After his trial, Lee Bowyer found himself pilloried in the press and punished by his club. Leeds fan Ian Blake was one of the few who thought he got a raw deal
Lee Bowyer, declared not guilty by the British justice system, has nonetheless been convicted by the media, a cabinet minister, a former minister of sport, politicians, fans of other clubs and, last but not least, his own club, Leeds United. This despite the verdicts of a jury who, unlike many of his present accusers, considered all the evidence.
Bowyer, of course, has a history – at 18 he smoked cannabis and a year later he trashed a McDonald’s and made racist remarks. Since then, his only public misdemeanors have been on the pitch, but even there his record is unexceptional, having been sent off only once while at Leeds. However, his cocksure attitude during and after the trial and his Isle of Dogs roots helped make him a target for almost universal disapproval. The fact that he was required to pay his costs in the case because the judge ruled he had misled police in his statements after the attack handed the media further ammunition.
Their pack instinct is not a big surprise. They were suddenly off the leash following two years of restraint imposed by the trial, and must have been ready if not eager to run the “millionaire footballers in lifestyle change” story, complete with detailed accounts of life inside Armley or Wakefield prisons. The problem arose when they did not get the verdicts they expected and, it seems, desired.
What was surprising was the sensationalist tone of reporting from some of the broadsheets. There were a few exceptions. Alyson Rudd in the Times claimed that the punishment by Leeds had undermined the judgment of the court, with the implication that Bowyer is more guilty than other drunken players: “How can he accept the fine without accepting that he was lucky to get off? British justice is far from perfect, but if verdicts mean nothing it will collapse completely.” But this outbreak of fairness was fairly isolated.
The single biggest culprit among the newspapers has been the Mirror, who have searched every nook and cranny to find something, anything, to pin on Bowyer. It was the Mirror’s sister paper, the Sunday Mirror, which was guilty of causing the abandonment of the first trial, at a cost of around £7 million, when they printed the accusations of the victim’s father that the attack was racist. This may not be unrelated to the venom now shown by the Mirror.
Also of interest and not without irony is that the Murdoch media has joined in with gusto. Sky is largely responsible for the injection of vast amounts of cash into the pockets of players at an age when least equipped to deal with it. The satellite TV company also owns just under ten per cent of Leeds United. But perhaps the Murdoch empire takes the view that no publicity is bad. The media hysteria and the unsubstantiated racist undertones were also fanned by a few self-righteous politicians. Among them was Parmjit Dhanda, MP for Gloucester, who claimed the selection of Bowyer by England would alienate Asian football fans. That may be so, but it is scarcely reason enough to punish someone who has been cleared by the courts.
Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell said: “It’s not for the Secretary of State to select the England team, but I am sure Leeds and England will make clear it’s a reminder of the standards that are expected. These players should remember they have become famous because fans admire them and they are role models. That places an enormous responsibility on them, quite apart from the damage this kind of incident does to the efforts that football is making to get rid of racism.” What racism? Prosecution, defence and two judges agreed there was no suggestion of racism from any events connected with the trial.
Former Sports Minister Tony Banks agreed with Jowell, but did have the grace to add that he felt Bowyer was not good enough for England anyway, thereby confirming in one sentence the quality of his judgement on both English football and British justice.
Leeds United have compounded the injustice done to Lee Bowyer by their actions following the trial. The decision to fine the player four weeks’ wages and insist upon extra community service for 18 months, signalled that this was a punishment for more than just having too much to drink. After all, the club took no action against the other players who were drinking in the city centre the same night as Woodgate and Bowyer.
So what was the sanction on Bowyer about? Many outsiders concluded it could only be because the club knew he was involved in the attack. The real answer may be deduced from the words of Leeds chairman Peter Ridsdale, who said: “People may say it’s severe, but there are a number of people who would turn around and look at us had we imposed a two-week fine, who would have said it was insufficient.” The obvious conclusion from this is that the level of the fine was about public relations and not fairness.
If Leeds were acting according to their principles, the punishment for Bowyer should have been a fine of two weeks’ wages, the maximum allowed under his contract. The unilateral amendment of that contract is difficult to defend and worse, to coerce the player to accept the punishment by “agreement” could not by any stretch of the imagination be said to be fair. The player has honoured the contract, the club have not.
The punishment of a man found not guilty of all charges needs to be justified. No one seems willing or able to do so. Bowyer has been banned from playing for England for two years, and while he brought the costs payment on himself, the amount he is liable for was massively inflated because the first trial was halted by the actions of a newspaper group which is now attacking him. To cap it all, he has been handed a punishment by his employers that is massively out of line with any offence committed.
The case against Lee Bowyer seems to boil down to the fact that many people think he is not a very nice person. While that may or may not be true, it is hardly a basis on which to vilify him after the real case has been heard.
From WSC 180 February 2002. What was happening this month