It took a bold move by the Daily Record, Scotland’s second-biggest selling daily newspaper, to disable the ‘comments’ function from football articles on its website last Friday. Their decision was taken in light of the ever-increasing level of foul and abusive language that was appearing, and, in particular, sectarianism. After a long and fruitless battle, there was little other option left to take.
Inevitably, the nature of sports journalism has changed because of the internet. Newspapers columns are no longer gospel or the voice of reason – instead, in this digital era, they have developed into an interactive forum of debate. Now, the journalist is the sitting duck, waiting to be picked off by any number of commentators. There are many ways in which this evolution is a positive – the industry’s reflective self-regulation can be taken quickly, and so there is little hope of journalists getting away with lazy and poorly-informed articles without being outed pretty sharpish. It also allows any old punter (ahem) to throw in their tuppence worth, take stance on their soapbox, and share their opinion with the world.
The trouble with this last point, however, is that football doesn’t promote any level of civility and objectivity between fans. Rather, it is a tribal world where shouting loudest is the tried-and-tested method of winning an argument. Shamefully this often transcends fans and becomes the position that clubs end up taking too – in particular, the decisions of Liverpool and Chelsea recently to refuse to condemn Luis Suarez and John Terry respectively, despite their being found guilty by the FA of dishing out racial abuse. It’s hardly surprising that some fans take this as the green light to defend their players to the hilt, in spite of the facts that present themselves.
Internet forums have a reputation of people trading tit-for-tat abuse, where one-upmanship is the primary aim. This isn’t the case across the board, by any means, and many discerning fans will seek and find a more high-brow equivalent to engage in a more cerebral level of debate. On cross-club forums, having the opportunity to offer a different perspective on just about any given topic ought to be an enlightening experience for those that are used to socialising only with their fellow partisans. But far more seem content with returning to their usual haunts to trade virtual blows.
While this is usually harmless, it is further evidence of football fans using football as an excuse to act in ways in which they would not even contemplate acting in the street. Racist chanting, singing about tragedies and offering death threats would (and should) lead to all kinds of reprisal in the public domain but, they are still tolerated within the confines of a stadium. And on the internet, where facelessness is a given, some feel daring enough to take these things to another level. It’s usually hot air and idle threats, of course, by keyboard-warriors. As Stan Collymore tweeted recently: “As always, I’m at grounds weekly, walk up on my own. So if anyone fancies giving out the abuse they give here, have the balls face to face.”
The same might not be said in Scotland though, where abuse has routinely turned into violence and homicide, both pre- and post-internet. The Old Firm derby between Rangers and Celtic in particular has been plagued by this, owing to the cultural, religious and nationalistic ties that both sides have in a divided country. Never was this more evident than when Celtic manager Neil Lennon narrowly avoided receiving a nail-bomb through his letterbox.
The Daily Record made it clear that their decision was not one taken lightly or even wished to take, and one they hope to remedy in the future if they can find a more palatable solution. However when the comment-section of practically every football-related article on their website became swamped in personal abuse and hate speech, it descended into farce and completely undermined the whole point of the having the function available in the first place. They had already introduced methods to attempt to prevent this, such as the forced-transparency of contributors requiring a Facebook registration. But the astounding tenacity of some that wished to distribute digital abuse was such that they created false accounts for the sole purpose of engaging in their virtual war.
On balance, I think that the Daily Record’s decision is a commendable one and hopefully will set a precedent for other newspapers to act responsibly. It is always disappointing to see a channel of communication closed, and a privilege snatched away with a wrist-slap in a “this is why you can’t have nice things” kind of a way, especially for those that had been using the facility in a perfectly savoury manner. But this should not be interpreted as a denial of free speech. Indeed, in the vast ocean of the internet, the perpetrators can (and probably will) find other mediums by which to trade their abuse and the more respectful users might find more joy away from a tabloid’s comments section.
No-one is delusional enough to think the Daily Record’s actions will bring an end to sectarianism and hate crime. But they have made a statement – both figuratively and literally – in the battle against it. Essentially they are admitting that their website has become the online equivalent of a car-park that is notorious for bare-knuckle fighting, and they’re taking the only possible solution to remedy it. Distancing themselves from sectarianism is a healthy step. Hopefully the awareness that their news story has created will cause some level of mass-embarrassment in Scotland that will lead to positive movements in the future.
More to the point, let’s hope that the Daily Record can one day boast a website that allows users to comment on anything they wish, as anonymously as they wish, without fears that the experience of engaging in debate won’t be spoilt for the masses by a hateful vocal minority. For the meantime though, a step backward is probably a step in the right direction, if they ever hope to move forward in the future.