3AW radio host John Burns has been accused of racially vilifying a football player at a match last week, in an incident reminiscent of the Adam Goodes “ape” saga in 2013. Although Burns says he cannot recall making the racial slur at the match, 3AW colleague shock jock Neil Mitchell this morning said “if anyone else was carrying on the way John did he’d be bulltish artist of the year,” and called for a stronger apology.

Yesterday, the Herald Sun carried on its back page a report by journalist Michael Warner that Richmond Football Club was investigating “an allegation that defender Bachar Houli was racially vilified by a prominent media figure at the MCG on Friday night”. Burns, who wasn’t named in that initial report, had allegedly called Houli, a Muslim player, a “terrorist” at an official match function during the first quarter of the game. A Richmond official member overheard the remark and brought it to the attention of the club.

Today’s Herald Sun reveals the paper asked 3AW whether breakfast host John Burns had called Houli a terrorist on Sunday. The station issued a firm denial. Burns denied the allegation again on his radio show on Monday morning. But by the afternoon, he’d issued an apology — of sorts.

Crikey understands the identity of the person being investigated wasn’t widely known, even at 3AW, until Burns and Richmond released statements at the same time yesterday afternoon — around the time Burns went on 3AW Drive with Tom Elliot to discuss the incident. Burns’ statement said he couldn’t recall making the comment, but he was sorry anyway.

“I had the pleasure of attending the Richmond Football Club function on Friday night. During the match, I sat with a friend and we were catching up and talking about the game. It has been suggested to me that during a conversation with my friend, I was overheard saying something which that person found offensive. I have no recollection of making an offensive remark.

“However, I acknowledge that a complaint has been made and the idea that something I’ve said has offended someone is mortifying to me.

“If I have said anything that has offended anybody, I unreservedly apologise. In particular, to the people at the match and the Richmond Football Club.”

This morning on air, Burns’ colleague Neil Mitchell called him a contender for “bulltish artist of the year” for saying he couldn’t remember the incident (presenters can’t say “bullshit” on air, so say “bulltish”).

“A 13-year-old girl was picked out of the crowd, embarrassed and questioned by police when she called Adam Goodes an ape. She was vilified. And when a media star does something similar it shouldn’t be kept quiet — it should be admitted, it should be dealt with, and anything else is unfair,” Mitchell said, referring to the May 2013 match between the Sydney Swans and Collingwood, during which indigenous player Adam Goodes was called a “ape” by a person in the crowd. Hearing the remark, Goodes reacted immediately. He stopped play and pointed out the person to security. A 13-year-old girl was quickly ejected from the stadium.

That incident received blanket coverage and helped prompt a discussion on racially based abuse and sledging at AFL matches. It was the most discussed issue in Australia, more talked about than the announcement of new State of Origin sides and revelations of ASIO spying, according to iSentia at the time. The incidents received 26,000 mentions across radio, TV, print and digital media in just a week. But the remark Burns apologised for hasn’t ignited public discussion to the same extent. Apart from the Herald Sun (which put the issue on page 3 this morning), the issue has been dealt with largely through the sports pages, and public comment on the incident has so far been minimal.

Of course, the Houli affair and the Goodes affair aren’t entirely the same. The slur directed at Goodes was public, unambiguous and uncontested. The photo of Goodes pointing out where he’d heard the abuse is iconic. The whole thing took place on live TV, and Goodes himself was a key player in the issue, often speaking to the media to direct attention away from the 13-year-old girl (he said she shouldn’t become the scapegoat for broader attitudes).

The circumstances surrounding Friday’s incident are murkier, and the reaction from the media has been markedly different.

Following Burns’ apology, delivered without owning up to remark, Richmond said it considered the matter “closed”:

“Richmond Football Club acknowledges the statement released by 3AW’s John Burns this afternoon in relation to an incident that took place at the MCG on Friday night.

“The Club fully supports the staff member who brought this issue to its attention and accepts his version of events. We also accept the apology and now consider the matter closed.”

Even Mitchell seems to think the issue would blow over. “Richmond tell me today the issue is finished, there’ll be no further action against John. And I think eventually he can rebuild some trust with his colleagues. I hope so.”

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey