The recent acquittal of John Terry on a racial abuse charge raises some interesting questions about the basis on which the CPS decide to bring prosecutions.
For those who have been living on the Moon for the past six months and do not know the background; the case was that Terry, then the England captain, was alleged to have called an opposing player a f***ing black c*** on the pitch while playing for Chelsea against QPR. That player was Anton Ferdinand, brother of Rio Ferdinand, Terry’s long time defensive partner in the England team.
Ferdinand was unaware of the comment at the time, despite being close to Terry when the words were supposed to have been said. His then girlfriend pointed them out to him when highlights of the match were shown on television later. The football authorities also picked up on Terry’s behaviour. Following an FA enquiry, the matter was referred to the police. Terry denied the allegations. Nevertheless, the CPS decided in their view that there was sufficient evidence available to prosecute Terry. He was charged with racial abuse, an offence carrying a maximum fine of £2,500 and can only be heard at a magistrate’s court.
Although only a modest fine to a Premier League footballer, the damage to Terry following a conviction would have been huge. He had already lost the England captaincy for Euro 2012 as a result of being charged, and to be branded a racist would have put his position at Chelsea, a multi racial side, in serious doubt.
At the trial, Ferdinand was a reluctant witness. There were other odd features of the case too. Despite bringing charges of racial abuse against Terry, the CPS prosecutor in cross-examining conceded that John Terry was not a racist. Terry had accepted that he had used those words (although the defence did still call a lip reading expert to cast doubt on the exact words used), but his defence was that what he had said was “I did not call you a f***ing black c***”.
He said he had heard someone else, possibly someone in the crowd, use the phrase and he had wanted to make it clear to Ferdinand that he himself had not said it.
The chief district judge, who heard the case, decided that this was a possible explanation and that the prosecution had to prove the case otherwise. As they had failed to do so then Terry was acquitted.
What is interesting is the basis of the decision to prosecute. Ferdinand, in court, admitted that throughout the match he had been goading Terry by frequent references to an affair Terry had had with the girlfriend of a former teammate. Terry had also admitted he had accused Ferdinand of having bad breath. He had also told Ferdinand, on more than one occasion, to “f*** off”. Yet neither the players, the match officials nor the football authorities had regarded this behaviour as unusual. Had someone spoken to a police officer in such a manner on Lincoln High Street on a Saturday night they may well have been arrested.
Also, in all the newspaper reports (and this article), the f word and the c word have asterisks so as not to cause offence. Only the word “black” is written in full. Yet (ironically) it is the addition of this word into the sentence, which led to the CPS decision to charge Terry, not the f word or the c word. Does that sound right?
To denigrate someone or to treat them differently because of their skin colour is just plain wrong and no-one would argue otherwise. It should not happen. Racial abuse should be condemned. But was it a sensible decision for the CPS to prosecute someone who they themselves conceded was not a racist in these circumstances?