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Moyes and the 'it was only a joke' defence

Imagine the portentous silence and pitying looks. You’ve been hauled in by the boss for threatening to slap a visitor to the office and your defence consists of “it was only a joke” and “she/he was laughing”. Go directly to a disciplinary. Do not pass Go. Your next pay cheque might be your last.

I am not a natural journalist. First, I hate small talk, am rather shy and therefore awful at ingratiating myself with people who would much rather I pissed off and stopped asking awkward questions. Second, I dislike bullies and have a rather short fuse. Actually, that second trait can come in handy in the often rough and tumble world of sports journalism and has led to stand-up rows with fellow hacks as far afield as Glasgow, Las Vegas and Twitter. It’s all a bit embarrassing for other hacks caught in the crossfire, shuffling their feet and staring at the ceiling, but you have to stand your ground if someone is getting in your grill and trying to make a mug of you.

But losing your rag with an interviewee is not an option for journalists (see Panorama's John Sweeney in 'Scientology and Me') and interviewees know it only too well. So when David Moyes told BBC 5 live’s Vicki Sparks that she “might get a slap” for asking awkward questions after Sunderland’s draw with Burnley, he did so in the knowledge that she had no option but to laugh it off. Had she fired back in kind, she probably would have been hauled in for a bollocking herself.

As any woman who has been slapped on the arse and/or told to “cheer up love, it might never happen” will tell you, just because they react by smiling weakly doesn’t necessarily mean they think the person who did or said it isn’t a bothersome prick. But because Sparks laughed Moyes' comments off (I should make it clear that I never met her during my time at the BBC), many people have concluded that there was nothing to see and everyone should just chill out a bit.

Some have suggested that if Sparks has the temerity to want to work in sports journalism, and the manly world of football in particular, she should be able to duck and dive and roll with the blows. They have also suggested that any man springing to her defence is being patronising. I’m sure Sparks doesn’t need any man’s help, she’s clearly quite good at asking questions people don’t want to answer, which is what good journalism is. But the rest is a strange take on sexual equality.

The battle for women to be accepted in football's press rooms and commentary boxes, and the press rooms and commentary boxes of almost any sport, is ongoing. And it was the flippancy of Moyes’ remarks that was most telling. I very much doubt he would ever tell a male reporter that they “might get a slap” for asking awkward questions. And I very much doubt he would ever upbraid a male reporter for “naughtiness”. I wonder did he reach out and pat Sparks on the head?

Moyes' remarks have also placed Sparks in rather an awkward situation: if she publicly criticises him, she will be labelled an uppity woman bent on causing trouble; if she chooses to say nothing or comes out and says Moyes did nothing wrong - after all, I don't think anybody is suggesting that Moyes would ever have followed through on his threat, and therefore even the word 'threat' is probably too strong - she will be accused of making light of what many will deem everyday sexism.

Moyes has apparently apologised to Sparks in person, which should be lightly applauded. It should also be noted that the fact Moyes said what he did to a woman is to a certain extent irrelevant.

Bullying is defined as “using superior strength to intimidate someone, typically to force them to do something”. That’s why the defence “it was only a joke” is always a shaky one. Laughter doesn’t necessarily mean the recipient of the "joke" thinks it’s funny. It might mean it’s their only option.

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