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Joey Barton must have the right to rant

The ramblings of a retired footballer should be none of the government’s business.

Fraser Myers

Fraser Myers
Deputy editor

Topics Free Speech Politics Sport UK

Retired footballer Joey Barton has managed to meme himself back into the public eye. At the end of last year, the former Manchester City and Newcastle midfielder shocked football’s great and good when he launched into an extended rant about the recent proliferation of female football pundits on TV.

Women ‘shouldn’t be talking about the men’s game’, he pronounced on X. And those men who listen to these lady pundits, he said, ‘need their heads testing’. He then singled out ITV’s Eni Aluko and Lucy Ward, whom he dubbed ‘the Fred and Rose West of football commentary’. In another tweet a few days later, he moved Aluko into ‘the Stalin / Pol Pot category’. I think it’s fair to say that Barton really, really does not like women football pundits.

Then came the backlash – and the attention Barton was no doubt angling for. He was given the chance to defend himself on Piers Morgan’s TalkTV show. His views on women pundits were argued over on every radio phone-in show going. ITV put out a sanctimonious statement defending its female commentators. And, inevitably, the Guardian accused Barton of being ‘far right’.

In any sane country, the use and abuse of the word ‘fascist’ aside, that would have been the end of the matter. Barton would get to say his piece, his critics would get to puff up their chests to denounce him, and the rest of us would get to ignore them all. But the UK in 2024 is not a sane and liberal country. And so, for some inexplicable reason, the British government has now stuck its nose into l’affaire Barton.

Yes, you read that right, the actual government is now involved. Speaking to the culture, media and sport select committee this week, sports minister Stuart Andrew let it be known that the Conservative government ‘condemns’ Barton’s ‘disgusting and dangerous’ views and is exploring ways to take ‘action’ against them. He promised MPs that he would write to social-media firms X and Meta to demand they get a grip on Barton’s twittering fingers. Should the tech firms fail to shut Barton up, Andrew argued, then media regulator Ofcom should intervene, using its newly minted powers under the Online Safety Act.

You do not have to agree with a single word Joey Barton says to find this intervention chilling. Here was a minister of the crown setting out the extreme lengths he was willing to go to in order to silence a retired footballer. Purely because he has made some off-colour remarks about some of the people off the telly he doesn’t like.

Of course, none of Barton’s tirades is big or clever. Certainly not those where he has accused certain (unnamed) female pundits of ‘using [their] sexuality to get an advantage’.

Some of his rants have targeted people beyond the world of football punditry, too. A quick scan of his X feed shows that, in the past few days, he has called an MP a ‘cunt’ and branded a BBC presenter a ‘nonce’ and a ‘fascist’.

Despite what some of Barton’s defenders on the right claim, he is clearly not taking some principled stand against ‘woke’ or ‘DEI’. He is simply running his mouth. But so what? Since when did being a loudmouth become a matter for ministers, regulators and tech companies? Since when were pub-bore talking points considered ‘dangerous’ enough to warrant government ‘action’? The state crackdown on Barton’s tweets speaks to just how normal, how depressingly routine, censorship has become.

If free speech is to mean anything at all, it must be indivisible. People must be free to express whichever views they please, in whatever manner they please. It must include speech that is unfit for the supper-party table or the lecture hall. Letting the government decide what we can and cannot say, and what tone we must adopt, is a recipe for tyranny.

Joey Barton must have the right to rant.

Fraser Myers is deputy editor at spiked and host of the spiked podcast. Follow him on Twitter: @FraserMyers.

Picture by: Getty.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Free Speech Politics Sport UK

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