Online football abuse targeted by police

Brighton fans frequently face homophobic abuse - first published April 2013

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Football supporters are being warned that abuse of players or fellow fans on online social media is being targeted this season by police and prosecutors.

New guidelines for tackling hooligans in England and Wales also address homophobic chanting for the first time.

Match-related incidents have been falling but there will continue to be a "robust prosecution policy".

Police say troublemakers given banning orders will find they are unable to attend the 2014 Brazil World Cup.

The orders prevent supporters from travelling to matches for a minimum of three years and any imposed this season would also affect supporters hoping to attend Euro 2016 in France, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and Association of Chief Police Officers added in a statement setting out the policy guidance.

The joint policy outlines the way violence, disorder, criminal damage and abuse in and around football matches will be approached.

Other "emerging challenges" for police and prosecutors highlighted include the assault of players by fans and the use of flares or fireworks within grounds.

Nick Hawkins, lead sports prosecutor at the CPS, said most football fans were well behaved and there had been a rise in the numbers of families at matches because of "friendlier atmospheres".

'Culture change'

Analysis

It may be the start of a new football season but there's a determination to prevent the return of old problems.

These guidelines set out potential action for a range of offences such as invading the pitch, the use of fireworks and flares, or discriminatory chanting.

In an age of social media there's a reminder of the consequences for those who abuse others online.

However it's the focus on homophobia - the last taboo within football - that is significant.

Terrace culture has undoubtedly changed over the years but many fans want the often passionate and occasionally bawdy atmosphere within grounds to be maintained.

But the message from the authorities is clear: there is a line and they'll take action if they feel it has been crossed.

Earlier this year, the CPS unveiled guidance specifying when communications on social media such as Twitter or Facebook that included threats of violence or damage to property, targeted individuals, or appeared to breach a court order should be prosecuted.

The CPS said there was a "place for humour in football but where the line between humour and offensive behaviour is crossed then positive action will be taken".

Mr Hawkins said: "It's not just criminality in the stands that will be taken on. Our legal guidance on communications sent by social media clearly sets out how we will approach the abuse of players or fellow supporters online."

He said the "worst examples" of "vile abuse or threatening tweets" would be prosecuted.

Prosecutions following online racist abuse of Fabrice Muamba, who suffered a cardiac arrest on the pitch last year, and Northampton Town players Adebayo Akinfenwa and Clarke Carlisle showed the CPS took such incidents "seriously", he said.

"Decent, law-abiding football fans deserve to be reassured that the criminal justice system is better equipped than ever before to protect their right to follow their teams in safety, while players, referees and supporters should know that harassment and abuse against them will not be tolerated," he added.

"In years gone by, racist and homophobic chanting in the stands was an ugly feature of football matches across the country, but I believe we are beginning to see a shift in culture... but hate crime legislation has a large part to play in this ongoing culture change."

Nick Hawkins, CPS: "Vile chanting has no place in any walk of society"

Mr Hawkins said research showed Brighton and Hove Albion fans were subjected to homophobic abuse at more than 70% of away games last season, showing such incidents were still happening "frighteningly" often.

Liz Costa, vice-chairwoman of Brighton and Hove Albion Supporters' Club, said she was "thrilled to bits" that homophobic abuse - aimed at Brighton fans because she said the city was viewed by some as a "gay capital" - was "at last" being treated with the same seriousness as racism.

Alice Ashworth, from gay rights charity Stonewall, said its research showed homophobic abuse "continues to be all too common in football and deters gay fans, as well as many families, from attending matches".

Darren Bailey, director of governance and regulation for the Football Association, said: "The FA welcomes the CPS' policy and wholeheartedly supports its ambitions in continuing to make football a safe environment for everyone."

The latest available figures on offences at football matches are for 2011-12 and show the number of arrests at international and domestic games fell by nearly 24%, to 2,363. There were 2,750 banning orders in existence, down from 3,173.

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