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St. Francis lived with the wolves. Neil Francis has just been eaten by them

Neil Francis recently lost his job as a rugby columnist with the Irish Independent following comments he made about British and Irish Lions out-half Marcus Smith on a podcast in July. Francis described Smith as “a Harlequins out-half with a David Beckham haircut and an Oompa Loompa tan”. Smith was born in the Philippines to a British father and Filipina mother.

The comment by Francis was met with the now standard unsurprising outrage where there is any possible connection with the race or ethnicity of anybody nowadays. Very quickly his comments were described as racist both by Harlequins Rugby club who quickly released a knee-jerk statement in response:

“Harlequins is disgusted by racist comments made by columnist Neil Francis on the publication’s rugby podcast, The Left Wing, on July 14 about Harlequins, England, and British and Irish Lions fly-half Marcus Smith. The Club firmly believes that there is no room for racism in any part of society, let alone professional sport.”

Francis immediately apologised  “for any offence taken by the player and his family”, saying that he would “never intentionally or wilfully make a comment to disparage somebody on the basis of the colour of anyone’s skin”, claiming “the comments have been interpreted differently from what I intended”.

However, in the current climate intention seems no longer to matter. Being racist is no longer a matter of intent but now completely in the eye of the beholder. One is racist if someone else perceives you to be. Harlequins found the comments offensive as did many others, assuming or characterising the comments as being a reference to Smith’s Filipino heritage.

Did Francis know that Smith had Filipino heritage? Maybe, or maybe not. Would that have been relevant? Certainly, if he had not, then he could not have intended any racist intent. If he did, the context of his comments ought to make it clear that he was not making a reference to race.

Has anyone asked whether Francis was aware of the players parentage or birthplace? Have they asked what was Francis’ intention? It does not seem to matter and no one seems to care.

The comments were crass – and a poor attempt at humour – but the intention, to any sound mind, ought to be clear – he was assuming that Smith was vain and spending significant time sunning himself instead of engaging in the serious business of rugby. His preceding reference to a ‘David Beckham haircut’ ought to be enough context.

Should he have known of Smith’s ethnicity? Possibly he should have enquired and likely would have if he was writing, but this was a podcast where you cannot research the words you are going to use in an ever-evolving discussion.

A spirit of generosity and charity would allow Francis this mishap, characterise it is a stupid, crass, rude, cheap, shallow or through whatever other channel that demonstrates a poverty of journalistic quality but to seek to shame and cancel Francis as racist, or to assume any racist attempt is intellectually dishonest but also cruel and far worse than the misstep taken by Francis.

Smith is not actually hurt by the characterisation – if anything he is enhanced as criticism of his quality – and rugby mettle which Francis was questioning – has been dispersed behind the accusations of racism. Francis however has lost his job and been tarred with an unfair characterisation as a racist – a slur that is intended to put one beyond the pale.

Francis had a target on his back for previous comments characterised as homophobic, where he generalised that gay people had no interest in sport. This isn’t homophobia, it is stereotyping and obviously wrong as there are plenty of examples to disprove the stereotype. Others attempted to claim that previously referring to the French as ‘cheese-eating surrender monkeys’ meant that Francis had a track-record.  Mediahuis Ireland, who owns the Irish Independent went on to remove Francis from his job, even though they admit there was no racist intent.

“We acknowledge that Mr Francis says his comments were inadvertent but we have decided to end our relationship with him and he will no longer write columns or contribute to our podcasts.”

In other words, for a slip-up, he has been sacked, to satisfy the baying mob. Corporate self-protection. Francis was an acceptable sacrifice in order to avoid the taint of any association or accusations of condoning anything remotely perceived as having a racist element. The producers who allowed the podcast to be broadcast are the ones who are supposed to have editorial control, and the benefit of the time for reflection, are more culpable than Francis.

The idea of racism becomes meaningless when it is engaged as an accusation for clearly non-racial discussions, when it is used as a means to cancel and no-platform when there is no racist element involved.

While it is intellectually dishonest of all who have engaged in this lynching to assume a racial element, this cry of ‘racism’ is not a case of strategic hyperbola but part of what has become a reflexive and successful reaction to anyone that be perceived to have said something that could possibly, even remotely, be considered to be related to race as the subject of discussion, however implausible an objective assessment would consider that to be. It is different in this regard to the taking down of the likes of Kevin Myers and John Waters but the ease with which they were destroyed has created a Pavlovian reaction to any whiff of a racial element.

The gatekeepers of what is socially acceptable to say have succeeded in creating a near monopoly on acceptable views through a dishonest ad hominem approach of smearing rather than honestly engaging with the words, reality and intention of the speaker.

Is Neil Francis a racist? Damned if I know what goes on in his head, but it is only fair to give a person the benefit of the doubt. But benefit of the doubt is never on offer any more and now that he has been convicted in the realm of vociferous mob opinion. Is there any evidence of Francis ever having acted in a racist manner previously? The scant examples cited as demonstrating he has ‘form’ are not even tenuous at best. There are no credible examples. Is there a trend to justify the uncharitable assumption of racism in his loose words? Not at all.

If Smith did not have Filipino heritage, would Francis have been subject to the same abuse? Suppose he had said it about Liam McHale, former Mayo midfielder, often abused from the sideline for his year-round tan – generally picked on for reasons of the high expectations placed on his shoulders as a player of sublime talent in a team that came close but never clasped the holy grail. The criticism of his qualities as a footballer were often over the top, and the implication by some that he spent too much time on the sunbeds is the same as that implied of Smith by Francis.

Were Mayo supporters racist because of McHale’s pastey-Irish ethnic heritage even though they entered into the same name-calling? Of course not. Had Francis intended the slight in reference to Smith’s ethnic heritage, then it would be racist. But how could he have done this if he wasn’t aware of it? It doesn’t make sense.

An apology from Francis followed for his mistake, and that is what it was and that should have been enough.
This is not a case of free speech being the right of others to express opinions we disagree with but a case of malicious, or at best uncharitable, mischaracterisation of the meaning of what Francis had said.

Smith has a right to be annoyed. To be characterised as lazy, which was Francis intention, is insulting to a professional rugby player who is in excellent physical shape – better than Neil Francis ever was although Francis did not play in the professional era. He also has a right to be offended by the reference to his skin-colour, as it is connected to his ethnicity, and is very entitled to say that it is not acceptable, that is insulting, and to expect an apology. He is right to state that the words have a race connotation and it would be appropriate for Francis to put his hands up and admit his words were careless, ill-judged and that he was ill-informed, and he can see why Smith would be hurt and offended.

Francis has done this. Whether it is enough for Smith, that should be between them. For Francis to lose his job and his livelihood, to be cast to the wilderness of Irish media carrion with Myers, Waters, Hook amongst others, is wrong. At least he is in good company.

Smith, if he takes Francis apology in good faith, in some solidarity with a former rugby player who plied his trade as an amateur, now without a livelihood, should stand up for Francis and show that he is the bigger man.
The price of a free society is that bad people say bad things. Sometimes good people say bad things, sometimes good people say daft things, and sometimes they say incorrect things. That does not make them racist; it does not make their comments racist. It doesn’t make them bad. It doesn’t even make them stupid. It makes them human. To be wrong, stupid, daft, is human. And we should embrace it, engage with it, discuss, understand, sometimes laugh, disagree, be charitable, and not cancel, not destroy.

Water is purified by exposure to sunlight. In the same way bad ideas are challenged by good ideas.  Incorrect facts are exposed by correct ones. Weak arguments lose to strong ones. And even racist attitudes where they exist, can only be countered if they are not driven underground where they allowed to fester in the margins. Crass comments intended as humour can sometimes backfire, but the hyperbolic, reflexive, frothing-at-the-mouth, feigned outraged reaction of accusations of racism does nothing for the cause of the real fight against racism.

Rather, it sets it back, because when everything becomes racist, then real racism can hide in the shadows of sacrificial public lynchings for nothing of the sort. Francis comments are nowhere near as dangerous as the crazed satisfaction of people completely unconnected to the events at seeing him and others burnt on the pyre of the modern fixation with feigning offence on behalf of others.

The cowardly reaction of Independent News and Media is equally part of the problem. They obsequious capitulation to a few online trolls and a mistaken assertion of racism by Harlequins Rugby Club is the opposite of what is expected from an independent media who you would expect to be standing up to the mob and calling out the nonsense for what it is. If they can’t stand up to keyboard warriors, how can we expect them to stand up to the powerful and influential?



David Reynolds

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