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The Sun’s ethical failings over the Raheem Sterling gun tattoo story

The Sun newspaper has caused controversy with a front page story about England striker Raheem Sterling displaying an assault rifle tattoo on his right leg. The story quotes anti-gun campaigners demanding the Manchester City player is dropped from the England squad for the World Cup in Russia next month. The story sparked clashes on social media between the likes of Gary Lineker and Piers Morgan.

Some – like Lineker – accused the tabloid of persecuting Sterling. But others, including the father of murdered ten-year-old Damilola Taylor, said the footballer was glamorising guns.

I believe there were a series of ethical failings in this story that make accusations of racism, bullying and victimisation against Sterling difficult for The Sun to defend. First, there was no clear indication of an attempt to contact Sterling for an explanation in the original story.

Journalists are expected to source both sides of the story, particularly around controversial or contentious issues. Yet The Sun’s treatment is noticeable for not only failing to represent Sterling’s side of the story but also showing no indication that it had even tried to. Readers would expect to read a final paragraph stating “Sterling could not be reached for comment” at least.

Sterling’s reaction on Instagram later in the day transformed the context of the story. The 23-year-old explained:

When I was 2 my father died from being gunned down to death. I made a promise to myself I would never touch a gun in my life time, I shoot with my right foot so it has a deeper meaning N still unfinished.

But this detail did nothing to alter the tone of The Sun’s online coverage which broadly stuck to the same story as the print version’s – save for a paragraph of Sterling quotes inserted into the story lower down.

Responding to the criticism, The Sun’s Head of PR Andy Sylvester posted a series of tweets defending the story.

Febrile climate

There was also scant evidence of sensitive or responsible handling of the subject matter. The original story acknowledges Sterling was a boy when his father was shot dead in Jamaica yet it does not seem to consider that this detail seems at odds with the anti-gun campaigner’s claim that Sterling must be glamorising gun violence.

Also, by running such a one-sided story, The Sun disregarded the febrile climate surrounding the footballer after he was the victim of a racist attack for which a man was jailed for six weeks in December 2017.

The player has been subjected to particularly ferocious media coverage in the past with racial undercurrents. This has not gone unnoticed by newspaper commentators. The Guardian’s Barney Ronay wrote in 2017:

Football thrives on easy targets, on muster points for all that gathered intangible rage. For two years Sterling was repeatedly and relentlessly trashed and scorned in ways that went far beyond football. Lacks balls and fight, lacks toughness. This has often been said in the past about black footballers in England. It was said, quite a lot, about Sterling.

Examples include The Sun claiming that Sterling was partying 24 hours after saying he was “too tired” to play for England in a Euro 2016 qualifier; the Daily Mirror labelling Sterling “greedy” in pay talks in 2015; and The Sun (again) running a story headlined “Obscene Raheem” about him showing off his house on social media in 2016.

Football scandals and Brexit

Fleet Street’s tabloids have a long tradition of revelling in scandal involving England footballers ahead of major football tournaments. Former England midfielder Paul Gascoigne can testify to repeatedly falling victim to adverse press coverage. In one example, Gazza was pictured being plied with spirits while strapped to a “dentist’s chair” at a nightclub prior to Euro 96. Two years later, he was snapped eating a kebab at 2am in Soho ahead of the 1998 World Cup.

It is no surprise that Sterling is the target for the 2018 instalment – but it now feels very different. The World Cup is the first post-EU referendum major football tournament (the vote took place during Euro 2016). Brexit’s right-leaning definitions of Englishness and patriotism can find full expression in attitudes towards the England’s national team.

Media ethics

It may also be that the tabloids feel emboldened after the second part of the Leveson Inquiry into media ethics was kicked into the long grass by the government and will now not go ahead (providing it survives a legal challenge).

Leveson 2 may have focused on the relationship between journalists and police but it would have kept ethics firmly on the agenda at a time when reporting in national newspapers has adopted increasingly irresponsible and inflammatory stances.

The fear is now, of course, that the government’s unwillingness to instigate an ethical review against the press will do nothing to deter divisive and dog-whistle reporting that has led to headlines such as the Daily Mail’s notorious “Enemies of the People” in December 2016, which accused three judges of defying Brexit voters in insisting that the government would need parliamentary consent to activate Article 50.

And what of the recent Windrush scandal? Surely a news story as recent as this should have led the media towards being particularly sensitive when handling stories involving immigrants from the Caribbean. (Sterling moved to England from Jamaica at the age of five.)

The problem with The Sun’s gun tattoo story is that it presents the reader with taken-for-granted assumptions that link black youths to gun crime. It inevitably leads to social media debates around the “right and appropriate sort of person” to be playing football for England which is ultimately one of racial and ethnic inclusion and exclusion – central themes surrounding Brexit. There is little in The Sun’s basic ethical conduct that suggests otherwise.

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