A Right To Free Speech
For as long as football has been played, the running of clubs has been a political issue. Right the way back to the nineteenth century and the division of the game into amateurs and professionals, via Billy Meredith and “The Outcasts FC”, Jimmy Hill and the abolition of the maximum wage, right the way up to the Glazer take-over of Manchester United and Michel Platini’s attempts the liberalise the Champions League, football runs hand in hand with political machinations, and one of the ways that this manifests itself is through freedom of speech and manipulation of the media. At the top level, this can be seen in the behaviour of the G14, whose marketing talk of being for the good of the game is in sharp contrast with the reality of their raison d’etre. Lower down the game, though, it is such things as freedom of speech over the internet that vex club owners, and this week has seen another club take ludicrously draconian measures in order to ensure that dissenting views are kept to an absolute minimum.
I don’t think that there’s any argument that Martin Watson is a genuine supporter of League Two club Hereford United. He lives yards from their Edgar Street stadium, and is currently the administrator of a Hereford United independent supporters forum. He was, I think it’s fair to say, somewhat surprised to receive a telephone call from Hereford United’s manager and owner, Graham Turner, yesterday, to instruct him that, as the result of a message posted on his forum over the weekend, he was now banned for life from Edgar Street. It’s important to clarify at this point that this was not the result of comments that Mr Watson had made himself – these were comments made by somebody else, questioning whether the reported attendance at the ground on Saturday was genuine. It would appear, however, that Turner is holding Watson fully responsible for the comments that were posted, and he has paid the ultimate sacrifice. As something of a peace offering, Watson has agreed to close his forum by midnight tonight (Wednesday) and, in an even more bizarre decision, the moderators of the the club’s official forum have decided to close that as well. A petition has been started with the intention of getting this decision revoked (squint very closely and you’ll see my name on it) but, for now, one can only hope that a campaign of negative publicity and appealing to Mr Turner’s better nature will have the desired effect.
The anonymous nature of internet forums makes this sort of thing a danger. People make ill thought out comments with the cloak of anonymity to cover them all the time (you’ll see it every once in a while on here – the more provocative comments are by posted by anyone with enough bravery to actually identify themselves) and, legally, the administrator of a site has the legal responsibility for ensuring that nothing libellous is posted. The comments posted on this particular may not have been been libellous (I didn’t see the original post and, obviously, I wasn’t at Edgar Street for the match to be able to comment), but it should be perfectly evident to anyone reading this that this is a complete over-reaction from a man who, by all accounts, fears information technology and the empowerment that it brings people. The conventional wisdom of such a situation is that, if something is posted in a forum that causes such an agreement, the administrator of the forum should be contacted in private and requested to remove the offending comment.
It’s difficult to see what good can come of this decision but the fact of the matter is that, as the chairman and manager of the Hereford United, Graham Turner has complete control and can run the club exactly as he wants to. The club will earn a considerable amount of column inches for such a short-sighted decision and, on top of this, such a state of affairs may lead to opening up old divisions and creating disharmony within a club that has a decent chance of getting promoted this season. That said, this is a by-product of a system that encourages one person to take complete control of a club. One would hope that Hereford’s supporters will take note of the support that they are receiving for their nascent protest and continue the good work.