Dublin came out with the unbelievable line of something like ‘I love going there and as soon as you get there, you just hear that everybody’s got a name like Paddy – the guy at the check-in desk, the porter, the cleaner, just everyone.’ That it seems was a compliment to Ireland and the Irish people!

So my point is that I don’t want to be lectured by the tabloids about when and what I should be outraged by. Like most people, I know when to be shocked and outraged. I’m shocked and outraged by the world’s failure to deal with Ebola at an early stage, and about the terrible spiral of events in Israel and Palestine in recent months. I’m not shocked or outraged by ignorant casual racism, but I would like to see a serious discussion about it. I would like to see the media challenge these ideas, and question where they come from, rather than report it in the way that they have done. I want them to ask questions about why it’s still acceptable to use banter against some nationalities or races and not others. I want them to use that as a lens through which to ask broader questions about our society.

But they won’t. It’s as if this morning Dave Whelan is the only man in England who uses language like this, and Malky Mackay, a racist Jock who should never work again because of those ridiculous, insulting text messages that say more about his own character than the daft stereotypes that he resorted to. I wouldn’t want him anywhere near Charlton, the club that I support, and that makes even Crystal Palace too close a location to our corner of London.

Hopefully though, sooner or later, we’ll see a serious discussion on these matters rather than lots of soundbites, bold headlines and big pictures of the perpetrators. There aren’t enough races represented on the terraces of England’s football grounds nor on the sidelines or the boardrooms. Maybe there will be when the majority of society’s opposition to this kind of language is genuine and it is opposed not just in football grounds but wherever it happens. The terraces after all are not a bubble. They’re just a reflection of the outside world, and there are a lot of things that still need changing and fixing in that outside world. Football ‘banter’ is a problem but it’s not the biggest we face right now, and unpopular as that idea might be, maybe it’s worth considering.