Club Cricket Conference

Wednesday, 22nd May 2024

Only individuals, not authorities, can control social media

Personal View: By Charles Randall

Social media has real value for spreading news, real news, such as the latest cricket score, a result, a clarification or a happening somewhere. When it comes to opinion,  politics and personal exchanges, the world of words seems very fragile.

Everyone knows that this fragility is all too real. For example, when somebody chooses to give tuppence worth of opinion on Twitter, there might be a verbally violent put-down in response, known as trolling. This can be upsetting, so why bother to give an opinion? Search me. Vanity can be a strange thing.

True, Jonathan Agnew, the BBC cricket correspondent, is more or less required to use social media as part of his job to intrigue his thousands of 'followers'. All journalists in the national mainstream are expected to raise their profile in this way. But beyond basic news, there is really little real  point in giving opinion to the world out there. Nice people and nasty people might be interested... and some folk can be nasty sometimes.

Broadcasting personal attacks, as opposed to trolling, is different and concerning. The professional media is checked by the laws of libel, and one day a low-level sports tweeter will experience the shock of contact by lawyers scrutinising some comment about a "cheating" umpire or similar. A legal letter or two might do the twittersphere a power of good.

East Molesey CC publicly disassociated themselves from social media exchanges after a recent seven-wicket win over local rivals Sunbury in the Surrey Championship. Exactly what was said does not seem to be in the public domain now. The gravity would not match the tweet by Lalit Modi wrongly accusing Chris Cairns of fixing that cost him £90,000 in damages and more in costs in 2012, but defamation is defamation.

Perhaps now is the time for the National Cricket Conference to form a coherent policy on how clubs might deal with malicious social media because the Herts League issued a knee-jerk statement this season that made little sense.
The Herts statement reminded clubs that Twitter abuse would be dealt with severely from June onwards. The code of conduct and the Spirit of Cricket applied on and off the field. Fair enough. There were spiteful exchanges a couple of years ago involving spoof names that appeared to involve North Mymms and Totteridge Millhillians, though the clubs themselves had nothing to do with the tweets.

Any participant "following or commenting" on such spoof accounts, the Herts League added, could be considered to be complicit in their content and therefore risk further sanctions against  them or their club.  Anyone following or commenting...  that is quite a leap in authority.

The league said friendly banter was welcomed, but reckoned these sites went way too far. "It simply isn’t acceptable. Anyone engaged in this activity, even if just following an abusive twitter site or person, will face League disciplinary procedures." Exactly how an individual could be disciplined effectively and proportionately by the league was not stated.

The reality is that authorities at recreational level cannot, and should not, seek to control  social media, in the same way that they cannot stamp out bar-room tittle tattle. Regular reminders to would-be tweeters about the law of libel should be enough. Fair comment might be a defence but the defendant must have very secure grounds to back up any disparaging views. The National Cricket Conference will no doubt be discussing social media in due course, but censorship would be a futile approach.

It was interesting how a tweet by the England player Tim Bresnan brought Great Ayton CC players to heel at the end of last season. Bresnan commented on theft of equipment from lockers at Headingley, when the venue was used for the Yorkshire Premier League north versus south final. A disciplinary hearing by the North Yorkshire & South Durham League fined Great Ayton £500 and docked 50 points for the 2019 season.

The case of Jonathan Agnew illustrates how Twitter should not be used. In May he was forced by the BBC to apologise to the Independent journalist Jonathan Liew for an expletive-laden rant. It was a private communication, Agnew assumed, until Liew decided to make the abuse public.

In my view Agnew's anger was understandable, even if his language was over the top. Liew's article could be regarded as journalism at its worst, a snide attack that merged opinion with fact. Liew implied strongly that the reservations of Agnew and Michael Vaughan about the fast-tracking of Jofra Archer  into the England side were somehow racist, unconsciously or otherwise.

To summarise,  white players had been fast-tracked by England in the past without apparently attracting comment - and, in Gary Ballance's case, welcomed. Ergo, according to Liew, this means concerns about Archer, a black man, were racist.

Agnew reckoned that fast-tracking Archer into the World Cup was "a huge call". This was a reasonable comment because a number of seam bowlers had been working their way towards selection. Here was a case of queue jumping, with David Willey missing out, and this could affect morale. Vaughan expressed concern in the same way about team culture. The Ballance case was not really similar, as there was a dearth of batting candidates for the 2013 Ashes.

Many people would be aware that the Barbados-born Archer, who played club cricket for Horsham in the Sussex Premier League, is an unselfish and supremely talented bowler - and batsman for that matter - and no doubt fully aware of the tensions around rapid promotion. But to Liew, it was not so simple. "There’s an incendiary word you could posit to describe all this, but I’m not going to use it. All I will point out is that there’s nothing new in English cricketers being sourced from far and wide." He coyly avoided using the word 'racist' as he would probably have been sued. If he did not mean racist, there was no point in writing the article.

Liew continued:  "The sadness is that already, Archer clearly senses on some level that he may not be entirely welcome. 'I don’t want to step on anyone’s toes,' he said this week, and should England fall short of expectations this summer, be in no doubt who will be made to carry the can. Such is the fate of the outsider, the other, the guy who may play a good game but whose face - for whatever reason - just doesn’t fit. This, like it or not, is what we talk about when we talk about Jofra. You may have got in on a technicality. You may have a right to stay and work. But don’t for a second presume that you’re one of us."

This sort of comment says more about the journalist than anything else. Nobody has "talked" about Jofra in any way that would not be normal and acceptable. Of course the lad was nervous about his promotion. The reduction of residential qualification from seven years to three arrived just in time for the World Cup. Though dual-qualified for West Indies, Archer holds a British passport only.

Simon Kelner, a distinguished journalist, supported his newspaper colleague. He said Liew had "carefully and thoughtfully, posited the idea that there is unconscious prejudice in some sports coverage". As Liew offered no careful, thoughtful or credible evidence, it is hard to agree with Kelner.

Barney Ronay, of The Guardian, wrote that Liew  was "writing about the notion of structural prejudice in the way we express ourselves, a shifting, gossamer thing that can often creep in unexpectedly but which can reinforce unhelpful tropes and stereotypes."

Ronay added: "I don’t think Jonathan Agnew is a racist. I don’t think Liew ever suggested he was one, but read the messages to Liew and something else emerges. Not just the sense of a pattern of unpleasant behaviour but something wider too. Abusing younger journalists from a position of power is a damaging thing to do."

Firstly Liew is well into his 30s and hardly vulnerable as a "younger" journalist. So Ronay steps up the attack on Agnew with a misleading barb. And, yes, Anew himself is not a racist, even if apparently his comments could be seen as such. But, despite Ronay's fine words about shifting gossamer things, there was still no credible evidence to support Liew's snide peek into Agnew's brain.

So why is all this appearing here? As Liew chose to offer private Twitter abuse for public consumption, he opened himself up to scrutiny. Social media, even among professionals, can become unedifying. Suffice to say, there was 'history' between the two men involving criticism in the past.

For a Twitter man, Agnew is notoriously thin-skinned. But in this case he would surely  have consulted lawyers if the word racist had been written instead of implied. Instead, he settled for furious abuse in what he thought was private Twitter.

So, the message to everyone is... be careful.