Azeem Rafiq, racism and Yorkshire County Cricket Club: what happened to me after I too was accused of being a racist - in Parliament
October came and went this year, as it does every year, with little fanfare in our house. We don’t have any birthdays to celebrate or special occasions of note, but buried in there amongst the banality was a personal milestone.
Because this year, October brought up for me 20 years in local journalism. Two decades of working with and for local communities in some amazing places, meeting incredible people. At risk of sounding like Johnny Cash, I’ve been everywhere, man: Worksop, Retford, Dinnington, Gainsborough, Mansfield, Boston, Louth, Market Rasen, Skegness, Grantham, Melton, Mansfield, Buxton, Matlock, Chesterfield, Sheffield, Leeds - working for the local newspapers in those towns and cities. All the time rolling up my sleeves, pinning back my ears, listening to the local concerns and conversations and turning it all into journalism, journalism that has always had at its core the desire to be for the betterment of the people and places it serves. That, for me, is what makes local journalism special. Sets it apart from other types of journalism.
And as you might expect, when it has been your life for some 7,300+ days, I suppose like any job, you can lull yourself into thinking you’ve seen it all. Well, as I found out a week ago, I hadn’t.
You see, last week I was branded an ‘utter disgrace’ and a racism enabler-cum-apologist by someone in Parliament. I was not invited to defend myself against these outrageous, libellous allegations and - of course - because the words were uttered under the legal protection of Parliamentary privilege, which enables individuals to say whatever they like about whomever they like, regardless of the consequences, I have little recourse available to me in law (I will return to this later, because I sincerely believe an abuse of power took place at that DCMS hearing which has implications for the very foundations of our democracy).
Now, I can tell you, that hurts. It hurts a lot, not least because it is 100 per cent untrue but also because of the impact a lie like that has on you and members of your family. A scurrilous, unwarranted, inaccurate and hurtful attack on me which resulted in someone asking me, as I walked hand in hand with my two boys to school: “I see they say you’re a racist on the news?”
I was devastated. I was facing questions like that, alongside my sons on the school run, because of the cynically pernicious words used to attack me. And for what? For daring to allow, instruct even, my cricket correspondent to scrutinise all of the actors in this tragedy, including Mr Rafiq; his behaviour, his character, his own contribution to the storyline. That isn’t victim blaming, it is journalism. It isn’t victim blaming to document Mr Rafiq’s own role as a racist abuser, when he was found to have used deeply offensive antisemitic language towards a teammate. It’s journalism. So, yes: we are committed to evidence over emotion. We refuse, as some have done, to swap our pens for pom-poms to be waved one way or another.
So, yes: we did listen to a woman who contacted The Yorkshire Post - we didn’t go out of our way trying to find her - to tell us about the time Mr Rafiq sent her sexually aggressive messages having taken her number when they met on a flight when she was just 16. She showed The Yorkshire Post evidence of the sexually explicit messages, corroborated against Mr Rafiq’s then live and active mobile phone number, and on the weight of that evidence (again, not because, as was suggested - completely uncontested with a naivety from some of the gathered politicians at DCMS - we were, running a ‘campaign’ based on emotion) we allowed that woman to tell her story, putting it to Mr Rafiq and his representatives in the process. Why did she want to tell her story? Because, she told us, prejudice in all its forms is unacceptable and she had felt objectified as a young woman by Mr Rafiq; a victim of a sexually motivated misogynistic ordeal. What was I to do? Suppress this woman’s own lived experience in case it looks like we’ve got it in for Mr Rafiq? In case it appears like a ‘campaign’? This isn’t, as was suggested at DCMS - again, uncontested - bullying or intimidation, it’s journalism. I stress, for the record, Mr Rafiq and his representatives were given the opportunity to reply to these allegations and perhaps even to apologise to the 16-year-old girl he harassed. Incidentally, the woman did not suggest for a moment that Mr Rafiq had not been a victim of racist abuse.
Once again, this is not victim blaming. It isn’t enabling or empowering racists. It isn’t apologising for those who subjected Mr Rafiq to racist abuse. It’s journalism and I can tell you it requires skill, tenacity, patience and courage. Certainly, despite what DCMS left unchallenged, it really isn’t a coordinated campaign. It is inquisitive journalism. It is following a story with a commitment to all sides of what might come next, regardless of who could be made to feel uncomfortable by what is discovered. Of course, it suits some to suggest that this is coordinated when in fact it is simply the presentation of more material as it is discovered through scrutiny. Journalism, even.
So, yes. We are listening to the testimony of individuals who feel they are innocent victims of Mr Rafiq’s racism allegations. People who feel branded racist by him and by Yorkshire County Cricket Club; people who have lost their jobs, their reputations, their mental health and more without so much as being afforded the courtesy of due process. We are examining quite how it is possible for Mr Rafiq to feel the impact of what it is like to be the victim of racism whilst at the same time heartily dishing out racist abuse of his own - probing what it is that enables that to happen. It is possible to accept that Mr Rafiq’s allegations, and what followed on from them, may have unfairly and unjustly created unnecessary and undeserving victims, too. By having the cognitive dexterity to meet those two things at the same time, one does not cancel out the other.
And this is where, I think, we come to the crux of how progress can be made; for Mr Rafiq, for Yorkshire County Cricket Club and in the wider context of racism in society:
1:there must be an acknowledgement that some people feel unfairly and unjustly harmed by the allegations made against them and the consequences they have suffered as a result. Some of those people remain distraught, their lives ruined; their careers on hold. How can it be fair that someone who is convinced they are innocent, someone who has lost everything without, they believe, having done anything wrong; how can they be denied the chance to take to the witness stand?
2:anyone - and it was not everyone - who bullied, harassed and abused Mr Rafiq must acknowledge and accept their role, as some have, in that abuse. In addition, just as Mr Rafiq has done after accepting the hurt he caused to the Jewish community when he used racist, derogatory slurs towards a teammate, they must commit to learning from their mistakes, educating themselves, being seen to do as much and to offering what they can to being part of the change that is required;
3:those at the heart of this crisis must all be mature and intelligent enough to accept there could be many truths in this sporting crisis, with perhaps more than just one person being unfairly treated. It does not negate, invalidate, dilute or undermine the seriousness of what happened to Mr Rafiq nor the challenge facing Yorkshire County Cricket Club, its peers, cricket, sport and/or society to do this;
4:most importantly, we must all vociferously - repeatedly - call out racism and point out racists. We must commit, collectively, to learning more about what constitutes racism in all its forms. Because, make no mistake: racism is poison and sometimes poison that is not easy to detect. Of course it can be obvious and abhorrent but it can also be insidious and sinister and it lives among us, and only by ensuring that every right-minded person knows what it is, how to spot it and what to do about it can we hope to destroy it. Equally important, though, is that allegations of racism are not allowed to harm innocent people who play no part in racist abuse.
So, no. There is no latitude for debate about varying degrees of racism. Racism is racism. There is no compromise to be had on that. There can also be no compromise in allowing allegations of racism to worry the truth away. Ever.
And that brings me on to the spiteful, ill-judged attack on me, my colleagues and The Yorkshire Post’s journalism at the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee on Tuesday 13th December. My greatest concerns emanate from the way some of the politicians sitting on that DCMS committee sought to coordinate a systematic, prolonged, emotional attack on a regional newspaper from at least one individual about whom unflattering - true - stories have been published. Perhaps even more concerning - I won’t name him - a communications executive at DCMS then took to social media to continue fanning the flames against The Yorkshire Post, ensuring those mostly armed with virtue and little else could continue to baselessly attack us.
How can it be that a Parliamentary meeting can contain around 30 - THIRTY - references in critical terms to an individual or organisation, without them or it being offered a seat in the room to account for themselves, let alone then have a Parliamentary spin doctor take to social media, cheerleading without understanding. Is that what a just, democratic process looks like in this country, now?
How can Kevin Brennan, MP, in the first 10 minutes of the meeting, use just his second question to start the firing squad’s volleys aimed at me without thinking; perhaps we should have invited Mr Mitchinson and The Yorkshire Post to contribute to this evidence session? Mr Brennan made multiple attempts to invite attacks on The Yorkshire Post but the truth is, by having DCMS dismiss without a mention the truths of our journalism, choosing instead to mock if from a sedentary position, the only things that are discredited are our democracy and the traumatic experiences of people who so many are afraid to listen to for fear of being labelled - as I have been, for daring to listen - a racist.
Damian Green, Giles Watling, Clive Efford, John Nicolson; all of them inviting the same contempt (some of them overtly displaying their own contempt) for a newspaper and its commitment to proper journalism that has only ever tried to explore and document everyone’s lived experience in the racism crisis that has brought Yorkshire County Cricket Club to its knees. At the very least, if only to ensure those pillars of public service - the Nolan principles - are protected, an examination of whether or not that DCMS hearing was conducted in accordance with the selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and accountability rules upon which the MPs’ code of conduct is founded, is required.
Finally, I return to the unsolicited email sent to me late last week which reminded me that in all of this, so much more than Yorkshire’s cricket club is at stake. Lives are on the line. So, before it is too late, those also at risk of serious injustice, and worse, in this must be offered their chance to share what has happened to them, and the impact that has had on their lives. They surely deserve that?