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.

Twitter. Credit: Getty Images
Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
Getty
Show Hide image

Everyone's forgotten the one issue that united the Labour party

There was a time when Ed Miliband spoke at Momentum rallies.

To label the row over the EU at Thursday’s Labour leadership hustings "fireworks" would be to endow it with more beauty than it deserves. Owen Smith’s dogged condemnation of John McDonnell’s absence from a Remain rally – only for Corbyn to point out that his absence was for medical reasons – ought to go down as a cringing new low point in the campaign. 

Not so long ago, we were all friends. In the course of the EU referendum, almost all of the protagonists in the current debacle spoke alongside each other and praised one another’s efforts. At a local level, party activists of all stripes joined forces. Two days before polling day, Momentum activists helped organise an impromptu rally. Ed Miliband was the headline speaker, and was cheered on. 

If you take the simple version of the debate, Labour’s schism on the EU appears as an aberration of the usual dynamics of left and right in the party. Labour's left is supposedly cheering a position which avoids advocating what it believes in (Remain), because it would lose votes. Meanwhile, the right claims to be dying in a ditch for its principles - no matter what the consequences for Labour’s support in Leave-voting heartlands.

Smith wants to oppose Brexit, even after the vote, on the basis of using every available procedural mechanism. He would whip MPs against the invocation of Article 50, refuse to implement it in government, and run on a manifesto of staying in the EU. For the die-hard Europhiles on the left – and I count myself among these, having run the Another Europe is Possible campaign during the referendum – there ought to be no contest as to who to support. On a result that is so damaging to people’s lives and so rooted in prejudice, how could we ever accept that there is such a thing as a "final word"? 

And yet, on the basic principles that lie behind a progressive version of EU membership, such as freedom of movement, Smith seems to contradict himself. Right at the outset of the Labour leadership, Smith took to Newsnight to express his view – typical of many politicians moulded in the era of New Labour – that Labour needed to “listen” to the views Leave voters by simply adopting them, regardless of whether or not they were right. There were, he said, “too many” immigrants in some parts of the country. 

Unlike Smith, Corbyn has not made his post-Brexit policy a headline feature of the campaign, and it is less widely understood. But it is clear, via the five "red lines" outlined by John McDonnell at the end of June:

  1. full access to the single market
  2. membership of the European investment bank
  3. access to trading rights for financial services sector
  4. full residency rights for all EU nationals in the UK and all UK nationals in the EU, and
  5. the enshrinement of EU protections for workers. 

Without these five conditions being met, Labour would presumably not support the invocation of Article 50. So if, as seems likely, a Conservative government would never meet these five conditions, would there be any real difference in how a Corbyn leadership would handle the situation? 

The fight over the legacy of the referendum is theatrical at times. The mutual mistrust last week played out on the stage in front of a mass televised audience. Some Corbyn supporters jeered Smith as he made the case for another referendum. Smith accused Corbyn of not even voting for Remain, and wouldn’t let it go. But, deep down, the division is really about a difference of emphasis. 

It speaks to a deeper truth about the future of Britain in Europe. During the referendum, the establishment case for Remain floundered because it refused to make the case that unemployment and declining public services were the result of austerity, not immigrants. Being spearheaded by Conservatives, it couldn’t. It fell to the left to offer the ideological counter attack that was needed – and we failed to reach enough people. 

As a result, what we got was a popular mandate for petty racism and a potentially long-term shift to the right in British politics, endangering a whole raft of workplace and legal protections along the way. Now that it has happened, anyone who really hopes to overcome either Brexit, or the meaning of Brexit, has to address the core attitudes and debates at their root. Then as now, it is only clear left-wing ideas – free from any attempt to triangulate towards anti-migrant sentiment– that can have any hope of success. 

The real dividing lines in Labour are not about the EU. If they were, the Eurosceptic Frank Field would not be backing Smith. For all that it may be convenient to deny it, Europe was once, briefly, the issue that united the Labour Party. One day, the issues at stake in the referendum may do so again – but only if Labour consolidates itself around a strategy for convincing people of ideas, rather than simply reaching for procedural levers.