Opinion, Rants

Twitter and Fabrice Muamba – It’s All Kicking Off

I hope, should the hammer ever have cause to fall upon me, I am not caught between it and the anvil of public outrage. Fair and cold justice is a cornerstone of democracy, and the least, should any of us transgress the law, we could ask. Occasionally, a crime ignites public opinion, and, fuelled by a certain kind of tabloid journalism (naming no names,) the application of mob justice is demanded. Paedophiles or crimes related to children are a common theme, and a kind of contemporary witch-hunt ensues.

Another subject that seems to elicit responses disproportionate to the offence caused is racism, particularly very public racism, and so I approach this article with caution, aware it’s likely to garner a certain kind of unthinking response. It’s a sensitive area, so I’ll set out my stall now to avoid accusations of defending racism or racists. I am not, and will not.

I’ve so far avoided writing about the fate of Bolton’s Zaire-born footballer Fabrice Muamba lest I pre-empt his demise and as a result seem crass and unfeeling. Thankfully, due to the efforts of medical staff both on the scene of his collapse and later in the ambulance and hospital, he is making a remarkable recovery. Although considered the national game, and even though it made front page news for days after the event, there are sections of the public who couldn’t care less about a football related story. For those whom this passed by, here is a quick summary of events:

On 17 March 2012, during a game against Tottenham Hotspur, the 23 year old Fabrice Muamba suffered a heart attack on the pitch. After receiving lengthy medical attention with the game paused, and while tens of thousands of fans looked on concerned, he was transferred to hospital with his outlook not looking good. His heart had stopped for well over an hour and he was, effectively, dead. For me, I’m sure like many others, comparisons with Mark-Vivien Foe, who died during a game for Lyon in 2003, were inevitable. Muamba’s condition slowly improved in the following hours and days, and it now looks as though he will make an eventual recovery, although it is unlikely he will ever resume his sports career.

The response from the wider community of professionals and fans within football was warm and supportive, with cross-club expressions of good will. One of my favourite moments was the placing of a Manchester United scarf – an object I, as a Liverpool fan, might normally be expected to spit on – with the message “one game, one family” outside the Bolton ground. It summed up much of my feelings about the incident.

Inevitably, as the world isn’t lacking in mean-spirited idiots, not everybody echoed those sentiments. Liam Stacey, a student from Pontypridd, took a different view. He used Twitter to post messages of a racist, vulgar and threatening nature to Muamba and to those who expressed their understandable revolt. This is where I risk the greatest chance of being mistaken. I only read his exact words second hand, as no decent publication (the only kind I read), or this website, would repeat them, and they appall me. But, I can’t help but feel some of the resulting public outcry far outstrips the seriousness of the crime.

When charged at Swansea Magistrates’ Court, Stacey pleaded guilty to posting the abusive comments and was sentenced to 56 days imprisonment. It seems, on the surface, a fair judgement, but part of the magistrate’s closing statement set me thinking. “I have no choice,” he said, “but to impose an immediate custodial sentence to reflect the public outrage at what you have done.” Since when has the legal system paid heed to the degree of public opinion of a crime? If it did, the lynch mobs would be out to hang all paedophiles and child murderers. Justice should be even-handed, regardless of what the public think.

In addition, the University of Swansea, where he was studying biology with the aim of becoming a forensic scientist, have suspended his studies, saying he was “not welcome” on campus, and that his attendance may be a disruptive influence on other students.

A quick opinion poll I conducted amongst friends turned up a variety of opinions on the subject. Some thought it lenient, or at least not extreme. Others thought he was being made an example of, and that it would make others think twice about committing a similar crime – a common misconception of how criminal justice works, hence why countries with the death penalty, such as the US, actually have high murder rates, rather than it acting as a deterrent as you would expect.

The short prison stay, eight weeks of low security incarceration, probably with Sky TV and other home comforts, seems inconsequential to me. Far more damaging, and by far the best punishment for this kind of idiotic crime, is the permanent stain to his reputation. A very public humiliation, using the same media tools he used to spread racial hatred and abuse, is the key to dealing with racist morons. Embarrassment is a powerful tool.

In regards to his seclusion from university, I have my reservations. Rehabilitation is necessary for any criminal, and lack of employment opportunities after a prison sentence is one of the major factors in reoffending. This action by his alma mater risks seriously stunting his entire future – a potentially longer and more severe punishment for what is, when you get down to it, a small and twatty crime.

It would be nice to think this was an isolated incident, perpetrated by a single moron, but apparently this kind of behaviour is catching. Manchester United fanzine, Red Issue, sparked further controversy with a cover which could easily be taken as mocking the Muamba situation, with the headline “Grief Junkies Run Riot” and tasteless comments such as “I’ve tweeted my condolences just in case,” and “Is he dead yet?”

Are we, as a society, becoming overly sensitive to public outrage, or is it just a matter of having the means – via social networking and 24-hour news access – to express our opinions? Either way, these incidents seem to occur with tedious regularity. They make me just want to grab the whole internet community, shake some sense into them while telling them to calm the fuck down and get some perspective. I’ve never believed the idiom sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me. Words can hurt, deeply, and they usually take longer to heal than many wounds. That’s why the correct response to hurtful, or incendiary words, is to use words in response.

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About stuartjamesbox

I'm a 30-something graphic designer, employed by a large newspaper and magazine publisher, but a writer at heart - only one who struggles to find the time or motivation to sit at the keyboard and bash keys in a pleasing order. I'm a progressive, liberal, atheist. I think everyone is entitled to their opinion, but some people are just plain wrong. I love books, films and music, and if you only like one kind of anything you don't like them at all and seriously need to broaden your horizons. I can cook, bake, and play guitar to various degrees. I have an unhealthy obsession with fonts; vintage clothing, especially tweed; cats of any variety, except pointy, skinny ones and ones with flat faces. Follow me on Twitter @ Stuartjamesbox

Discussion

5 thoughts on “Twitter and Fabrice Muamba – It’s All Kicking Off

  1. A few mistakes in your article.

    He did not post anything racist at all to Muamba. He posted something offensive (not threatening) about Muamba on his own (Liam Stacey’s) Twitter page. This was then picked up by others and sent around.
    There was then a flurry of abusive tweets to Stacey himself. Some were racist against the Welsh, some were threatening. One threatened to burn his house down. He responded with his own racism.

    Really though, the whole thing was quite childish. A lot of name calling. The sort of thing we see on Twitter and Youtube all the time.

    I can’t believe you could think that sending someone to prison for their *words* could ever be fair. It is frighteningly illiberal. Remember he was charged with being offensive and causing alarm. The definition of “offensive” varies from person to person, and changes from each generation.
    Blasphemy could get you locked up once. Now it is “racism”. That is the new blasphemy.

    The judge got caught up in the whole emotion of the Muamba incident. It is worrying that our judiciary is now
    part of the Princess Diana syndrome and worrying that a 21 year old has lost his liberty for a sick joke.

    Posted by Simone | April 3, 2012, 8:34 pm
    • If you read more thoroughly, you’ll see that I don’t think sending someone to prison for their words is fair. I call a prison term in relation to this ‘inconsequential,’ and that a more public response is the best way to deal with it. I think in regards to the judge’s call, the threatening manner of his words is more serious than the racist language, and probably explains the severity of the punishment.

      Blasphemy was still written into British law as late as 2008 BTW, with people as late as the 1990s being arrested under it. The Racial and Religious Hatred act of 2006 took its place and covers the offences Stacey committed.

      Also, the law has to move with the times. Making a sick joke in a pub with your mates is one thing, making it on a massively public forum like the internet, television or print is another. The law has recognized the volume of offence caused. I’m not saying I agree with the response, I’m saying I understand it isn’t just about making a sick joke.

      Posted by stuartjamesbox | April 3, 2012, 9:23 pm
  2. The words were not threatening; they were offensive and abusive.

    If he had incited violence, then a severe sentence would be justified. But he didn’t. He tweeted a few offensive names and a sick joke.

    I don’t see why making a sick joke to a handful of people, or making it on the internet to a lot of people, should make a difference.
    Actually, you are encouraging people to re-tweet comments far and wide in order to increase a sentence.

    Although, why should a sick joke be an offence at all?? Who decides what is an acceptable joke and which jokes warrant a prison sentence? Do the judges count up the number of people who heard it and sentence accordingly??

    The European Commissioner for Human Rights has condemned the sentence, and I agree with him.
    It is shameful that a country that once believed so passionately in freedom is now locking up a young man for his views.

    Posted by Simone | April 4, 2012, 8:32 am
    • Well, “I’ll stamp on your face till it’s fucking flat” would qualify as threatening violence in most people’s books, even if only made in jest.

      It’s not about a judge handing out a sentence scaled against the level of outrage – again, if you read the article properly, you’ll see I say as much in “Since when has the legal system paid heed to the degree of public opinion of a crime” – but proceedings are brought when enough people complain. The choice of platform affects the number of people likely to complain.

      Please read articles thoroughly before complaining. I’m not disagreeing with you in spite of trying to maintain an even-handed tone.

      Posted by stuartjamesbox | April 4, 2012, 9:02 am
  3. Thank you for your post. I thought it was well written and well considered. I chose not to read the comments made by Liam Stacey, or about Liam Stacey.

    Just to change the subject for a minute… Fabrice Muamba did not have a heart attack. He had a cardiac arrest, cause unknown. Hopefully, this will raise awareness of rare heart conditions in young people, and will last longer than the ill-judged Twitter furore started by Liam Stacey.

    Posted by shacklefordlb | April 4, 2012, 10:30 am

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