(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, May 21.)
You will have heard of Donald Sterling. He’s the owner – though probably not for much longer – of the Los Angeles Clippers basketball team.Sterling sounds a thoroughly unpleasant man. Last month, sports website TMZ released a leaked recording of a private conversation in which the multimillionaire team owner rebuked a close female friend (I’m being delicate in my terminology here) for associating with black sports stars.
The “friend”, V Stiviano, had posted a picture of herself with basketball legend Magic Johnson on the social media site Instagram. Sterling told her it bothered him that she wanted to broadcast the fact that she was associating with black people.“You can sleep with [black people]. You can bring them in, you can do whatever you want,” Sterling said. “The little I ask you is ... not to bring them to my games.”
The subsequent uproar reached as far as the White House. Within three days, Adam Silver, the commissar who runs the National Basketball Association (his official title is commissioner, but I think commissar is more appropriate in this context), announced he had banned Sterling from the sport for life, fined him $2.5 million and ordered him to sell the team.Silver seems to be a man with unlimited powers. I’m surprised Sterling escaped the death penalty, given that it still applies in California.
Okay, you might say; the man is a grotesque old racist. No argument about that. Then why do I feel he’s been wronged?The reason is that we have crossed an alarming new threshold.
Freedom of speech is already under sustained attack throughout the Western world. In many countries, governments and judges are on a mission to outlaw something called hate speech, which can broadly be defined as the expression of opinions that somebody – usually a member of a supposedly oppressed minority – finds objectionable and wants prohibited.But to the best of my knowledge, the proponents of hate speech laws have limited their attention – so far, anyway – to statements made or opinions expressed in public. What’s different about the Sterling case is that it concerns something said in private, and to someone he presumably trusted not to repeat it.
This takes things to a new level. There is probably not a person on earth who would want to be held publicly accountable for statements that have been made in private, in the reasonable expectation that their privacy will be respected. But this is what happened to Sterling.Where will this lead? Does it mean, I wonder, that any high-profile figure is now fair game? Is there no escape from the speech and thought police? Will all prominent people now fret that their private reflections will be surreptitiously recorded on a smartphone and released to the media? Whatever happened to notions of privacy?
As it happens, Sterling’s private beliefs are of little consequence. If he were a politician or public servant with influence over public policy, they might be a matter of legitimate concern. But they are simply the private mutterings of a bigoted old man. To put it bluntly, they are none of the public’s business.Seen in this light, the furore was grotesquely disproportionate.
The Sterling affair raises other important questions. What about Stiviano’s role, for example? Assuming it was she who leaked the recording, she committed a flagrant breach of trust and privacy.On the face of it, her moral compass is every bit as defective as Sterling’s. Yet Stiviano has largely escaped public scrutiny. Presumably an octogenarian real estate tycoon presented a much more satisfying target.
Consider this, too. Even the most loathsome criminals – mass murderers, serial rapists, terrorists – are entitled to a defence. But not Sterling. Commissar Silver effectively tried and sentenced him ex parte, to use a legal term – in other words, without Sterling being given a chance to speak for himself.That Silver was able unilaterally to fine Sterling $2.5 million, ban him from the sport for life and force him to sell his team, all without any hearing or opportunity for Sterling to speak for himself, is a shocking denial of natural justice.
I’m astonished there wasn’t an outcry. If I were an American, this abuse of power would bother me far more than Sterling’s private thoughts about whether it was right for Stiviano to be photographed with black men.There are parallels here with the confected outrage that erupted over Top Gear host Jeremy Clarkson’s alleged use of the forbidden N-word in the old “eeny, meeny, miney, moe” children’s rhyme.
Like Sterling, Clarkson is not an easy man to feel sorry for. He’s a blowhard who uses humour - admittedly with some skill - to mock and denigrate. But the uproar over his supposed verbal indiscretion was grossly inflated by tabloid media that love nothing more than to bring down a celebrity.The alleged offending word was so mumbled as to be indistinct. Clarkson himself denied using it. In any case the footage was never broadcast, which should have been the end of the story. Nonetheless, the tape was leaked – by whom, and for what reason, isn’t clear – and in the ensuing firestorm, Clarkson was condemned as a racist.
Even if he did use the word, does that make him racist? Insensitive, perhaps, and possibly mischievous, given Clarkson’s fondness for juvenile naughty-boy antics – but racist? We all used that rhyme innocently as children. It didn’t make racists out of us.Clarkson may be a loudmouth, but racism is a far darker thing. As with the Sterling affair, all sense of proportion was lost. We are all too busy taking offence.
And then there’s Teuila Blakely – another victim of instant moral outrage, although one more deserving of our sympathy than either of the aforementioned men.A video showing the Shortland Street actress engaging in a sex act with rugby league player Konrad Hurrell was leaked, apparently without Blakeley’s knowledge, on social media.
What Blakely and Hurrell did was a private act by consenting adults. No offence was committed and no one was harmed. But that didn’t prevent a wave of vicious abuse directed at Blakeley, including death threats and exhortations to kill herself. You can always rely on social media to bring out the lynch mob.Even more bizarrely, a $5000 fine was imposed on Hurrell by his rugby league club for supposedly bringing the game into disrepute.
You’ve got to laugh at that last bit. Driving an opposing player into the ground head first and breaking his neck – now that’s what I call bringing rugby league into disrepute. But the player who did that recently got off with a seven-week ban. It’s good to know the rugby league authorities have got their priorities right.