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December 13, 2022updated 14 Dec 2022 10:15am

Yorkshire Post accused of ‘campaign to discredit’ cricket racism whistleblower

Yorkshire Post editor James Mitchinson hit back at accusations his paper "provided the voice for the racist".

By Charlotte Tobitt

The Yorkshire Post has been accused of a “campaign to discredit and intimidate” a former Yorkshire cricketer who blew the whistle on racism at his club and has since had to leave the UK due to abuse.

Ex-cricketer Azeem Rafiq and cricket journalist George Dobell both made similar accusations in front of a DCMS Committee hearing on racism in cricket on Tuesday morning. Yorkshire County Cricket Club chairman Lord Kamlesh Patel gave evidence about the abuse he has received after stories were published.

Yorkshire Post editor James Mitchinson has responded that the allegations were “scurrilous and unfounded” and that his newspaper has “applied the same rules of objectivity, impartiality and professionalism in seeking to tell all sides of the story”.

Rafiq left the UK this autumn after a continuing backlash to the racism scandal that began when he first spoke of “deep-rooted” racism at Yorkshire in 2020 and filed a legal complaint against the club. Disciplinary proceedings against a number of individuals are due to be held shortly.

What did Azeem Rafiq tell the DCMS committee?

Rafiq said on Tuesday he has been subjected to attacks for over a year and that he was recently given 24/7 security by the England and Wales Cricket Board. He said: “If I was to pick one reason why all this has happened unfortunately I would have to say it was the Yorkshire Post’s reporting.”

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Asked by Conservative MP Giles Watling how he felt about “attacks” by the National World-owned newspaper, Rafiq said: “Where do I start? I think pretty early on the Yorkshire Post through their correspondent took a position. I actually have some sense of sympathy. He’s known these people for well over two decades and he’s been fed lies and he’s believed them. It’s been difficult, it’s been really challenging.

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“For example they keep reporting snippets out of the Squire Patton Boggs report [into the racism allegations] but they’ve failed to report the central conclusion that I was a victim of racial harassment and bullying. There’s been match reports written on a Yorkshire championship game with digs at me…”

Lord Patel, who was appointed chairman of Yorkshire CCC in November 2021 after the previous incumbent resigned over the racism investigation, also claimed he receives abuse after articles are published by the Yorkshire Post.

Reading out a letter including racial slurs, he said: “I have a bag full of that stuff. But every time the Yorkshire Post put an article out either social media would happen or letters like this would happen.”

Rafiq also said: “For me the editorial control and the senior editors at the Yorkshire Post have a lot to answer for. And the impact locally has been quite big. Every time there’s an article it’s created a wave of online abuse… and at times I have walked down the street fearing for my life. The effect is quite big. Having to leave the country was not an easy decision.”

Rafiq claimed the Yorkshire Post had written around 300 articles about him and the issue in just over two years “with a lot basically attacking me at all opportunities”.

“I don’t feel like at any point they’ve had any balance and it’s been disappointing,” he added. “The impact of that – I spoke out, I knew that I would be targeted, but the way that’s impacted me and my family, my family especially, is something that the Yorkshire Post should be held responsible for.”

Dobell, senior correspondent at The Cricketer and chairman of the Cricket Writers’ Club, told MPs the Yorkshire Post’s coverage has been “extremely disappointing” as it has “provided the voice for the racist” and “intimidated and bullied” Rafiq and Lord Patel.

“The Yorkshire Post had a campaign to discredit and intimidate. Now the problem is that these words have consequences,” Dobell said, pointing to the three bodyguards present when he ate dinner with Rafiq the previous night.

“Now why is that necessary? Because of the consequences of the words, most of the words that come from the Yorkshire Post,” he went on “They’ve made no attempt to even try and understand. They’ve called Kamlesh immoral among other things. Factually they’ve been inaccurate – I could give you countless examples.”

Asked by Labour MP Kevin Brennan what the Yorkshire Post’s motivation for this would be, Dobell responded: “I fear that they think they’re catering to their market and I’d like to think they’ve got their market wrong. I think the people of Yorkshire are better than that.”

He added that he feels “a little bit sorry” for the cricket correspondent who has written much of the Yorkshire Post coverage, who he declined to name to MPs but who he said has “actually been very good at his job for a long time”.

“I think he’s out of his depth… because I think he has been fed information by people who are more cynical and are much closer involved and understand what’s happening so they have drip fed him information and he has regurgitated it into the paper. His editor has to take more responsibility. His editor is the one who’s meant to say ‘what’s going on here’?”

Yorkshire Post rejects ‘scurrilous and unfounded allegations’

Mitchinson, who has edited the Yorkshire Post since January 2016, said in a statement: “The scurrilous and unfounded allegations made by Azeem Rafiq and George Dobell to today’s DCMS select committee, referring to myself, The Yorkshire Post and my staff in relation to Mr Rafiq’s experiences of racist bullying whilst playing for Yorkshire County Cricket Club, I reject absolutely. 

“From the moment Mr Rafiq blew the whistle on the racist abuse he was unquestionably subjected to – The Yorkshire Post has repeatedly acknowledged as much – whilst playing for Yorkshire County Cricket Club, we have applied the same rules of objectivity, impartiality and professionalism in seeking to tell all sides of the story, including, but not limited to, the experiences of those individuals who were dismissed, accused of being racists, who remain intent on clearing their names. That is what our readers expect of us, and that is what we will continue to do.

“I am pleased Mr Rafiq acknowledged that during the course of documenting this scandal, I picked up the phone to him in order to ensure I had taken every possible step to understand personally his experience and reflected it in our coverage.

“From a personal perspective, one that I was not afforded the privilege of airing to the DCMS, I know I will be able to look back with absolute conviction that on every step of the way, we as a team have sought to tell everyone’s truth when others have not given them that opportunity.

“I have to say, I am disappointed – but not surprised – that The Yorkshire Post’s brand of fearless journalism, editorially courageous even in the face of deeply contentious and complex issues, has been attacked by powerful people today. Those who believe in a free press, empowered to always get to the truth, should be deeply worried by the unsuccessful attempt to undermine The Yorkshire Post.  

“Finally, I want to reassure Mr Rafiq that I could not have taken more ownership of nor applied more due diligence to editing this story, and I remain committed to listening to and telling all sides of it with honesty, integrity and impartiality.”

In 2019, before Rafiq made his allegations public, the Yorkshire Post became the first regional newspaper to win the Outstanding Newspaper Coverage award at the ECB’s Domestic Cricket Journalism Awards for the “depth and breadth of its coverage despite its relatively limited resources”.

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