The dangers to freedom of expression in football

After a match and usually followed by a trip to pub, football supporters often spend time visiting club forums, sites and unofficial message boards to debate the fortunes of their club in the company of their fellow supporters. However this sort of freedom of expression has come under threat from the powerful clubs who want to clamp down on any dissent towards them or anything that they think may harm their chances of success.

Just this weekend we have seen a high profile case where Neil Warnock criticised a QPR fan after details of his team selection ahead of Saturday’s 1-1 home draw against Blackburn were posted on a fans forum website on Friday afternoon. Warnock made his feelings towards the perpetrator known as he believed that such a leak was giving a potential advantage to their opponents.

The information was sensitive and I can understand why he wouldn’t want it being leaked to the press and ultimately to Blackburn but to suggest that Steve Kean was going to spend time scouring messages boards looking for team news seems very unrealistic and indeed he said after the game that he had not seen the message about the team news on the QPR forum. It is also very clear that the person responsible did not mean to harm the clubs’ chances by posting the information on a public board but in truth what is more concerning for Warnock and what he should be focusing on is that one of his players is willing to release information like this into the public domain despite the fact that it is obviously confidential information.

The QPR manager certainly has a reputation of blaming others for his teams’ hardships but even for him it seems harsh to have a go at a loyal fan who probably thought he was providing a service to his fellow fans in this instantaneous world we live in. It is not like the team news was of the utmost importance either as Campbell has only started one game this season and it wasn’t that surprising to see the irrepressible Taarabt on the bench.

It appears that some football managers and clubs have never quite got the hang of the internet with all its free speech. The days of a few hundred copies of a fanzine have been replaced with a website that has potential audience of millions and this caused some draconian over reaction aimed less at protecting a team’s good name and instead trying to creating a climate of fear that will cause fans to falter before sounding off or even offering an different view.

Football message boards and forums can be compared to your local pub as you can meet your friends there to relax, say what you feel like and next day people will struggle to remember what was actually said. Like any pub it is sometimes quiet so you leave and there is the odd time when a fight breaks out but after a while it all calms down again. Any strangers are immediately treated with suspicion until they prove they are friendly and are then welcomed in by the regulars. However imagine how you feel if you walk into your local pub and it has been taken over by a huge multinational breweries. If you or any of the regulars mention about the new furnishings, loud quiz machines, or over-priced flat beer you’ll be thrown and banned for life. Any discussions about contentious issues are banned to prevent liable action against the pub.

Only a few years ago a major Sheffield Wednesday message board was threatened with legal action by their club after the site published ‘damaging posts against the club, its chairman and directors’. The club told the owners of the site that they were taking action to “to protect the honesty and integrity of its directors and employees” despite them removing the supposedly offensive posts. The action was dropped when the owners of the message board apologised but it just shows what these owners are capable of in trying to prevent fans having any kind of freedom of speech.

The QPR story is somewhat a storm in a teacup with Warnock looking to distract attention away from a poor performance against a struggling Blackburn side but it has highlighted the sort of problems football fans face over freedom of speech. What Neil needs to remember is that supporters love to have their say about their club, whether that is on national or local media, online or even in the pub and of course for 90 minutes every match-day when they can just about shout any abuse at their players and managers. That’s the real freedom of expression Mr Warnock and don’t forgot the fans are the people who will still be around long after you have left the club.

Follow me on twitter @aidanmccartney for more discussion about free speech in the beautiful game.
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