Libel laws and fans' fury

Alex LawsonSheffield Wednesday fan Alex Lawson remembers a time when “interaction” meant a wave from the manager in the general direction of the crowd. How has t’net changed all that in an age when fans can publish their opinion to thousands? 

“Laws-y, give us a wave! Laws-y, Laws-y give us a wave!” The (then) Sheffield Wednesday boss Brian Laws would raise a cheery hand to the fans. That was as far as it went when it came to most fans’ experiences of “interaction” with the former Forest full-back.

However, Laws came pretty close to courtroom interaction with supporters over vicious calls to sack him in 2009. In his book Laws of the Jungle (geddit?) the ex-Owls boss says that he was “furious” at being drawn into an attempt by chairman Kaven Walker to sue fans posting on an online forum. To his credit Laws respected fans’ right to an opinion.

“They [Wednesday’s hierarchy] didn’t like it, but my reputation was at stake. You can’t have a manager suing his club’s fans. It just doesn’t work,” said Laws. “That said, I do believe the internet and fans’ forums have got out of hand. It’s a license to publish anything whether it’s right or wrong. And yes, often it is libellous. Opinions are put out by people who remain anonymous and it seems they can say anything they like.”

Laws’ views are unsurprising in a period when violent and emotive language is commonplace in expressing opinions as passion boils over. The internet has provided a wonderful forum for fans to interact and gee each other up - check any club's Twitter hashtag at 2.50pm on a Saturday - but also a tumultuous melting pot of over-the-top, vile hatred from the idiotic few who have now been given a voice when things go wrong.

After making the controversial switch from Birmingham City to Aston Villa Alex McLeish said received online abuse and said that the problem would soon escalate. “It has grown into a monster with social networks like Twitter,” said McLeish.

“I respect people’s right to free speech but if any managers and coaches wanted to read that stuff it would send them barmy. The next thing that will emerge in football is somebody will get sued for something said [on Twitter]. People are already getting arrested.” 

Moreover, social networks like Twitter and Facebook disproportionately represent the opinions of the few. For example, when there are calls for longstanding, settled managers like Arsene Wenger to be sacked it’s often reported despite the fact the majority of Arsenal's fans have no desire for this to happen.

However, the development of online interaction between managers and fans is not entirely negative. Managers can address the fans in their own voice - rather than through the spin of newspaper editors or the editing of TV broadcasts - and can put across their opinions far more clearly than the staid forum of a programme note.

Former Yeovil manager Terry Skiverton took the debate to the next level last season when he used Twitter to aid him in his work. Short of cash to scout players, Skiverton appealed to his 1,700 followers to suggest players to bring to Huish Park and said the experience had been fruitful.

“It’s not a bit of fun for me,” said Skiverton. “It’s serious business. I can’t afford a scouting system. I think it gives the supporters a bit of fun as well as I’ve had supporters go through non-league annuals, going out and watching games saying ‘what about this player?’”

Whether Skiverton’s idea catches on remains to be seen. Will managers soon be appealing for advice on which players to substitute via a hashtag? That’s probably a little ambitious at the minute and the problem of vile and abusive language used online remains the more pressing issue.

Realistically bringing the police in to deal with online skirmishes is impractical given the scale of resources that would be needed to tackle this. However, there’s no reason fans publishing death threats about managers online should be treated any less seriously than those who sent threatening letters to former Leeds United manager David O'Leary in 1998. Comments might be posted in the heat of the moment but that’s no excuse.

It’s up to fellow supporters to clamp down on pathetic comments expressed via social media or forums. If a fellow Wednesdayite steps beyond the line in attacking a player or manager they deserve whatever they get. They no longer stand for the values of my club.

The FSF blog is the space to challenge perceived wisdom, entertain readers and inform our members. The views expressed on this blog are those of the author – they don't necessarily represent FSF policy and (pay attention journalists) shouldn’t be attributed to the FSF. Have your say below and play nice…