Friday 15 December 2017

No hiding place anymore in world of online lip-readers

Tommy Conlon

It has been widely reported that Anton Ferdinand did not hear the alleged racial insult fired at him by the Chelsea captain John Terry last Sunday.

But television cameras picked up Terry mouthing the alleged remark and soon the image was being circulated online and discussed on social media outlets. The accusation against him spread like wildfire. But those who were accusing him hadn't heard the words either. They'd just seen the TV images.

And the players in closest proximity to Terry and Ferdinand, when the initial exchange occurred between them, haven't shed much light on the matter either. Only one of them, Terry's team mate Branislav Ivanovic, has so far spoken publicly and he has said he heard nothing of a racist nature.

Terry and Ferdinand had come face to face after a Chelsea attack in the 85th minute at Loftus Road. Words were apparently exchanged. It is alleged that Ferdinand, the QPR defender, made some derogatory remark to Terry about the latter's private life. (He had plenty of ammunition on that score.) A free kick was awarded to QPR, the two players parted company, but as Terry jogged backwards he was still gazing at Ferdinand. At this point one of the match cameras captured a close-up of his face as he formulated the words at the heart of this controversy.

His team-mate Ashley Cole, somewhat inconveniently, simultaneously walked across the camera shot and momentarily blocked the view of Terry's face. Cole was therefore the nearest player at this critical moment but he has said nothing publicly either.

So far, therefore, no one claims to have actually heard what Terry said, apart from the man himself.

We're back to that old chestnut -- pun not intended -- again: if a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? If someone says something insulting and no one actually hears it, is it an insult? If the intended victim hasn't heard it, is he or she still a victim? Did Anton Ferdinand become a second-hand victim of race abuse? Did he have victimhood thrust upon him through the vicarious offence taken by the media and those numerous twitchers online?

It is down to him entirely to decide how he reacts. He is allowed have a choice. It shouldn't be an automatic assumption that he has been offended by the alleged remark. Context is everything here. He may conceivably dismiss it as a heat-of-the-moment reaction from a player high on adrenalin. He may decide that it's no big deal; that Terry was just angry and frustrated because Chelsea were losing 1-0 at the time. Or he may put it down to the coarse footballers' culture in which outrageous remarks are routinely hurled around to a chorus of laughs.

And if he did make an offensive personal comment to Terry, he might reckon the alleged riposte he received back was fair game. Who knows? It is widely accepted that both parties only realised there was a growing storm about the incident hours after it happened. By then the key television image had been posted on YouTube and replayed, in slow motion, thousands of times. Amateur lip-readers everywhere were concluding that Terry had called Ferdinand "a black c***".

Terry and his advisors went into damage limitation mode later on Sunday evening. He issued a statement in which he revealed that he'd spoken to Ferdinand after the match. "There was no problem between us. He has not accused me of any wrongful remark. It was clear it was all a misunderstanding at the time."

Terry didn't deny using the offending words. But he explained their context thus: "I thought Anton was accusing me of using a racist slur against him. I responded aggressively, saying that I never used that term. I would never say such a thing and I'm saddened that people would think so."

Sources close to him subsequently insisted that the TV footage, hampered by Ashley Cole's presence in the shot, didn't show the complete sentence. They claim he actually said: "Oi, Anton, do you think I called you a black c***?" He was in fact denying that he addressed Ferdinand so.

For what it's worth, one would have thought that such a denial would've been accompanied by vigorous and repeated shaking of the head. Perhaps with an additional "I didn't" thrown in for extra emphasis. But there was little in his body language or facial expressions to show he was surprised or indeed outraged by such an unfounded allegation.

Ferdinand's sources meanwhile have made it known that he was conciliatory after the game because he still didn't know what Terry had allegedly said in the 85th minute. It was only while driving home that evening and listening to radio phone-in shows that he became aware he was embroiled in a race controversy.

Which begs the question: if Ferdinand didn't know what Terry had said, why then did Terry think that Ferdinand was accusing him of "using a racist slur?"

On Tuesday, QPR decided to refer the matter to the FA for investigation.

In the old days a nasty little spat like this would have been kept in-house. In the age of new media it becomes a circus, a witch hunt, and a race to the high moral ground. The accused perpetrator gets trampled in the stampede -- and so does the appointed victim.

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