Joey Barton is at it again. This time the QPR midfielder is offering himself as a martyr at the altar of free speech, following news that the Attorney General is investigating comments he made on Twitter about Chelsea defender John Terry, ahead of Terry’s trial for allegedly racially abusing an opponent.
Defending his right to ‘freedom of speech’, he tweeted yesterday: “I will gladly go to jail for a month, in the name of free speech … Make me a martyr”.
To say Barton is outspoken would be like describing Robespierre as quite enthusiastic. Twitter is the choice medium for his invective, where his interventions have oscillated between literary and vitriolic, lilting from the coarse to the sublime: unfailingly hilarious, although at times you suspect in spite of, rather than due to, the author’s intent.
Alongside quotes from Nietzsche, saying that the FA is an ‘Orwellian institution’, and bold declarations of his working-class politics, you get the occasional less-than-edifying nuggets (such as him beseeching Madonna to “get ur fanny away” at last night’s Superbowl performance).
A passionate man who wears his heart on his sleeve, 29 year-old Barton eschews the routine self-restraint of his contemporaries. Compared with today’s anaemic fare of bland footballers (cue Stevie G on Match of the Day, brow furrowed as he struggles to grasp at anything more insightful than: “Yeah…errr…the lads gave 110 per cent”) he provides entertainment and a talking point at least. And he is admirably vocal when it comes to points of principle, such as defending his own honour and that of his team-mates.
But this time he may have gone one step too far. And worse, on a false premise. For while Barton prides himself as a rebel railing against the establishment, he has shown himself ignorant to a claim that competes with freedom of speech: that of the right to a fair trial, one of the cardinal principles of British justice.
Broadcast or publication of material that creates a serious risk of prejudice to an active court case (not at a purely investigatory stage, as with Barton now) is a criminal offence under statutory contempt laws – and punishable by up to two years in prison.
This is a fact lost on many of those who use what is in effect a medium of broadcast each time they log on to social media. But whether media professional or not, the same rules apply: ignorance is no defense in law.
Barton- himself sentenced to 6 months imprisonment for assaulting a teenager in 2008- should of all people understand the importance of a fair trial in a case that carries a custodial sentence. In standing up for an erroneous cause, he has made a forgivable fool of himself – all the more comic given his stridency.
Rather than make a stern example of him, the Attorney General would do well to use this incident to make clear to the public the indispensability of the right to a fair trial, and the gravity of prejudice that can be caused unwittingly through social media.
And before his next 140-character commentary on current affairs, between classic references and punch-ups, it would do Joey Barton no harm to have a skim-read of ‘Contempt Law For Dummies’.