Opinion: Atkinson offends with worst of obscenities

Just two words uttered by public figures last week in private threw the issue of public reputation into sharp relief. In a private meeting to discuss a shared printing plant, media proprietor Richard Desmond called all Germans 'Nazis', referring to the likely takeover of The Telegraph by the German media group Axel Springer. Meanwhile Ron Atkinson, former manager (who championed bringing gifted black footballers into the game in the 1970s), ITV and Guardian pundit, called Chelsea's Marcel Desailly a 'lazy f*****g thick n****r'. He thought he was speaking off-air but found his comments were broadcast in the Middle East and, in our 24/7 world, repeated instantly here.

Desmond showed neither remorse nor regret that his comments were exposed.

A business associate told the FT the reason was a 'North London Jewish boy culture' and that 'people who know Richard laugh off his eccentricities'.

Eccentric indeed, given that his banker is the German Commerzbank. It must feel as angry as Michael Howard, who had secured Express support for the Conservatives in the same week and instead of gaining a PR triumph, gained a PR headache.

Desmond thinks he has nothing to lose by behaving so absurdly. He is already ridiculed in the public sphere as a 'pornographer', but had he said 'n****r' instead of 'Nazi' I'm not sure that he could have remained so unrepentant.

There is an unspoken ranking of obscenities and Atkinson used the worst.

He stood to lose a great deal by his remarks and undertook an extensive round of contrition interviews. He was seeking to protect his reputation not just for the £1m in fees and sponsorship which he lost overnight, but to correct the impression that underneath the man associated more than most with anti-racism in football there lurked, after all, a vile racist.

To achieve this he needed not just prompt action and airtime, but for people to believe his outburst was an error and not an indication of a hidden self. A number of leading figures in football, black and white, sprang to Atkinson's defence, albeit acknowledging his unforgivable remarks.

Whether this was spontaneous or orchestrated, it did, I think, work in his favour. People now understand his position, and it has sparked a debate about the power of language.

Robert McCrum wrote in The Observer last Sunday: 'Language is a lightening conductor for our discontents and anxieties.' Words are also a window on the communications soul. Judging by this, Desmond doesn't appear to have one; Atkinson, though flawed, does.

Kate Nicholas is on maternity leave.

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