Top banter, eh, Liam Stacey? Top drunken banter of which any red-blooded Lad would be proud. Let’s look at some of that japesome badinage in full, because by crikey, we’ve all got a lot to learn from your razor-edged wit.
As Fabrice Muamba, the Bolton Wanderers midfielder who suffered a heart attack during an FA Cup quarter final against Tottenham Hotspur, lay apparently dying on the field, Mr Stacey tweeted: “LOL, F*** Muamba. He’s dead.”
In response to some of the people on Twitter who suggested that this might not be quite the time for it, he proceeded to add:
• you are a silly c**t… Your mothers a w*g and your dad is a rapist! Bonjour you scruffy northen c***!
• owwww go suck a n****r d*** you f*****g aids ridden c**t
• go suck muamba’s dead black d**k then you aids ridden t**t! #muambasdead
• go rape your dog! #C**t!
• I aint your friend you w*g c**t ….go pick some cotton!
And then, to remind the sensitive among us that it was only some top, top banter – no doubt he would describe himself as the Archbishop of Banterbury – he said:
• only taking the p**s, obviously people can’t take a joke
Obviously. And it turns out that the courts can’t really take a joke either. Stacey has been charged with breaching section 4A of the Public Order Act 1986, pleaded guilty, and been sentenced to 56 days in jail.
Mr Stacey is, I hope you’d agree, an idiot. Or at the very least, when he is catastrophically drunk (as he apparently was, after Wales won the grand slam in the rugby Six Nations), he behaves like a prize idiot; perhaps in sober day-to-day life he’s perfectly intelligent. But does he deserve to be jailed? My colleague Ed West says no; that “whenever race becomes a factor in anything, people lose their ability to reason“, and that his tweets, while horrible and vicious, were significantly less unpleasant than a lot of actual violent assaults which get let off with suspended sentences or community service. (I know from previous comments that many of you remember this one – another racist attack, but by Muslim girls on a white girl, in which the attackers were given suspended sentences.)
I think Ed’s wrong, on one count. I think this isn’t, so much, about race as about the strange three-way relationship between Twitter, public outrage and the law.
Last week, the country was united, as it rarely is, in sympathy and shock for Muamba. Opinion is divided about these fits of public emotion – the national tearfulness after Diana’s death, and so on. A friend of mine notes that in football especially they are spasmodic, and bring fleeting bouts of concern – for a few weeks British football was consumed with worry about depression, after Gary Speed’s suicide in November; now it’s heart screening, after Muamba – before being largely forgotten. But for the most part the emotion is genuine, even if it might be a brief madness of crowds.
So when Stacey tweeted his nasty little tweets about Muamba, even though he was probably only being followed by a couple of hundred people at most, it shot around the internet, because people who were genuinely concerned about the life of a young man read them with shock. They were spotted by Stan Collymore, the football commentator who has recently worked to highlight racist abuse on Twitter, and gained more publicity still.
This is the problem, as far as the law is concerned, with Twitter. Today, for the first time, libel damages have been won over a tweet: Chris Cairns, a former New Zealand cricketer, won £90,000 from Lalit Modi, the deposed Indian Premier League commissioner, over unfounded match-fixing allegations. Modi’s tweet was seen by an estimated 65 people, but one of them was the CricInfo website, which spread it further. In 2010, Paul Chambers was convicted of sending a “menacing message” over a public telecommunications system after he joked on Twitter about blowing Robin Hood Airport “sky high” because its flights were snowed off and was spotted by the police. In each case, people think of Twitter as a sort of extended pub conversation, or private chatroom, but in theory it could be seen by millions of people: it is a publishing tool which can reach as many people as any newspaper or television channel, if the author’s luck is good or bad enough.
In Stacey’s case, it was his bad luck/thundering stupidity that he made his horrible comments at a time when Twitter was particularly on the lookout for unpleasantness about Muamba, so it spread like a cold in a playground. And, of course, once the police is made aware of someone apparently breaking the law (and whatever you think of the hate-crime laws, the phrase “I aint your friend you w*g c**t ….go pick some cotton!” is surely at least a contender for the title of “incitement to racial hatred”), they have to do something about it. It didn’t matter, so much, that it was race; it mattered that his sort-of-private conversation became incredibly public due to widespread public disgust.
For what it’s worth, which is not very much, while I despise Stacey’s “banter” and think it is a prime example of why the word needs to be rejected by all right-thinking people and left to rot with simpletons like him, I agree with Ed that it’s wrong to jail him, when perpetrators of other, by any measure far more terrible, crimes walk from the court. For Mr Stacey, a lifetime of being an idiot is probably punishment enough.