Oh, stop it Aggers. The news that Jonathan Agnew MBE, the BBC’s voice of cricket, has been reprimanded by the corporation for repeatedly calling a journalist at the Independent “a cunt” might come as a bit of shock to those who follow Agnew’s sunny broadcast presence.
Everyone loves a high-profile tiff. But this isn’t really a tiff, just a bad judgment call on one side. Agnew has since apologised to Jonathan Liew after the abusive direct messages came to light.
I should declare an interest here. I know and like Liew, and feel dismayed on his behalf that he should receive a sustained and menacing screed of abuse from a senior figure in his industry. I also understand why Agnew was upset, as he believed that Liew was calling him a racist.
The abusive messages were a response to an article Liew had written in which he expressed concern about some of the language used in the media to describe Jofra Archer’s selection for England. Liew was writing about the notion of structural prejudice in the way we express ourselves, a shifting, gossamer thing that can often creep in unexpectedly but which can reinforce unhelpful tropes and stereotypes.
This was the passage towards the end that led to the BBC cricket correspondent’s foul-mouthed tirade, not to mention some unpleasant accompanying allusions to mental health problems.
Liew wrote: “‘A huge call,’ warned Jonathan Agnew. ‘Morale and camaraderie is a big part in team performance.’ Which feels instinctively unarguable – who doesn’t love morale and camaraderie, after all? – until you begin to ask why Archer is deemed such a grave threat to it.”
There was a comparison with Agnew’s warmer welcome for Gary Ballance, a white player of Zimbabwean origin. Further down, and summing up a lot of elements above, Liew wrote: “There’s an incendiary word you could posit to describe all this, but I’m not going to use it.”
This was the first response from Agnew: “Fucking disgraceful. You have massive chips on your shoulder ... you are a racist.”
Liew replied that this was not about name calling but a wider societal issue to do with “the huge privilege we enjoy in the media, the subtle and often unconscious biases that occasionally seep into our language … Happy to engage further on this topic if you are prepared to put your pantomime outrage to one side. If not apologies for the offence caused and I wish you well.”
What came next was an unanswered blurt of abusive fury.
Agnew: “You really have issues”
Agnew: “Apologise now”.
Agnew: “I’m going no further on the advice of people who know you and think you are a cunt. I know you are. Think on.”
Agnew: “You are so strange I don’t know if you’d be upset to know those who think you are a cunt”
Agnew: “If you think so in hindsight then you have a chance. If you don’t ...
Agnew: “I’m SO angry”
Agnew: “Book yourself in somewhere”
Agnew: “You need help”
Agnew: “Who the fuck are you?”
At the end of which, we probably all need help. What’s going on here exactly? I should point out that Liew is a waspish but well-liked journalist. The notes of the Cricket Writers’ Club meeting where Agnew raised his grievances in a written statement record the room bursting into laughter when Liew, who was late, walked in halfway through.
The other interest to declare here is that Agnew has done something similar but far less serious and bullying with me. Those who know him say Agnew is a very nice man, that he can just be thin-skinned. This is probably right. In my case Agnew was angered by an article in which I said I preferred TalkSport’s coverage and the Agnew-style voice could be a bar to cricket for some who found him slightly bumptious and Middle England.
In response he sent me a weirdly personal angry message. Later there was a strange email late at night referring to a listener interaction, and telling me “people like you” don’t realise how loved he is, how nice he is, what a beautiful person. In the course of which he took time to very lovably call me “a wanker”. Which is, you have to admit, quite funny.
At the time I suggested he should stop doing this kind of thing as it’s just a bad idea. He has a perfect right to take issue with people. I’m glad he cares enough. He will perhaps call me a cunt for writing this, and I defend his right to do so. Maybe he’s right!
I don’t think Jonathan Agnew is a racist. I don’t think Liew ever suggested he was one but read the messages to Liew and something else emerges. Not just the sense of a pattern of unpleasant behaviour but something wider too. Abusing younger journalists from a position of power is a damaging thing to do. Even more uncomfortable is the spectacle of one of English cricket’s most influential media figures abusing a young English journalist of Chinese heritage who has brought up an issue of race, who is trying to talk about nuance and about the way we use language.
Agnew can disagree with this or take it on board. He might say, I am angry about this, explain yourself. But if the response is just: you are a cunt, then he is clearly not getting this right.
Agnew has now resigned from the Cricket Writers’ Club; quite rightly given his abuse of another member. And even if Danny Baker got the boot this week for something far less deliberately vitriolic, the BBC has probably done the right thing in reprimanding him.
In the end this is a very minor bump in the road at the start of cricket’s big summer, something Agnew will be at the heart of. Perhaps as the sport tries to spread its wings a little it is a good moment to think about voices, about how we talk to others, and who we want to see doing that. This is something to learn from. And in the meantime, do put the sweary smartphone down my dear old thing.