In defence of Joey Barton... at least he said sorry

Press Association

On Thursday evening, on national television, a man made an offensive joke. People in their living rooms across the country exploded in a collective fit of righteous anger; arguably they were right to do so. But then something strange happened, something rarely seen on BBC's Question Time, the man took a moment to apologise.

That man was Joey Barton, QPR and one-time England footballer, introduced at the top of the show as a 'footballing philosopher' thanks to his often unexpectedly thoughtful twitter feed. Barton is no stranger to controversy, serving jail time for assault, fighting with a team-mate on the training ground, and, in slightly less violent moments, exposing his bare bottom after scoring an important goal.

Question Time – the production team of which have been under fire for the over-booking of Nigel Farage – invited Barton as a kind of "man of the people" figure, but as the show began, he appeared to be a man only of the bigoted people.

Addressing UKIP's Louise Bours on the subject of their recent election gains, Barton compared her party to "not the worst of four ugly girls" on a night out. The metaphor – intended to suggest that UKIP were being made to look better by how bad the other main partied are – was clumsy, ill-advised and offensive. Bours was outraged; the audience displayed a mix of shock and embarrassed amusement, and of course, social media went bonkers.

But then – a twist. Much later in the programme, a female audience member took Barton to task on his comment. Rather than deflecting the criticism, or taking it on the chin, he went further, and did what most politicians appearing on the show would consider unthinkable: he said sorry. "Maybe I was a little bit nervous," Barton admitted. "I apologise."

In a pluralistic culture, we've become unaccustomed to apologising for what we've done. We might "agree to disagree", we might even apologise for how what we've done has made someone feel (sneakily deflecting any actual guilt in the process. But to hold our hands up and say "I got it wrong"... that's quite a rare thing. On social media – where Barton is hugely popular – most of us could be caricatured as taking one of two approaches: devout and easily-outraged political correctness, or nasty trolling offensiveness. Few people walk a path between those two extremes; and it's unusual for members of either group to say sorry to the other.

We tend not to apologise outright because apologies can be seen as a sign of weakness; of admitted failure. In fact, the ability to apologise demonstrates some important character strengths: flexibility, humility, self-awareness and security of self among them.

In fact the entire Christian life is based around the ability to apologise – to admit when we've done something wrong, hold our hands up and repent of it. John the Baptist famously tells those around him to "repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand" (Matthew 3:2). Joey Barton didn't apologise to God (as far as we know); but in displaying that ability to repent of his mistakes, he might have pleased Him.

In the aftermath of his Question Time appearance, Barton faces a barrage of justifiable criticism for his foolish, sexist comment. But let's not lose sight of the more positive and counter-cultural conclusion of the story; despite confessing to having his "brains in his feet", he took the narrow path in repenting of his "sin". He might not be top of most people's role model lists, but on this occasion, albeit a little clumsily, I think he's showing a better way.

Martin Saunders is the creative director of youth organisation Youthscape, and a writer and broadcaster. Follow him on Twitter