What's the difference between Luis Suarez, ex-BBC Mark Thompson and a rabid Alsatian?

This radio debate on the Luis Suarez bite scandal really gave me something to chew on


I have been called many things in my life, but to be introduced as "the voice of reason", as I was by a radio presenter at the weekend, was a something of a new experience. I had been asked on to the station, a favourite with the taxi drivers of London, to justify my opinion that Luis Suarez had been harshly treated with his 10-match suspension for biting an opposition player.

My point was that the punishment was more reflective of the reaction to the incident than of the attack itself. The combative and eloquent host, James Max, countered this with the proposition that there's one rule for the rich and famous (Suarez) and another for the ordinary person (him, for example). "If I went up to my producer and bit him on the arm," he said, "I'd be sacked immediately and I'd probably be up for GBH."

A fair point, you may say. But no. There is a relevant precedent which helps rebut his assertion. Sharp-eyed viewers of the most recent edition of Have I Got News For You will have noticed, in the odd-one-out round about biting controversies from recent history, a picture of Mark Thompson, the former Director-General of the BBC and now chief executive of The New York Times. Unfortunately, it was not fully explained why Mr Thompson was in the company of such orthodontic assailants as Suarez and a rabid Alsatian.

It is a little-known, and not terribly important, story, but in the context of the fuss attending the Liverpool striker, it bears repeating. It was back in 1988, when Mr Thompson was editor of the Nine O'Clock News. This is what his victim said when the tale emerged 17 years later: "Before I could say a word, he suddenly turned, snarled, and sank his teeth into my left upper arm (leaving marks through the shirt, but not drawing blood). It hurt. I pulled my arm out of his jaws, like a stick out of the jaws of a Labrador."

Blimey. This could be viewed as rather unusual behaviour even in the most robust of newsrooms, never mind the more gentlemanly environs of the Beeb. Mr Thompson was successful in playing down its significance. A BBC spokesman said it had been "high jinks" and "horseplay". Mr Thompson had apologised at the time, and it certainly didn't have a damaging effect on his career. However, this was 25 years ago, predating Twitter and Facebook, and long before word of mouth would spread like a forest fire. And, of course, there wasn't quite the same scrutiny on workplace behaviour in those days.

If Mr Thompson went down tomorrow to The New York Times newsroom and sunk his fangs into the tricep of a hapless hack, it would indeed, as James Max asserts, be a serious disciplinary issue, on which everyone up to and including President Obama would doubtless have to pronounce. But I think Suarez's punishment was severe because he was rich and famous, and he is unlucky to have transgressed in an era when perspective has been lost, and when everyone has an opinion, and insists that it is heard. Mainly on radio talk shows, I can hear you say...

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