Crossing The Line: Tackling Football's Online Abuse Problem

11th February 2021 Media Law

Despite the competing claims of those who love rugby, cricket and even angling, the sheer amount of discussion about and media coverage devoted to football underlines how it has long been the UK's national sport.

The formation of the Premier League almost 30 years ago and the move to all-seater stadia have both played a part in presenting football as family-friendly.

That's particularly true if you compare stadia to the terraces of the 1970s, when hooliganism was a major problem.

However, speak to those knowledgeable about the policing of the game and they will explain how seating and the omnipresent CCTV cameras have arguably just displaced the thugs - firstly, away from grounds themselves and, latterly, online.

In recent weeks, it seems that barely a day has passed without some new and horrific account of male and female players being subjected to abuse, much of it racial, on various social media platforms.

Last night, the Swansea City midfielder Yan Dhanda was the target for racists after his team's defeat to Manchester City in the FA Cup.

At the weekend, referee Mike Dean also asked to be temporarily stood down from officiating at games following online threats received by him and his family after a controversial sending off.

Despite the attention and outrage which the incidents have rightly generated, there has seemed to be a sense of confusion about how best to proceed.

Football's domestic governing bodies - the Football Association, Premier League and English Football League - have written an open letter to Twitter and Facebook to remove offenders from their respective platforms.

Other commentators have suggested that the best hope of tackling the trolls lies in an Online Harms Bill which the Government has promised to progress following a detailed consultation.

In presenting the White Paper to parliament just before Christmas, the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, and her counterpart at the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, Oliver Dowden, outlined how making the Bill law would "mean no more empty gestures".

The Online Harms legislation will essentially impose a duty of care on social media companies (and other platforms) to identify and remove racist and other illegal content.  A European equivalent law is also being progressed on the continent. Change is coming and the online platforms are well aware of that.

Among the arsenal of sanctions which would be available, if the UK legislation successfully navigates its way through both the houses of Commons and Lords, would be fines of "up to £18 million or 10% of global annual turnover, whichever is the higher".

However, it's worth pointing out that online harassment is already illegal and various communications offences prohibit the sending of racist abuse. Critics of the current powers, though, have accused law enforcement agencies of not taking the problem seriously enough.  Some acknowledge that the Police lack resources.  But are they doing enough?

Online racism is not a new problem.  Many football fans will remember the shocking case of Fabrice Muamba who was targeted for online abuse after suffering a heart attack during a match.  His abuser was jailed for 56 days in 2012 for inciting racial hatred. 

We should bear in mind too that some of the different forms of online abuse which football personalities have been subjected to of late would also be criminal offences if they were actually committed by fans in a football stadium.

As I've been telling Sky Sports' Craig Slater, careful consideration should be given to creating new and similar offences in place to help combat the online boo boys. That's especially relevant as, due to the Covid pandemic, fans are not currently able to attend matches.

There are those who argue that adding another offence might not necessarily make that much difference.  Does the statistical evidence justify the introduction of a new crime onto the statute book? Is it proportionate?

I would suggest, in fact, that it may have two benefits.

It would provide police forces with a very specific weapon to deal with very specific offences.

Furthermore, we shouldn't forget that some laws are, in part, introduced to educate about particular behaviour and underline that they will no longer be tolerated.

Just as it took a combination of stern action and education to blunt the threat of terrace violence in the 1970s and 1980s, we can hope that awareness and stiff penalties might produce the same effect.

Until then, it has fallen to the likes of the Professional Footballers' Association to issue players with guidelines about how to cope with social media abuse and police to employ specialist football hate crime officers.

In the words of many a football pundit, the time has come for all interested parties, including politicians and online platforms, to stop talking a good game and fully commit themselves to ridding the sport - and society at large - of online bigots and bullies.

That's surely the only result which will keep everyone happy, regardless of whatever team we support.

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Nick McAleenan is a Partner located in Manchester in our Media & Reputation Management; Data Protection & Privacy department

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