Jim White

Twitter trouble looms for football stars

Jim White

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Let's hope a number of our leading footballers have been following developments in the Lord McAlpine case. It might serve as a warning to them about the use of their favourite medium. It might issue a note of caution about Twitter.

This has not been a good week for micro-blogging. For the first major time since it became obligatory to have a Twitter account, to describe everything with a hashtag, to insert '*' on either side of a conversational tic to denote irony, the law has turned its beady eye on the service. And it has noted that since the usual laws of libel are applicable it could be a very lucrative place to trawl for business. Which is going to come as a nasty surprise to users — footballers among them - who assumed they could say what they wanted.

Last weekend, the tweets about Lord McAlpine became common currency. According to those tweeting, he was at the centre of a child abuse ring made up of the rich and influential who used their positions to cover their tracks. Several people asked me last week why the papers were so reluctant to expose McAlpine. It was, they suggested, because the establishment had managed to put a stop on the information being disseminated through the old-style media.

Well, actually, no. It soon transpired the reason the story did not run in the newspapers was because it wasn't true. McAlpine was the victim of mistaken identity, nailed by a witness speaking to Newsnight whose reliability had long ago been revealed as shaky to say the least.

People who should have known better, however, cheerfully put the boot in without any knowledge of the facts beyond what Twitter had told them. And now they are facing the consequences of their reckless dissemination of what turned out to be the most groundless of gossip. Even those who retweeted messages sent by other rumour mongers are going to find themselves digging deep into their back pockets.

Which is where footballers really need to be careful. For many of them tweeting has become habitual. You can understand why. Phil Neville, for instance, regards it as one of the best ways ever invented of maintaining a dialogue with fans. And he's right. When used as a conversation it is unbeatable, a real bridge between the star and his public.

The trouble is, footballers, quite understandably, are no experts in the laws of publishing. But that is what Twitter has become: a publishing phenomenon. They may regard it as a conversation, but some of the more prominent players have many more followers than national newspapers have readers. That conversation of theirs travels a long way. You only have to look at the number of tweets from players which are repeated in press coverage to see how their comments get out and about.

And some of them have not quite grasped that they are engaged in the online equivalent of broadcasting. Already we have had examples of players issuing threats, racist abuse and passing on unsubstantiated gossip as if they are merely chatting in the dressing room. Rio Ferdinand didn't even make that comment himself about Ashley Cole being a choc ice. But the moment he replied to it repeating the infamous phrase, it became visible to more than a million of his followers, and then immediately to the wider public.

Joey Barton, the serial tweeter, would claim he has benefitted from the site's immediacy. He has been able to present a view of himself direct to his public, without the filter of a third party. But at times he has also been utterly reckless, in a way no journalist would ever be allowed by their newspaper to be. Barton is forever banging on about press abuse, but no paper would have done what he did when he tweeted that Madeline McCann had been found alive and well in India.

Even the most brusque and in-your-face tabloid hack would have checked out the source before running such a story. Barton didn't. Well, he couldn't because there wasn't a source. He just passed on a tweet he'd seen in the hope it was true. He complains about the press lying, but there he was cheerfully disseminating a pure, groundless fabrication.

Worse, when John Terry was arrested he made comments on Twitter of a kind which would never be allowed in newspapers because of the laws of sub judice. When several people - including the excellent user of Twitter Stan Collymore - pointed out that he needed to keep quiet as, given the number of his followers, he was risking prejudicing the outcome of the trial, Barton went off on a rant about how he would not be silenced. But - as any trained journalist would understand - this was not an issue of freedom of speech but fair judicial procedure.

He was extremely lucky that no one in legal office took any action. Otherwise he could have had his collar felt. Because if anyone had said what he had said in the old media, it would have resulted in a prison sentence.

Then, he got away with it. But now - after McAlpine - the law is watching Twitter. The libel cases are only going to multiply. As - following the case of those who have been prosecuted for naming the victim in the Ched Evans rape case - are other aspects of publishing law. Frankly, as is quickly made evident by a daily trawl of whatever is trending, there is a lot of material for the lawyers to sink their teeth into.

Footballers are among the most prominent users of the service. Their tweets, followed by millions, are as conspicuous as any. The truth is, unless they rapidly change their habits, it may well only be a matter of time before one of them lands in real trouble.

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