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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Emily Thornberry heckled by Labour MPs as tensions over Trident erupt

Shadow defence secretary's performance at PLP meeting described as "risible" and "cringeworthy". 

"There's no point trying to shout me down" shadow defence secretary Emily Thornberry declared midway through tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party meeting. Even by recent standards, the 70-minute gathering was remarkably fractious (with PLP chair John Cryer at one point threatening to halt it). Addressing MPs and peers for the first time since replacing Maria Eagle, Thornberry's performance did nothing to reassure Trident supporters. 

The Islington South MP, who voted against renewal in 2007, said that the defence review would be "wide-ranging" and did not take a position on the nuclear question (though she emphasised it was right to "question" renewal). She vowed to listen to colleagues as well as taking "expert advice" and promised to soon visit the Barrow construction site. But MPs' anger was remorseless. Former shadow defence minister Kevan Jones was one of the first to emerge from Committee Room 14. "Waffly and incoherent, cringeworthy" was his verdict. Another Labour MP told me: "Risible. Appalling. She compared Trident to patrolling the skies with spitfires ... It was embarrassing." A party source said afterwards that Thornberry's "spitfire" remark was merely an observation on changing technology. 

"She was talking originally in that whole section about drones. She'd been talking to some people about drones and it was apparent that it was absolutely possible, with improving technology, that large submarines could easily be tracked, detected and attacked by drones. She said it is a question of keeping your eye on new technology ... We don't have the spitfires of the 21st century but we do have some quite old planes, Tornadoes, but they've been updated with modern technology and modern weaponry." 

Former first sea lord and security minister Alan West complained, however, that she had failed to understand how nuclear submarines worked. "Physics, basic physics!" he cried as he left. Asked how the meeting went, Neil Kinnock, who as leader reversed Labour's unilateralist position in 1989, simply let out a belly laugh. Thornberry herself stoically insisted that it went "alright". But a shadow minister told me: "Emily just evidently hadn't put in the work required to be able to credibly address the PLP - totally humiliated. Not by the noise of the hecklers but by the silence of any defenders, no one speaking up for her." 

Labour has long awaited the Europe split currently unfolding among the Tories. But its divide on Trident is far worse. The majority of its MPs are opposed to unilateral disarmament and just seven of the shadow cabinet's 31 members share Jeremy Corbyn's position. While Labour MPs will be given a free vote when the Commons votes on Trident renewal later this year (a fait accompli), the real battle is to determine the party's manifesto stance. 

Thornberry will tomorrow address the shadow cabinet and, for the first time this year, Corbyn will attend the next PLP meeting on 22 February. Both will have to contend with a divide which appears unbridgeable. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.