This piece was originally written for my Beyond the Ninety column on Voom Football
Joey Barton is not an easy man to like. Lurching from one controversy to another his career has seen two criminal convictions for assault, and he has been charged with violent conduct three times by the Football Association. Off the pitch he bristled with brash, arrogant egotism. He would pillory teammates and managers and I remember one interview Barton gave to Football Focus – at a time when both Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard were both in their pomp – where he declared himself the best English midfielder around.
And yet I have of late been warming to the QPR midfielder as he continues to remodel himself as an online social commentator. His latest foray onto social media came as Israel launched their recent brutal attacks on the people of Gaza. During the course of the conflict more than 2,000 Palestinians have been killed, 400 of whom have been children. Barton took to Twitter to say, “If this was anybody else but Israel the West would intervene. It cannot continue. Innocent children being slaughtered. This must stop.”
Barton’s position was both principled and brave and he wasn’t the only sportsperson to show solidarity with the Palestinian people. Mario Balotelli tweeted his outage when four Gazan children were killed playing football on a beach; England cricketer Moeen Ali wore “Free Palestine” wristbands; Malaysian cyclist Azizulhasni Awang had the words “Free Gaza” written on his gloves during the Commonwealth Games.
Previously Barton has used social media to speak out against homophobia in football, racism in sport and quoted George Orwell during his takedown of the FA. His burgeoning reputation is such that he was even invited to appear on the BBC’s Question Time programme earlier this year. Barton blotted his copybook only once in what was otherwise a self-assured performance. During a comment about the elections which had recently taken place he suggested, "If I'm somewhere and there was four really ugly girls, I'm thinking she's not the worst - that's all UKIP are."
It was a misogynistic comment and Barton was rightly taken to task by one young woman in the audience. To his credit he held his hands up and apologised for the crass remark. Which means we live in a country where you’re more likely to see a Premier League footballer say sorry for saying something sexist than a politician apologise for diddling their expenses or launching an illegal war in the Middle East. Go figure.
But not everything Joey Barton comes out with is progressive or enlightened. Amidst the comedy spats with such figures as Gary Lineker, Dietmar Hamann and Martin Samuel have been some downright offensive remarks. His description of Thiago Silva as an “overweight ladyboy” was the kind of transphobic insult you might expect from an insecure teenage boy. Similarly his suggestion that the people on the Channel 4 show Benefits Street shouldn’t be allowed to have children was a horribly nasty comment. A lad who grew up in Huyton should know better than to have a pop at people eeking out an existence. Were it not for football Barton might well have found himself in a similar situation.
Inevitably people have lined up to criticise Barton. Yet it is interesting that so few are prepared to actually engage with what he says. They tell him he is stupid, that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about, they tell him to shut up. More often than not they fall back on a simple claim: that footballers have no right to be talking about social, political or economic issues. By taking an interest in, and commenting on, the world at large, Joey Barton has broken the unwritten rule which states sport and politics should not mix.
But there is something deeper, more pernicious going on here. When people castigate Barton merely for having an opinion they are indulging in the worst form of class prejudice. It is epitomised by media rent-a-gob Piers Morgan, once editor of the Mirror, and with whom Barton crossed swords in the Question Time debate. Before the programme the pair traded insults on Twitter, with Morgan writing, “I don’t need to train for intelligent political debates. You however… well, best of luck.”
It doesn’t take much decoding to see the inference. For the likes of Piers Morgan, Barton is uneducated, unintelligent, and has no right to enter political debate. Barton’s greatest crime is not that he speaks out but that he comes from the working class. How dare someone who grew up on a council estate have a political opinion! Of course we should call him out whenever he tweets something out of line, but by virtue of his fame Barton has been granted a platform most people can only ever dream about – and that annoys the media talking heads more than anything he actually says.