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Wayne Barnes: How I deal with the death threats

As a top-flight rugby referee, the English lawyer has faced some of the worst abuse imaginable. Now he is lobbying for online culture to change.

By Jason Cowley

During the recent rugby World Cup finals in France Wayne Barnes, the English referee, was more abused on social media than any other player or official at the tournament. “I was 500 per cent more abused than the second most abused person, Antoine Dupont [France’s captain],” he told me, calmly and without self-pity, one recent morning when we met in a coffee shop in the City of London. Nearby were the offices of the law firm Squire Patton Boggs where he is a partner, having begun his career more than two decades earlier as a criminal barrister at 3 Temple Gardens.

Barnes, who is 44, refereed the World Cup final between New Zealand and South Africa at the Stade de France in Paris on 28 October – his last match before retiring from rugby union, the game that has defined his life since he became a referee aged 15 in Gloucestershire. He grew up on a council estate in Bream, a village in the Forest of Dean, and retains the distinctive local accent.

[See also: The split between Rugby League and Rugby Union is the story of national class division]

We talked first about Dennis Potter, the playwright who, again and again, returned imaginatively to the mining communities of his working-class childhood in the Forest of Dean as if he were searching for some lost meaning there. For Barnes, from an early age, the local rugby club provided a sense of community and belonging. “You’ve got the barman who’s been there for 30 years, the prop who plays on a Saturday and coaches on a Sunday. You maybe have your first half pint of cider there and there’s always someone looking out for you. It was more than a rugby club: there was bingo, darts, a skittles night. On Boxing Day morning, you’d go to Bream Rugby Club and there’d be 300 or 400 people there.”

Today, even as a City lawyer and renowned referee, Barnes suffers from what he calls “imposter syndrome”: he’s never quite sure where he truly belongs other than perhaps back at the rugby club in Bream. A sense of being an imposter hardened when he won a sixth-form academic scholarship to Monmouth School. “People from the Forest of Dean don’t do private schools, but I was always doing things that hadn’t been done in my family,” he told me. “It was the same when I walked into Squire’s… Some of these lawyers are people I’ve admired, who’ve been at the firm for 20 years. Do I belong here?”

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After the University of East Anglia – “the place you go if you can’t get into Bristol, Durham or Exeter” – Barnes applied for at least 50 pupillages and was rejected without interview. He eventually had an interview at 3 Temple Gardens and fondly recalls the encounter because the conversation was mostly about rugby. The imposter had found another home. Better still, he was given a scholarship and offered accommodation, a flat in Lincoln’s Inn, which was “like living in an Oxbridge college”.

There is something paradoxical about the career of Wayne Barnes: the outsider for whom the doors of establishment institutions keep opening. In person, he is self-deprecating and humorous with a hint of vulnerability. An adept communicator, he relishes the theatricality of refereeing. He likens the pitch to a stage, with the players as actors: as a rugby referee you are also a performer, he says, but your role is to apply the rules.

As a criminal barrister, at short notice, he’d meet people in prison whom he would represent in court the next day. “They don’t know you, they’re stressed because they are locked up and they’ve got a lot of questions. In that situation, you need three things. You’ve got to know your job, you’ve got to listen, and to be succinct and clear. There is a lot of crossover between rugby and the law. The ability to listen is important to both.”

Professional rugby uses technology more effectively than Premier League football, with the latter’s endless in-game delays and after-match tantrums over VAR – and one of the satisfactions of watching international rugby matches is listening to Barnes and other referees explain their decisions to players, or communicating with the TMO (television match official). But this is elite sport and decision-making is fraught, high risk and perpetually contested.

[See also: Why it’s too late to save football from VAR]

Midway through the first half of what turned out to be an epic World Cup final – South Africa won 12-11 to retain the trophy – Barnes dismissed Sam Cane, the All Blacks’ captain, for dangerous play. The post-match response on social media to his decision-making was as hostile as it was inevitable.

Barnes is used to being traduced. In his fascinating memoir, Throwing the Book, which ends before the start of the World Cup, he describes the different strategies he has used to avoid reading what is said about him. For a period, after a contested match between France and New Zealand, in which a much-disputed decision by him inflamed All Blacks supporters, Barnes refused to speak to the media for several years; after he joined Twitter, he would not read comments. The problem was that his wife, Polly, was reading everything and internalising the pain.

Barnes routinely receives death threats, and vile messages have been directed at Polly and their young children. The most contemptuous are the most cowardly: those who operate anonymous accounts. The tech giants are not legally responsible (they should be) for what is “published” on their platforms; their reach is global and simultaneous, and the trolls and abusers are nefarious and numerous. That doesn’t mean they should be tolerated, Barnes said. “You can live with hostile opinion, with being told you’re shit at your job. But where it crosses the line is threats to your family.”

In November 2022, after Barnes refereed a match between South Africa and France in Marseille and sent off two players, one from each side, Rassie Erasmus, director of South African rugby, used social media to dissect the referee’s “mistakes”. Erasmus is notorious for his criticism of referees. After his intervention, the abuse directed at Barnes and his family intensified. “It went to a different level – with threats against Polly and the kids. We had no support around us then. Now, since the World Cup, [the governing body] World Rugby has brought in a company called Signify to help.”

Signify, a self-styled ethical data-science company, uses its AI-driven “threat matrix” to identify online abuse that crosses a criminal threshold and provides evidence for prosecuting authorities. “If you make these threats, you should be held to account,” Barnes said. “And being held to account means you might be arrested, you might get a criminal record. It changes behaviour as happened with drink driving. The challenge is identifying the individual behind the account. That’s where legislation could be introduced to enforce social media companies to do more to get the identification point right. The argument that you [as the target of abuse] shouldn’t be on social media is not good enough. No – behave better on social media!”

Since the World Cup, Wayne Barnes has received a lot of support, notably from World Rugby. The question for him is this: how much are we prepared to tolerate as our public discourse degrades? “We need to draw a line in the sand and say we are going to do something about it. I don’t mind putting my head above the parapet because I’ve retired and don’t need to be political from a rugby point of view, without that fear of not being selected for a game.”

At the end of the World Cup final, with South Africa triumphant, Erasmus approached Barnes at the side of the pitch. They’d not met since that game in Marseille, and he said to the English referee: “I owe you an apology.” Then he moved swiftly on. “He didn’t need to say it because I was never going to referee them again,” Barnes said. “He’d just won the World Cup and could be celebrating. I accepted the apology but remain extremely disappointed about what he did in 2022.”

This interview also appears in the 1 December 2023 print edition of the New Statesman

[See also: From the NS archive: Talking about rugby]

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This article appears in the 29 Nov 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Being Jewish Now