Bull in an internet forum

What I’m about to say probably won’t please Hereford United FC. I’m not a big fan of their ground. The turnstiles are so narrow that a 10 and a half stoner such as myself has to squeeze through, the toilets are just plain horrible, and some bright spark forgot to attach the roof to the back wall in the away area meaning the back steps get soaked every time it rains.

I’m hoping that these negative comments from an occasional sports journalist, published on an internet blog, free to read by anyone, won’t result in a lifetime ban preventing me from visiting should Exeter play the Bulls, or even if I happen to be passing Edgar Street in the not-too-distant future and decide to catch a match.

Martin Watson isn’t so lucky. This lifelong Hereford fan, and season-ticket holder from 1994, is currently banned for life from the ground. His crime? To run an unofficial internet forum, not a million miles away from hundreds of other football fan sites.

Last Saturday, after Hereford’s match at home to Rochdale, one poster made a comment questioning the official attendence. Hereford’s manager/chairman Graham Turner felt the post the be libelous and rang Watson, asking him to remove the post. And then banned Watson from the ground for life.

Turner later posted a statement on Hereford’s official site, the text of which can be read here. More of that in a sec.

Now, having not seen the offending post, let’s give Turner the benefit of the doubt and say it was libelous to whomever. In which case, he was well within his rights, under current English law [1], to inform Watson of the comments left on the site and Watson seems to have removed them as soon as he was informed. All well and good, problem solved, so why on earth Turner then felt the need to ban Watson is baffling, to say the least.

Unsurprisingly, Watson has shut down the forum off the back of it. When you reach a stage like that, something you do for the love of your club just isn’t worth the hassle.

Turner’s statement provides a few clues:

“This weekend an unfounded and libellous statement was posted after our match against Rochdale, it remained on the site for 3 days before our request to have it removed was carried out. I do not accept that for three days the organisers did not know of its existence or its implications. At no time have I ever asked for it to be closed.”

Now, a couple of points here. Firstly, it was a bank holiday when the comment was made. I don’t know how many moderators the site has (3 by the looks of things) but with family commitments, holidays, etc there’s a good chance 3 days could pass before anybody was able to properly go through the site and look at the discussion boards. Also, it took Turner three days to a) notice the comment and b) do anything about it. Its not unreasonable to assume the forum would take the same amount of time. The fact Watson removed the post once informed suggests he’d have taken it down earlier if he knew about it.

Secondly, as an ex-football forum moderator myself, I know how difficult it can be to keep track of discussions, especially after matches where there’s often thousands of comments in the space of a couple of hours meaning the odd comment can be easy to miss. Again, when brought to my attention, they’d usually be dealt with. But getting a text on a Saturday night when I’ve had a few doesn’t mean its easy for me to drop everything and rush back to a computer screen.

Ditto with this blog and the previous one, Coffee and PC. On the rare occasions I got asked to remove things, I’d usually edit them out when I was near a computer. On occasions, like the time I was off on the top of Dartmoor, this isn’t always possible immediately.

Turner’s argument isn’t black and white, that’s for sure.

And he may not have asked to shut the forum, but I don’t think anybody can be surprised at Watson’s subsequent action.

It’s this part that worries me:

“I cannot therefore sit back and do nothing about the outrageous, unfounded and libellous comment that came onto this web site. In my view the organisers must take responsibility and be accountable for what is posted. They provide the vehicle for the comment so therefore must take responsibility to have it monitored.”

Again, Turner isn’t sit back and do nothing. He complained. The organisers took responsibility and removed the post. What more does he want and, short of closing the forum, or Turner launching a legal action, what more could be done?

What worries me is Turner’s creating a dangerous precedent. Lets now assume, for the moment, the statement wasn’t libelous and Turner just happened to disagree with this and other comments made. After all, it’s not unheard of for football bosses to throw a bit of a sulk with broadcasters, so its only to be expected with the internet.

Whatever the post on the forum said, there’s a good chance a football fan will be saying exactly the same thing in front of a dozen or so down the pub. Turner may disagree with it. Would he ask the pub to ban the drinker?

Much as the post-match views of football fans often drive me to distraction [2], they’ve got as much right to voice their opinion as anyone else. The manager probably will disagree he was crap and got his tactics wrong. The board will probably disagree they’re not investing in the team. Such is the lot of football, and will be forever more. But if you banned every fan who posted something critical or querying about the club, the terraces would soon be pretty empty.

This episode reminds me of two closer to home [3]. Firstly at Torquay United last season, where colourful then-chairman Chris Roberts, during his rather brief stint, had a very public spat with the Supporters’ Trust over a whole host of things. Roberts claimed the leading members of the Trust were not true supporters and just in it to cause trouble, despite them being among the few who could be bothered to get off their arse and try and save the South Devon club.

Then, a few years earlier, the year-long reign of John Russell and Mike Lewis in the boardroom of Exeter City. A few months into their tenure, and a few members of the unofficial online fans forum, Exeweb, started highlighting a few odd things, and suggested all was not what it seemed with the twosome. Without these few individuals using the power of the net, I’m really not sure how far the anti-Russell and Lewis campaign would have got. Given their fondness for banning a few dissenters during matchdays, I’m surprised Steve Morris, who runs Exeweb, didn’t get a ban [4].

I’m in no way comparing Turner, or Roberts, to the gruesome twosome and there’s certainly no suggestion of impropriety, but it illustrates the point that online forums play a massive part in fan support nowadays and often are forces for good rather than evil. Yes, there’s a lot of very idiotic comments directed against the team, largely letting off steam behind a computer post-defeat. But the forums also help build a sense of camaraderie, get new fans involved, exiled fans up to date, and generally contribute to the community of a club. I don’t doubt I wouldn’t have kept up my interest in City to such a high degree when I was living in Cardiff if it wasn’t for Exeweb.

Again, to finish on a point made earlier, but worth repeating again, if a comment is libelous, or there’s good reason for believing so, then Turner (or Bachman, or Overdrive, or whoever) are well within their rights to ask for it to be taken down, but not within their rights if they just don’t like what’s being said. But to ban Martin Watson is like dropping a ten tonne anvil on a small walnut. [5]

The petition to get Martin Watson’s ban rescinded is here. If you care about football, free-speech, or both, I hope you’ll put your name to it. And while I may be risking an Edgar Street ban for this post (assuming Graham Turner actually reads this), at least it means I won’t have to experience the toilets or the leaky roof again.

[1] If the forum was in print format, it would have been a case of publish and be damned (although the journalist, if they’d been worth their salt, would have, at the very least, carried a response). Although, a forum isn’t a newspaper, so… oh cripes, I can see where I’m going here. Right, let’s put ALL that to one side as fascinating subsidiary issues and get back to the point in hand, otherwise I’ll be here all night. Ok? Happy? Good.

[2] Have you ever tried to listen to the 5pm phone-ins on Talksport and 5Live? I mean really listen? You might as well play the entire works of Leonard Cohen. It’d be more cheerful.

[3] Yes, admit it. You’ve all be waiting for me to talk about Exeter City.

[4] I got threatened with a lifetime ban. One match the Trust planned to hold a protest against Russell and Lewis, and handed out cardboard signs to display at the end of the match. I took one, unsure whether or not to protest. I was stopped by a stewardon the way in who said if I took the sign into the ground, I’d be banned for life. I decided to protest. I didn’t get banned

[5] I’m reminded of a quote from David Blunkett, on passing clauses in the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 to curtail Brian Haw’s protest in Parliament Square: “It is a sledgehammer to crack a nut, but he is a nut.”

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