Big Ron the relic stumbles on his road to redemption...

Adrian Chiles
Saturday 11 December 2004 01:00 GMT

When you make a television programme about a contentious issue the ideal outcome is for those on both sides of the argument to feel they've been fairly treated. The second best outcome is for both sides to be completely fed up. Not for the first time in my life, regarding What Ron Said (BBC1, Monday, 22.35), I'm happy to settle for second best.

When you make a television programme about a contentious issue the ideal outcome is for those on both sides of the argument to feel they've been fairly treated. The second best outcome is for both sides to be completely fed up. Not for the first time in my life, regarding What Ron Said (BBC1, Monday, 22.35), I'm happy to settle for second best.

It has been suggested that this programme is my way of trying to rehabilitate Ron Atkinson after the disgrace of his racist outburst about Marcel Desailly in April. The idea that I could somehow commandeer BBC1 airtime in this way to redeem my friends or damage my enemies is, to say the least, absurd.

The germ of the idea for the programme actually came from Anna Ford, of all people. She suggested to the controller of BBC1 that a film showing Ron Atkinson attending a race awareness course might be interesting. Hearing that there might be an appetite for something about Big Ron's fall from grace I put in a bid to do it.

So it was that I, and Rob Finighan of Aspect Television, found ourselves at the gates of Ron's house in Barnt Green, Birmingham. I'd never met Ron before but I do know his friend, and former producer at ITV, Jeff Farmer. Jeff had been here before with Ron: "It was me who had to deal with it when he called [Francesco] Totti a twat," he said ruefully, "mind you, most people agreed with him on that."

This, obviously, was more serious. A reminder, since it's often been misquoted, of exactly what Ron Atkinson said about Marcel Desailly: "He's what is known in some schools as a fucking lazy thick nigger." And, as you'll hear on Monday night if you watch the programme, it sounds even worse than it reads.

Our film extends the idea of taking him to a race awareness class. We took him to Alabama to try to give him an insight into the word he used. At that first meeting he gave me hope that he was prepared to do some learning. He said John Barnes had told him he wasn't a racist because a racist is someone who won't give a black man a chance. "And that's right," he declared confidently. "But Ron," I replied, "it's not that simple, because a slave plantation owner could argue he's giving a black man a chance in employing him."

"Oh, right," admitted a disappointed Ron, "I suppose that's true."

So I hoped he'd undergo some kind of conversion in the deep south. I hoped in vain. For one thing it's next to impossible to get him to talk about anything other than football. But the main problem is that he is still, in a sense, in denial. It wasn't him. It was - to use his favourite word for it - an aberration. As the producer, Petal Felix - who is black - puts it: "It's as though the whole business was nothing to do with him. He couldn't admit it was something inside him coming out when he used those words."

The other problem was that Ron's motivation, not unreasonably, was to get his job back rather than explore the history of the n-word and what that might reveal about him and the world in general. Petal puts his reluctance to engage with the material down to a mixture of arrogance and fear. I wouldn't disagree with that, but I also have some admiration for his inability to even feign interest - he's just not dishonest enough. My big fear was that, being the consummate performer, he'd act it all out, turn on the waterworks and proclaim that he'd undergone a road-to-Damascus moment. A lesser man - or, perhaps, a cleverer man - would have taken that opportunity. Not Ron.

So, will he get his job back? I doubt it. There's a moment in the film when Ron, under merciless attack from Darcus Howe, asks, "whatever happened to forgiveness?" It's a fair question. Pat Younge is an executive in BBC Sport. He is black. He poses this question: "Is it a sign of progress that a man can never work again because he used racist language? Or is that just an example of another kind of intolerance?"

Hepburn Harrison-Graham is also a senior producer in BBC Sport. He is also black. His answer to Pat's question is clear: "I say it's progress. I absolutely say it's progress. Atkinson's a relic, a dinosaur. He should never be allowed back. And the programme should never have been made."

"But," I point out, "apart from the fact you've not even seen the programme, it had a black producer and a black commissioning editor."

I suppose if I'm shocked that I'm having this conversation it's because I must have been carrying the idiotic, not to say racist, assumption that black people, having similar colour skin, also have similar opinions. "We absolutely do not share the same opinions," says Hepburn, "it's like back in the days of slavery, when there were field negroes and house negroes. The two were miles apart regarding their thoughts on emancipation. It's no different today. I guess I would have been in the field."

Hepburn wasn't the only one who thought the programme shouldn't have been made. The black footballers most critical of Ron refused to take part even if it was only to come on and slate him. Ligali, an organisation which describes itself as a voice for the African British community, contacted the Director of Television to register its disapproval. Our commissioning editor Maxine Watson was asked to deal with this. In Ligali's mission statement there's a vow "to monitor, investigate and publicly challenge all media institutions that publish, broadcast, perform, or distribute content harmful and offensive to the African British community."

Accordingly, Maxine invited them in for a viewing. She was told that the film was too soft on Ron; that viewers wouldn't grasp its subtleties and that the constant use of the n-word would cause offence. Our intention was never to cause offence, but the American archive material we've used - folk songs, posters and so on - featuring the n-word, is shocking and it's there because we felt a reminder of the word's vile history will do less harm than good.

Should Ron work again? John Barnes obviously thinks so. As for me, in the unlikely event that I had the opportunity to have him on Match of the Day 2, given that I don't think he should be cast in the wilderness forever, I wonder if I'd be brave enough to accept.

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