As the pressure mounts on Sunderland AFC to clarify exactly when they knew about Adam Johnson's sexual offences against a child an old question rises afresh unto the public consciousness. How do we treat celebrity criminals?
The world of football was pushed on this point not long ago by the case of convicted rapist Ched Evans. After Evans was released from prison a couple of clubs tried to sign him as a player. The suggestions were met variously with protests, petitions and club resignations. But should Evans have been allowed to carry on his job? Hadn't he served his time?
The trouble with sports stars and other celebrities is that their status is totally different. As a footballer you might well expect to start the main part of your job being cheered onto a pitch by 30,000 people, before you've even done anything. The question about whether anyone deserves that much acclaim is debatable, but surely it's not what you deserve if you're a convicted sex offender. Evans and Johnson must surely move back into the shadows with the rest of us.
What about other crimes? Jeremy Clarkson settled considerable damages after his assault and racial abuse of a Top Gear producer. Should he be allowed to swagger around like cock of the walk after an assault conviction? Should 'I became unbusy' be allowed to remain a waggish euphemism for 'I was sacked for punching a man in the face'? You might argue that Clarkson's punch was not the same as a rape, or assault on a child. I wouldn't disagree with you. But while Evans and Johnson are rightly chastised for their crimes, Clarkson is more or less allowed to celebrate his as if it was some kind of banterous jape. He was no sooner sacked by the BBC for grossly unacceptable behaviour than he was hired by Amazon and given TV time exclusively to laugh at a crime which, lest we forget, still had a victim. The message remains that you can get away with a lot as long as you can make enough money.
What message, incidentally, does this send to other former convicts? I imagine there are plenty of young people who got criminal records before they properly grew up and who's lives are now tainted by it in a way that they wouldn't be if only they were bigger box office. It's not really fair on anyone, to be honest, it perpetuates a distinctly uneven playing field for both victims and other offenders.
Steve Coogan was recently banned for speeding. I'm not suggesting he should be excised from the media. Although he should perhaps be required to talk about it seriously in interviews. But then maybe I'm being too generous, after all his behaviour was reckless and selfish. I'm not drawing a line in the sand. I just want to start the debate.Suggest a correction