Here’s what the press got wrong about our interview with Wilfried Zaha

Jamie Millar, the writer behind our recent cover interview with Wilfried Zaha, weighs in on how the story has been reported in the press - and what that says about society's attitude to social media abuse

The Jackal’s profile of footballer Wilfried Zaha, the cover star of the June/July 2019 issue that came out on Wednesday, has been widely reported by other publications – or rather misreported.

For example, from Zaha’s comments about his brief, unhappy spell at Manchester United, and the direct messages that he now receives from Red Devils fans asking him if he would ever go back, some media outlets speculated that he might soon return to Old Trafford, even though the tenor of his remarks suggested that was unlikely. But as one national newspaper observed, at least factually accurately, he didn’t rule it out, so…

wilfried zaha

Jacket, £695, Kent & Curwen. Jumper, £180, John Smedley. Trousers, £195, Mr P at Sunglasses, £140 by Finlay. Rolex, Wilfried’s own

Most publications however seized on Zaha’s quotes about racist abuse. ‘Nearly every game I’m called a monkey or a nigger or a whatever,’ he told the Jackal. This explosive revelation made the back pages of the Evening Standard, The Sun, the Daily Mirror, the Express and the Daily Star, plus the print sports sections of the Times and the Telegraph.

It’s heartening that these titles used their considerable platforms to raise awareness of this serious issue. But all of them wrote that Zaha was referring to abuse from the stands, when he was talking about social media. In the Jackal’s feature, his disclosure came in the context of the direct message calling him a ‘diving monkey’ that he received after a game against Newcastle in April, and the racist abuse and death threats towards him and his family following the game against Arsenal in October.

wilfried zaha

Denim jacket, £219, by Albam; T-shirt, £65, by Les Basics

That’s not to say that Zaha hasn’t suffered racial abuse at grounds, because he has, as he told the Jackal. ‘I remember we played against Burnley [in March 2012] when I got a red card, and when I was walking off they were making monkey noises,’ he said in a section of the interview that didn’t make the finished article, partly for reasons of space and partly because there’s only so much of this stuff that you can stomach. ‘Millwall: the guy stood next to his son calling us all sorts as we’re warming up. This was years ago.’

When quotes are taken out of context then it’s easy to get the middle of the stick, if not the wrong end. The fact remains though that Zaha is being racially abused ‘nearly every game’. Is that fact any less newsworthy or serious if it’s ‘only’ on social media and not IRL?

wilfried zaha

Suit, £675, by Hackett; Shirt, £110, by Hamilton and Hare

‘We are disappointed and saddened to hear of the incidents of racism that Wilfried Zaha has experienced,’ the Football Association told the Standard. ‘Discrimination, in any form, is entirely unacceptable and we encourage any player who has witnessed or experienced it to report it immediately. The FA investigate all forms of discriminatory abuse at any level of the game, working closely with the Leagues and our partners at [anti-discrimination campaign group] Kick It Out. We will be contacting Wilfried to understand more about these incidents and to offer him any guidance and support he needs.’

Discrimination on social media is no less unacceptable or worthy of investigation than it is in person. And the impunity with which internet trolls hurl abuse can embolden them offline, unravelling the fabric of society thread by thread. ‘Instagram is the worst for it, because I’ll make an account, call you this, you’ll report me, block me,’ Zaha said in another unpublished section of the interview. ‘I’ll make another account with a fake name, call you the same thing, you’ll block me, I’ll make another one. That’s what happens regularly.’

In April, the Professional Footballers’ Association organised a 24-hour social media boycott by its members, who posted a red-and-white graphic that read: ‘Enough.’ The caption enjoined: ‘Make a stand against racism.’ Zaha took part, but described it as ‘useless’, in the same way that he questioned the effectiveness of anti-racism T-shirts.

‘It needs to be something proper, where people will feel it,’ he said. ‘Then they’ll stop.’

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