by Martin Odoni

Nobody does outrage better than the British media.

This is not a particularly new or insightful observation. For decades, probably starting in the 1960’s, the British tabloid press in particular have become ever more fixated on the twin ideas that controversy sells, and that the worse that any kind of decadence or corruption can stink, the more the public will want to stick their noses into it right up to the nasal membranes.

For the last four months or so, this phenomenon has flared up on-and-off in one of those realms that seems almost designed for people to over-react to – English football’s Premier League. On October 15th, the two biggest clubs – and perhaps fiercest rivals – in the league, Liverpool and Manchester United, met at Anfield Road to play out a rather tedious draw that only really became noteworthy in the aftermath. This was because it was reported to the referee after the game that one of the players, Liverpool’s Uruguayan international, Luis Suarez, had racially-abused Manchester United’s French International, Patrice Evra, during the second half.

The morally-righteous brigades of the media inevitably leapt upon this with all the relish of a vampire on a diet of broccoli suddenly being presented with a casserole of human jugulars. Condemnation was in long supply. Furious (and entirely predictable) disagreements raged between the fans of the two clubs. Manchester United supporters were vehement in their indignation (and disgusting in their one-upmanship), unshakeably certain that Suarez was guilty of abusing their man, while Liverpool supporters were just as irrationally steadfast in their desperate belief that he was innocent. The only thing that everyone else was equally sure of was that both sides had made their respective judgements without even learning anything about what happened.

Suarez was eventually charged formally by the Football Association, and in December he was found guilty after an Independent Commission of Inquiry interviewed the two players at great length. Suarez was given an eight match ban for the incident, and fined forty thousand pounds. On December 31st, the FA published the Commission’s report, a comprehensive, 115-page account that explained the Inquiry’s findings, how they were arrived at, and above all, why the Commission gave a guilty verdict.

The Inquiry was not a legal tribunal, and so while it had the authority to impose penalties, it was not constrained by normal judicial procedures. One consequence of this was that the rules on burden-of-evidence were not the same as one would find in a Court Of Law; whereas in a full criminal trial, the defendant’s guilt would have to be proven beyond reasonable doubt, this tribunal instead had merely to assess the balance of probabilities, and so conclude what, to the best of their judgement, was most likely to have happened between the two players.

With poor grace, Liverpool accepted the ban after several days mulling over whether to appeal against it. The ban was thus served, and Luis Suarez sat out most of his club’s games in January and the first half of February. There has been an unmistakeable air around the club since then of feeling a bit hard-done-by. The Liverpool Manager, Kenny Dalglish, complained more than once that Suarez should not have been banned, and that it only happened entirely on the say-so of one man i.e. Patrice Evra himself. (After Suarez completed his ban, the second team Liverpool were to play against was Manchester United. Notoriously, shortly prior to kick-off, Suarez refused to shake Evra’s hand – see below.)

The Inquiry’s report was quite explicit about what, in its view, had happened between Suarez and Evra back in the game in October, and in why it took Evra’s word over that of Suarez. There were several nasty incidents between the two players early in the second half of the game, and at one moment near the hour-mark, Suarez landed a rather crude foul tackle on Evra. Evra complained at him, "What did you kick me for?" According to the Commission’s report, Suarez responded, "Because you’re a negro."

There were several more exchanges between the two players over the next few minutes, during which, the Commission found, Suarez taunted Evra by repeatedly calling him, "Blackie". Suarez confirmed that he had called Evra, “Negro” during these clashes, but insisted that he had used it in a conciliatory manner; in Uruguay there is no strong stigma attached to commenting on the colour of someone’s skin, it is simply seen as a distinguishing feature.

Suarez’s denials were not accepted by the Commission on the basis that there were inconsistencies in his testimony. In particular, the exact moment within the exchanges at which he had used the word, "Negro" was prone to changing each time he gave his version of events. By contrast, the Commission found Evra to be a reliable witness. The words that the report often assigned to Evra as a witness were ‘convincing’, ‘consistent’, ‘reliable’ and ‘credible’, and this was the central basis of the final verdict of guilty. Without Evra’s testimony, there would be no case to answer, as all there would be were TV pictures of two men in silly-coloured shirts making apparent jeering remarks to each other.

I cannot speak for the club of course, but I suspect that what is needling Liverpool about all this is the notion that Evra was credible, consistent, convincing and reliable. This description is not really borne out by the contents of the report.

Let’s start by judging how convincing Evra really was. The very meaning of the word is that his statements are able to bring the people he is speaking to around to his point of view. And surely Evra did convince the Inquiry that what he asserted was correct, because Suarez was found guilty. Right? Well… no, not exactly. If Evra had been as convincing as the report asserts, logically the final verdict of the Commission would more or less match his accusation.

It does not. Evra’s accusation was that Suarez used a highly offensive racial slur on him i.e. he accused Suarez of calling him a "nigger". The report concludes that this is not what Suarez said. Instead, Suarez is found guilty of using a non-offensive racial term in a derogatory/abusive way i.e. that Suarez said he kicked Evra "because he is a negro". Now the implication of such a remark is indeed offensive, because the only plausible way you can interpret it is that Suarez was saying that black people are inherently deserving of violent treatment. But the point is that this is still not what Evra accused him of saying. The report even went to some lengths to outline why they did not accept that Suarez had used the slur, "nigger". Therefore, if the Commission’s final report explicitly disagreed that Suarez said the word that Evra put in his mouth, then how can the Commission say that Evra was convincing?

Now, let’s analyse the question of consistency. The meaning of the word in this context is that all the statements a witness makes tally with each other and with all the observable facts, and that there are no contradictions or mutually-exclusive details. And Evra was consistent in his statements. Right? Well… no, not exactly. Yes, his statements to the Inquiry were consistent enough, but there is an issue beyond the Inquiry that the final report remarked upon, but whose implications it rather skated over.

Shortly after the game ended, Evra gave an interview to the French Television channel Canal+. Before the interview, he requested that he not be asked why he had been upset during the game, as he was aware it would be improper to make public statements about the matter before an investigation could begin. But, television being television, the interviewer went ahead and asked him anyway, and Evra decided to answer the question. This in itself was somewhat irresponsible, but far more important was what he said. On live television, with potentially millions of people watching, he accused Luis Suarez of racially-abusing him at least ten times during the game. The problem with this is that when Evra made his formal complaint to the referee a little bit later, he accused Suarez of racially-abusing him five times during the game. (Again, it is worth noting that neither of these totals match the conclusion of the report, which was that Suarez racially-abused Evra seven times. So again, Evra was not being convincing, but let’s not digress.)

So Evra has stated his accusation to the media, and to the match official. And what he said in each case is mutually-exclusive of the other. The accusation cannot be accurate in both forms. Therefore, Evra’s statements were not consistent.

When asked about this by the Commission, Evra admitted that what he had said on TV was "a figure of speech", and that his complaint to the referee was the statement that should be regarded as accurate. Well, okay, but the thing is, this is an open admission that he was, if not exactly lying to the media, then certainly distorting the facts in front of them, with an audience of potentially millions watching. Speaking hyperbolically will not be an outright lie, but it will still be misleading and inconsistent with the facts, and, if the crime were truly as great as Evra believed (and it would be), it will also be entirely unnecessary. Evra knew he was exaggerating, and he knew he was doing so in front of a large television audience, which is an extremely irresponsible way to behave. And here is the problem this leads onto; how credible is any witness who is prepared to make irresponsible, hyperbolic statements on such a subject in the media?

According to the Commission of Inquiry, the answer is that such a person is entirely credible, because that is what their report found Evra to be; the Commission simply accepted his assertion that his statement was a figure of speech, while completely overlooking the impropriety of him making public statements about the incident at that stage at all, let alone wilfully-inaccurate ones. According to almost anybody outside the Inquiry, I suspect, such a person’s words should be treated with enormous caution.

Also on the subject of credibility, we have to come back to the original accusation that Evra made. Why did he accuse Suarez of a racial slur if the Inquiry concluded that this is not what Suarez was guilty of? The two most likely explanations I can think of for that is that Evra simply misheard or misunderstood what Suarez had said to him. I do not for a moment suggest he was deliberately lying about that, merely that what he heard and what he thought he heard were not the same thing. If he misheard, well, that is perfectly understandable in a stadium with over forty thousand people in it, and especially during one of the most volatile fixtures in the Premier League program. If he misunderstood, well, again that is entirely forgivable, as the two players were conversing in Spanish, which is not Evra’s first language. And further, Suarez was speaking in the Uruguayan dialect of Spanish, which has subtle differences to its European roots. So there is no reason in my mind to assume that Evra was bearing false witness.

But if the noise of the crowd was too loud for Evra to hear clearly over, or if there was a language barrier that Evra found difficult to get beyond, this still leads back to a familiar question; how reliable a witness could he be? A witness who does not understand what is happening or what is being said will be, ipso facto, of very limited help to any investigation that follows. It does re-open the possibility that Suarez’s version of events – that he was calling Evra "Negro" in an attempt to calm him down – might be true. It does not look all that likely from the pictures of the exchanges between the two players, but it is perfectly possible. Whatever the reality of that, it does seem incontrovertible that, intentionally or not, Evra misquoted Suarez with his accusations, and that means that he is not a reliable witness.

So, in summary, Evra did not really convince anyone, his statements were inconsistent, some of his conduct severely impacted on his credibility, and the lack of affinity between his accusation and the report’s conclusion raises serious doubts about his reliability (or perhaps that of the Commission itself). And yet the report described him as ‘convincing’, ‘consistent’, ‘reliable’, ‘credible’, and used these words as the basis for accepting his testimony.

With all this in mind, it becomes a lot easier to understand why Liverpool are feeling like their man has had a bit of a raw deal. The whole gist of the Inquiry upholding Evra’s complaint was that they found his testimony to be the more convincing, because it was more consistent, and he came across as the more reliable and more credible witness. Liverpudlian frustration is not so much that it is unfair to accuse Suarez’s statements of being inconsistent (they were), it is merely that on close analysis, Evra’s are not noticeably better. Therefore, even under the conditions of ‘balance-of-probabilities’, rather than ‘proof-beyond-reasonable-doubt’, it is debatable whether Suarez should have been found guilty. This is because, ultimately, without the witness statements of the accuser and the defendant to put things in context, the television pictures (which constitute the only other evidence available) are meaningless. The whole case thus amounts to one man’s word against the word of another. And if both of the witnesses are shown to be unreliable, the default position should be not guilty. In a proper Court Of Law, that is almost certainly what would have happened. On the basis of the evidence presented to the Inquiry, if the Suarez-Evra incident had gone to Court (as will happen with the John Terry-Anton Ferdinand dispute), the case would have been dismissed by the Judge without even asking the jury for a verdict.

Of course, the Inquiry was not held in a Court Of Law, and it was not subject to the Law demanding proof beyond reasonable doubt. In that light, the verdict of guilty is reasonably sustainable, as on balance of probabilities, it does seem most likely that Suarez was guilty of some kind of racially-aggravated behaviour. However, just because the verdict stands, this does not mean that the case is therefore proven. It simply means the Inquiry’s terms of reference were not very strict. There is still a reasonable doubt over Suarez’s guilt, and as such, all the many people in press and public who are castigating him are possibly being a little premature; and were it to emerge that Suarez did not racially abuse Evra, the business of the shunned handshake takes on a very different aspect.

Contrary to how the latest incident between the two men has been reported in the media, close analysis of pictures of the moment when Evra and Suarez came face-to-face shows that Evra did not offer a handshake at first. Did Suarez at this point imagine that he was being snubbed? That seems entirely plausible, and might even explain why he suddenly pushed past Evra without even glancing at him. Evra only extended his hand when he saw that Suarez had his own hand held out, and from the pictures we can safely assume that Evra imagined that the handshake was being offered to him. When Suarez then brushed past, offering his hand instead to the next Manchester United player in the line, Evra reacted by aggressively grabbing Suarez’s arm.

Now just consider again, there is a reasonable doubt over Suarez’s guilt over the racism charge. So let’s look at what happened while, for the moment, assuming that he was not guilty; –

Suarez offers a handshake, one that looks like it is about to be snubbed, to the player who has falsely accused him of racist behaviour, including live on television, and who has caused him to sit out a ban lasting over a month. (Let’s face it, being snubbed is embarrassing, especially when others are watching, and the face-saving instinct to avoid looking silly is just to pretend that you weren’t trying to shake his hand at all, and push on to the next player in the line. Which does fit what happened.) And then, the guy who has falsely accused Suarez, aggressively grabs hold of his arm.

In that position, what would you do? I can only speak for myself, but I would snatch my arm away, maybe even lash out. In other words, what Suarez did. If he has been falsely accused all along, it doesn’t sound a particularly harsh or undue reaction on his part. It was still wrong of course, and by snatching his hand away and lashing out, he kept the controversy alive at exactly the time when there was an ideal opportunity to draw a line under it. But when the media and the football world overwhelmingly condemn him a second time around, they are doing so partly on the assumption that he was guilty of the racist abuse in the first place. I must repeat that I still suspect he is. But being suspicious of guilt is not the same as being confident of it, and it has not been proven to any reasonable standard, only established as the likeliest hypothesis. If he is not guilty, then I honestly would not blame him for not wanting to shake Evra’s hand.

Of course it’s equally possible that the reason Suarez lashed out was because he is guilty and he was sulking about getting caught in the first place. In which case, his behaviour was just childish and insufferable. But again, we don’t have any solid reasons for believing that over the alternative explanation.

It is not often I agree with any words that come out of Wayne Rooney’s petulant mouth, but when he said after the game that the matter is now between Evra and Suarez and it should be left between them, he uttered perhaps the single wisest remark of his life. If the media and the footballing public truly want to draw a line under the matter (and given the pompous, self-righteous rhetoric coming from many in the tabloids and at the BBC over the last week or so, they are clearly trying to give that impression), then they should follow Rooney’s advice and just leave the two of them to it. The never-ending parade of opinion-columns on the BBC website constantly going back over the story since then suggests they are not willing to.

How bad the British media are at giving themselves exactly what they (say they) want. They’re so much better at outrage.