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July 26, 2018updated 27 Jul 2018 10:43am

Sunday Express sports writer fired over Liverpool FC opinion piece vows to continue fighting ‘gag on freedom of speech’

By Charlotte Tobitt

A Sunday Express sports correspondent who was fired after criticising Liverpool FC fans in an online comment piece has vowed to continue fighting his dismissal, which he said was a “gag on freedom of speech”.

Colin Mafham, who has worked as a journalist for 50 years, accused Express Newspapers of ending his career with a “terrible unjust slur” for firing him on the grounds of gross misconduct after 15 years with the Sunday title.

He told Press Gazette the decision to sack him over the opinion piece meant “every journalist in this country… now needs to be looking over their shoulders”.

A spokesperson for Reach, the new owner of the Express, said in response that freedom of expression for journalists “is not a free pass to publish ill-informed, inaccurate, and misjudged comments”.

Mafham was suspended over his article, headlined: “Liverpool must take serious action after Roma violence or risk further trouble”, which was published online on 26 April this year.

He wrote the comment piece after LFC fans had clashed with supporters of Italian team Roma two days earlier, leaving Liverpool supporter Sean Cox in a critical condition in hospital.

A Roma fan has since denied charges of GBH and violent disorder, while another admitted violent disorder.

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Earlier that month the Manchester City FC team bus was attacked by people throwing bottles and other objects as it arrived at Liverpool’s football ground for the Champions League quarter final.

Mafham’s article, which had one paragraph removed before being taken down altogether on the day of publication, included the line: “Why does trouble seem to follow them (Liverpool fans) like bees round a honey pot?”

Urging LFC to “recognise it has a big problem”, Mafham wrote: “It’s not the players who produced that performance who I have an issue with, it’s some of the people who ‘follow’ them that frighten the living daylights out of me.

“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 seen by Liverpool Echo head of sport David Prentice, who wrote a response describing Mafham’s article as “vile, presumptuous and repugnant”.

Daily Express editor Gary Jones, who took up the post in March after editor Hugh Whittow stepped down, apologised personally to Mayor of Liverpool Joe Anderson over the story.

Jones, former editor of the Sunday Mirror and Sunday People titles, is himself a Liverpool FC Fan and has campaigned for justice for the 96 Hillsborough victims for the Mirror.

Of Mafham’s article, Jones told Press Gazette in an interview in May: “I thought the view was abhorrent and it’s so obvious it should never have been written or put online.”

The Express also published an official apology, calling Mafham’s article “ill-informed and wrong” and saying that it “did not, in any way, reflect the views of the Express”.

It said the comment piece “should never have been written and was very quickly removed”, adding: “We unconditionally apologise, both for the article itself and any offence, understandably, caused.”

Mafham was sacked after a disciplinary hearing in June and he is now awaiting the result of an appeal hearing which took place on Tuesday – although he said, in his mind, it is “pre-determined”.

He told Press Gazette he left the appeal hearing with this message: “Rest assured I am not going away. I will fight this because I have never, in 50 years in journalism on news and sport, committed gross misconduct.”

He added: “That is a slur which I will fight for as long as I’ve got blood in my veins and breath in my body.”

Press Gazette understands it is still unclear who published the piece as the online editor and sports editor had both finished their shifts at the time and, following an internal investigation, comment articles must now be signed off at a senior level before being published.

Mafham said he had been forced to go to the police over fears for his safety after receiving “enormous abuse” on Twitter from LFC fans, including his address being posted in a practice known as doxxing.

He said he believes that Jones’s intervention and apology only “fanned the flames” of the Twitter storm.

Mafham also believes he was fired for commercial reasons, to avoid the Express being boycotted in Liverpool like the Sun, saying he had been “offered as a sacrificial lamb to a baying mob”.

The Sun has been unpopular in Liverpool since its 1989 “The Truth” splash alleging appalling behaviour by LFC fans during the Hillsborough disaster, which was later proven false.

While it has previously issued a front page apology over the error, The Sun was last year banned from attending LFC matches and press conferences while councillors have also supported a ban on retailers selling it in the city.

Mafham remains defiant that he is “100 per cent right and they [Express bosses] are 100 per cent wrong”, and believes “every journalist in this country as a result of this now needs to be looking over their shoulders”.

He maintains the only factual error made in the article was the implication that flares must have been deployed by Liverpool fans rather than Roma supporters because “you couldn’t bring them through customs the last time I looked”.

He has since been informed that flares can be legally bought in the UK.

However he defends his right to hold an opinion in a comment piece, saying: “This is a gag on freedom of speech. I am not saying I have a right to go around libelling everybody or exercising personal vendettas. I’m not calling for that.

“This was an opinion. It wasn’t an article as such. It was opinion and a plea for peace and for them to behave themselves.”

A spokesperson for Reach said: “We terminated our contract with Colin Mafham in June, following a thorough internal investigation.

“This decision is pending the result of an appeal, and until that appeal concludes and Mr Mafham has been told the result, I cannot comment further on his case.

“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.”

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