They’re champing at the bit already, of course. The tabloid press is already straining like a horse at the tape before the Grand National, walking that most narrow of tightropes of being as salacious as they feel they can get away with whilst side-stepping possibility of prejudicing any potential future trial. Others don’t even seem to wish to attempt to walk that tightrope. An allegation diametrically opposed to a presupposed opinion has already led to mud being slung on social media and the likelihood is that the din will take a while to die down again, but in the middle of this building hysteria is a story that, no matter what it turns out to be, should probably be told.
If the reaction of the press and certain more excitable users of the internet is wholly predictable, then the reaction of the supporters of Sunderland AFC is less so. The club’s well-known supporters forum Ready To Go has this appropriately fierce message pinned to the top of its home page, and unsurprisingly so. After all, depending on what happens next, passions on the parts of those who feel that justice, somehow, hasn’t been served may well pass comment that could have serious legal ramifications for the very people that run the site. Users of social media often get away with greater anonymity than they deserve. Website owners have no such protection, and neither do they have the resources for legal representation.
None of this is to say that free speech shouldn’t be protected, of course. The very notion of free speech, however, comes with responsibilities, and it has been determined by law that these have an enshrinement, of sorts. There can be surely be few people left who have no idea whatsoever of prejudicing a trial or libel and, of course, ignorance is no excuse in the eyes of the law. According to reports this afternoon, some have already broken the law, and if recent arrests made over other high-profile stories have been anything to go by, it would highly surprising if a number of people didn’t end up in front of a judge over something highly preventable.
Is it too much that, no matter what happens, supporters of all colours will be able to put their clubs to one side? Probably, if for no other reason that there is no precedent in recent times to suggest that it might. Having said that, however, all has seemed quiet on social media this evening, at least in my little corner of the internet. Perhaps I only follow people who observe the law on this matter. Perhaps I only follow people who feel that it’s a little early to pass any comment on the subject at all. Perhaps the people that I follow on Twitter form a statistical outlier. Who knows? The only thing that I can say for certain is that, for those amongst them who are football associated, as it were, three Premier League matches and a full raft of Football League matches seemed enough to keep them occupied.
There are two schools of thought on the matter of whether the accused in such cases should be granted anonymity. On the one hand, it’s possible to argue that such a high-profile name as Adam Johnson, an international Premier League footballer, might not be guaranteed a completely fair trial in the face of the media scrum that would accompany further proceedings being brought. On the other, however, it is widely believed that naming the accused in this cases encourages victims of “similar” or other crimes to come forward. There are merits to both sides of the story, but it feels that creating a society in which the victims of crimes can come forward in confidence tips the balance, for me. In an ideal world, we’d be able to perfectly balance the absolute certainty of a completely fair trial against fostering a culture in which the victims of crime could feel completely comfortable with reporting what happened to them. But we don’t live in a perfect world, and as many safeguards as possible are taken to try and ensure completely fair trials in sensitive and emotive circumstances.
At the time of writing, the player concerned has been been released on police bail pending on-going investigations. No-one has been charged with anything – though this could, of course, well have changed by the time that you come to read this – still less convicted of anything, yet. There is no single person on the planet who, at this early stage in events, knows definitively what may or may not have happened apart from the two individuals at the centre of this story, and people who claim to are probably best treated with caution. But if all is calm now, it’s impossible to avoid the feeling that a storm of some sort may be just around the corner.
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