Those who make a living in football – whether as players, managers, owners, directors or administrators – have to have the thickest of skins. This is not an industry for the faint-hearted or the easily offended. Rightly or wrongly, fans believe they have a God-given right to express views in the most trenchant of terms directly to (or more usually about) those who play for or run their clubs – and, of course, often do so even more trenchantly in relation to other clubs. Football brings out the best and the worst in all of us. The line between passionate loyalty and nihilistic tribalism is a fine very one indeed. A sense of grievance coupled with the mob mentality can sometimes make even the most  level-headed person say or do things that he will usually regret (and yes, sadly the miscreants I am discussing in this article are invariably men of an age and social demographic who should certainly know better than to act as they occasionally do). The internet has revolutionised our lives. But as with all revolutions, not all of the changes have been for the better. The ubiquity of email and the rapid advent of social media have both resulted in a marked increase in unrelenting and unsettling campaigns of harassment by the mad, bad and the sad. Cyber-bullies cower behind the anonymity of the internet. Like all bullies, they are cowards. Few are as smart as they might like to think that they are. They have convinced themselves that they will never get caught. Most however, leave behind cyber-footprints that mean they can be unmasked. Once unmasked, they can then be ordered by a court never to harass their victims ever again, or they will face imprisonment. Clubs owe a duty of care in law to their employees to ensure that they work in a safe environment. Clubs need to ensure that any instances of online harassment are fully investigated and, where merited, any victim receives the full support of the club in any efforts to unmask and stop any campaign of harassment as quickly as possible. Employees likewise owe duties to their employers. A tactless tweet by a player can undermine years of hard work by a club in the local community and could potentially jeopardise sponsorship or other income way out of proportion to the inappropriate nature of the comments involved, Frequently,  victims of online harassment will believe that they are victims of defamation. Often they are. Sometimes grossly untrue and hurtful things will be written by an anonymous blogger or on a social media site that will rankle. But merely because something is offensive or defamatory does not mean that it should be responded to. Thanks to Google, todays smear may no longer be dismissed merely as tomorrow’s fish and chip paper. Once something appears online it rarely disappears. And as much as we might wish friends, family and business acquaintances might have more sense than to believe something is true just because it is on the internet. We know that sadly our first instincts are to trust what we read or are told. Invariably the best advice to those who are victims of defamatory statements being published online is to ignore them. It is rarely worth sending an aggressive lawyers letter to the person who has set out to damage your reputation. It is certainly unlikely to be worth embarking upon a costly and uncertain libel action. Unless you want to risk further damaging your own reputation by doing so or merely wish to enrich lawyers. Having advised a number of prominent figures in sports, politics and the arts, I know that it is not easy to persuade then to turn the other cheek in this way. Too few people know how to say no to someone who’s every whim is usually catered for. But invariably when the red mist has cleared, they are grateful not to have started something, in terms of protracted legal proceedings, that they cannot subsequently stop. The truth is that in a society that still acknowledges the importance of freedom of expression as protected by the European Convention on Human Rights, the courts are reluctant to stifle a full and frank exchange of views between or about those who are, to some degree, public figures. This means that exciting the sympathy of a judge is not something that can be done readily with ease when an allegation of defamation is made, no matter how meritorious. That is not the case when harassment is alleged.The protection from Harassment Act 1997 makes harassment both a criminal offence and a civil wrong. And while the police are rarely interested in investigating allegations of harassment unless they’re of the most egregious, grotesque and public kind, the courts are only too keen to come to the aid of individuals who are victims of harassment – particularly when that harassment is caused by an anonymous tormentor. Invariably the first step will be to obtain an anti-harassment injunction, usually against Person(s) Unknown (even if the identity of the harasser may be suspected). A decision then needs to be taken whether or not to serve that injunction on the harasser (such as the first ever injunction of this kind in the world that I served via Twitter in 2009, which is now known as a Blaney Order). Or you may wish to procure the voluntary or court-assisted cooperation of Twitter, Facebook, Google or an internet service provider so as to unmask the harasser before serving him with the anti-harassment injunction. Anti-harassment injunctions contain a clear penal notice. If someone, once served with such an injunction, directly or indirectly harasses his victim again, he can and will be arrested for doing so. This does not require committal proceedings to be commenced or for contempt of court to be proven. The police can and will arrest someone for breaching an anti-harassment injunction. Usually this is the end of the matter. Drunk on self-righteous indignation, the harasser may whine to the Judge about the unfairness of it all but ordinarily he will not get anywhere by doing so. His justifications for his appalling conduct will just make things worse. A well-advised harasser will back down, apologise, undertake never to harass his victim again and pay a sum in damages and costs. This does not mean that every harasser will be exposed or stopped. But the courts and the law have proven themselves to be truly helpful in trying to end the scourge of internet harassment. And clubs need to learn quickly how best to stop such harassment damaging their brands, their employees and their commercial interest.Here are my ten tips for clubs to consider when faced with a campaign of online harassment: Here are my ten tips for clubs to consider when faced with a campaign of online harassment:
  1. Do not ignore the problem – the press has reported a worrying increase in the number of suicides and incidents of self-harm brought about by cyber-bullying that is often not even known about by the victims’ colleagues, friends or family.
  2. Do not respond – cyber-bullying is still bullying. Bullies are usually looking for a response from their victims. Often if their bullying is ignored, they lose interest. If a victim responds, particularly in kind, then he or she risks losing the moral (and legal) high ground.
  3. Keep the evidence – keep a record of all instances of cyber-harassment. Do not delete text messages, emails, Facebook messages and the like. You will need them if the case ever comes to court. The more examples, the easier it will be to persuade a Judge.
  4. Hide but don’t run – there is no point in making it unnecessarily easy for a cyber-bully. As frustrating and inconvenient as it may be, changing your mobile number or leaving Facebook for a few weeks is a small price to pay while you determine how to proceed.
  5. Check your insurance – do any of your insurance policies provide cover for legal expenses, for example where personal injury has been suffered? Legal expenses cover is usually a very cheap add-on to business, buildings or contents policies and it worth its weight in gold when a serious problem arises.
  6. Involve the police – if the harassment is particularly virulent or ongoing, report the matter to the police. Sadly they are unlikely to take it as seriously as they ought to but the mere fact that the harassment has been reported to the police can often be helpful when a judge looks at your complaint.
  7. Be realistic – nothing is certain when the courts are involved. Judges are only human. There is no guarantee that a tormentor will be unmasked each and every time. Some are better at hiding their tracks than others. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing something about it but there will be circumstances where the impossible cannot be achieved.
  8. Be reasonable – Judges are ready to come to the aid of victims who are suffering unendurable torment at the hands of cyber bullies but only if you act reasonably in your dealings with the court and with your opponents. Seeking damages or costs running into tens of thousands of pounds won’t win you any friends.
  9. Go for the jugular – equally, however, be prepared to pursue any bully if he ignores an injunction. The threat of jail, sequestration of assets and a fine usually concentrates their minds.
  10. Keep perspective – as unsettling as cyber-bullying is, it rarely lasts more than a few awful weeks or months. In a busy office or loving home environment with restricted online access, even today’s employees and children can learn that there is life beyond cyberspace!
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