A long-serving Sunday Express football writer has lost his appeal against being dismissed for “gross misconduct” for writing a column criticising Liverpool FC fans, but plans to take the matter to an employment tribunal.
Colin Mafham, who worked as a journalist for 50 years, including 15 years with the Sunday title, was suspended in April after writing an online column in which he said LFC fans “frighten the living daylights” out of him and that trouble seems to follow them “like bees round a honey pot”.
In the article, headlined: “Liverpool must take serious action after Roma violence or risk further trouble”, Mafham drew comparisons between the actions of LFC fans at the 1985 Heysel Stadium disaster, which resulted in 14 LFC supporters being jailed for manslaughter, with Hillsborough.
The sports correspondent wrote the piece two days after LFC fan Sean Cox was allegedly attacked by supporters of Italian team Roma, and weeks after the Manchester City FC team bus was attacked by people throwing bottles as it arrived at Liverpool’s football ground.
The story was quickly removed after outcry on social media. Daily Express editor and LFC supporter Gary Jones personally apologised to the Mayor of Liverpool, while the Express put out an apology describing it as “ill-informed and wrong”.
Following an internal investigation and disciplinary hearing, Mafham was fired on the grounds of gross misconduct in June.
He appealed the decision and, after a second disciplinary hearing held on 24 July, found out today that his appeal has been denied.
Mafham has now confirmed he intends to take new Express Newspapers owner Reach to an employment tribunal where he said he would be seeking “substantial damages”.
He told Press Gazette: “I have been dealt a dreadful injustice and I don’t necessarily see myself as the champion for all journalists and freedom of speech, but there is an issue here and I am long in the tooth enough and free of many of the responsibilities of life which many people have to fight this.
“At my age it is the end of my career, added to which of course I am tarnished with the Hillsborough thing.
“I feel that I have been dealt with in a bizarre way – I wrote it, but they published it, so why am I to blame – why am I guilty of gross misconduct? Wasn’t that the person who published it?”
Mafham said he plans to instruct the same lawyer who represented Matt Driscoll, the former News of the World sports reporter who was awarded £792,736 in 2007 when an employment tribunal found he was unfairly sacked and discriminated against on disability grounds.
A spokeperson for Reach said they could not comment on any potential legal action, but said: “Talking in general terms, freedom of expression for journalists is not a free pass to publish ill-informed, inaccurate, and misjudged comments.
“When journalists are given a platform for their opinions, it comes with the quid pro quo that what they write is to be founded on fact and reasoned argument.”
In the original article, Mafham wrote: “You would have thought the deaths of 39 Italians at the European Cup final Liverpool lost to Juventus in 1985 – plus the five-year ban on English clubs that consequently came after that – would have had a sobering effect.
“You would have thought the horrors at Hillsborough and 96 more deaths that followed only four years later would have made everyone more aware of their responsibilities to each other.
“Those two tragedies, in which the central figures were sadly mostly from Liverpool, are arguably football’s most painful Achilles and hopefully will never happen again.”
The article was described by Liverpool Echo head of sport David Prentice as “vile, presumptuous and repugnant”.