Fabrice Muamba, jail and racist tweets

When does being offensive become an offence?

Liam Stacey, who wrote racist tweets following the collapse of Fabrice Muamba, is a vile idiot. But should he have gone to jail for what he wrote?

My first inclination is to think that regardless of the despicable things he said in the wake of the footballer's near-fatal collapse during a Bolton-Spurs game the other week, this man should not be put in jail for what he has written. To jail people for expressing racist views is to make martyrs of these people, to legitimise their sense of entitlement and victimhood, to reinforce the idea that we're living in a PC world where free speech has been outlawed in favour of politically correct speech.

I certainly don't wants to live in a country in which people aren't allowed to be offensive, appalling and even racists if they want to be. But where does conflict and debate between passionate and partisan football fans - I fear I must at this point introduce the word "banter", which is more often than not used to excuse despicable behaviour as being somehow a blokey get-out-of-jail-free card -- become a crime? When does being offensive become an offence?

There's a sense in which "banter" of a fairly unpleasant nature is and always has been part of football. Vile chants about Hillsborough and Munich still carry on, gloating about death and misery. Manchester United's Korean star Park-Ji Sung gets told he eats dogs; Liverpool supporters get told they eat dead rats. The hate levels rise. When players collapse, the cry of "Let him die!" goes out - though maybe not so much after the events at White Hart Lane.

Which isn't to say football fans are a horrible bunch, because there's a whole world of funny terrace chants, of genuine sporting rivalry and friendly animosity. Up and down the country every weekend, fans of opposing teams sit and have a drink together and tell each other to "have a good match" when they part to take their seats in opposite ends of the ground.

But in some cases, the rivalry spills over into violence, threats and crime. Where do you draw the line? Sometimes, the justice system gets involved and has to decide what's "banter" and what has strayed into something darker. There's now legislation to clamp down on sectarian chanting and abuse in Scotland, with the introduction of the "Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications Bill", with a particular focus on football.

This isn't the first case in recent times of a tweeter landing in trouble for what they have written on the social networking site -- Sunderland fan Peter Copeland was recently given a community order after making racist tweets about Demba Ba and the number of black players in the Newcastle United side during some "banter" with a fellow fan.

What, then, was different about Stacey's tweets? In my opinion there are some differences that take it beyond simple trash-talking. The problem with talking about this subject is that to repeat what Stacey wrote is to repeat some truly awful things -- and most deemed by the judge, too awful to repeat.

His original tweet carried an "#haha" hashtag when the player had collapsed. He followed this up with a number of insults aimed at people who'd taken offence to that comment, widely retweeted by those who were shocked.

I suppose one test with these things is whether they would be offences if you walked up to someone in a pub and said them. While the "Fuck Muamba" tweet is disgusting, it's not targeted hate at one person to hurt them, whereas I think the others are, and have a racial element which only makes it worse. Are they threatening and hurtful words and behaviour? Do they incite racial hatred, more importantly? Stacey admitted the offence with which he was charged.

Much as I don't want to live in a world in which people's tweets are censored and scrutinised, we do live in a world in which bright, articulate footballers like Micah Richards feel forced to quit Twitter after being on the receiving end of a slew of racist tweets.

So what is to be done about it? Football has a long way to go before it can say it really has kicked out racism, and there really is a line between what's acceptable as a slanging match, or abuse, and out-and-out threats and incitement.

Sometimes, that line does get crossed, and Stacey has 56 days of his life to reflect on that.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle