Since this is my england learned of the online racial abuse directed towards Anton Ferdinand by Paul Brennan and others, the QPR defender has been subjected to harassment of an apparently more serious nature.
Poisoned pen, poisonous minds
The newspapers tell us that last week a letter containing a death threat was delivered to the club, with reports alleging that the contents of the document were so graphic that Loftus Road officials decided not show it to the defender, who remains the focus of media interest since allegedly being subjected to a racial slur by England captain John Terry during QPR's recent defeat of Chelsea.
It is to be hoped that a police investigation into this poisonous letter will lead to the swift identification of a culprit, followed by a successful prosecution for malicious communication.
While it is absolutely fair enough to doubt the veracity of the claim made about Terry, those berating the QPR man should keep in mind that the complaint about the Chelsea player appears to have been raised in the first instance not by Ferdinand but by a member of the public. A careful reading of the subsequent coverage suggests that the Rangers centre-half has done nothing more than provide evidence when asked to do so by the authorities investigating the alleged incident on the pitch during the heated west London derby.
That said, even if the investigation into Terry's conduct had been brought about purely as a result of a claim first raised by the apparent victim of his alleged racial abuse, it would remain the case that reactions such as a 'death threat' letter and Paul Brennan's moronic comments are wholly intolerable, whatever the perceived provocation.
When this is my england elected to flag up Brennan's deplorable behaviour and to dig out some photographs he had inadvertently left available when hurriedly deleting his Twitter account in an attempt to cover his tracks, this attracted a mixed response. Some have agreed that it is quite right to discomfit Brennan in this way. He has committed what amounts to a criminal act in this country, some would argue, so it is entirely justified to draw attention to him. Others have suggested that what this is my england has done is an overreaction and that however ill-judged Brennan's comments were, he does not deserve what some might see as a witch-hunt, not least because this may damage his employment prospects. One can only assume that those articulating this latter view were not supportive of national newspapers printing photographs of rioters and looters in action in the aftermath of the disturbances that gripped London and other cities back in August. Photos displayed in order to draw the long arm of the law towards people alleged to have committed criminal offences. Same thing, right?
Experience teaches us that those who issue cowardly threats or vile abuse via the internet or poisoned pen letters rarely go on to commit actual acts of violence. Their bark is almost always worse than their bite. So the letter sent to QPR last week almost certainly contains an empty threat, notwithstanding the fact Ferdinand was apparently been advised to review his home security arrangements just in case the threat is real.
The strong likelihood of this threat not being a real one notwithstanding, though, Ferdinand is to be commended for remaining focused on his game. His form remains excellent and he was among those QPR players giving a very good account of themselves in Saturday's heroic but vain attempt to resist free-scoring Manchester City's awesome fire power. The writer of the sinister letter, it is to be assumed, far from planning a real act of murder, merely intends to unsettle the QPR defender. This deserves to fail - and it has failed. Ferdinand is surely playing well enough to merit consideration for the England team if his form continues in its current vein. Wouldn't that be fun? A John Terry-Anton Ferdinand core to England's back line...
The Rangers defender, of course, is not the first person to receive death threats following a famous Chelsea defeat. In May 2009, Norwegian referee Tom Henning Øvrebø was the subject of Facebook campaigns worded around threats of this kind. Officiating at a Champions League semi-final match between Chelsea and Barcelona, Øvrebø had turned down numerous penalty appeals by the London side.
It doesn't seem to be the case that any Barcelona fans called for Øvrebø's death as a result of his unjustified sending off of defender Éric Abidal in the same match, though. Perhaps the fact the result went the Catalan team's way was enough for this to be overlooked. Or perhaps Barcelona's fan base just contains fewer poisonous nutters than Chelsea's?
Someone who might be tempted to say yes to this last point is Donal MacIntyre. Back in 1999, the Irish investigative journalist famously exposed the darker activities of a group of hooligans claiming allegiance to Chelsea F.C. As recently as 2009, MacIntyre and his wife were assaulted in bar by people apparently seeking vengeance for the conviction of hooligan ringleader Jason Marriner for offences highlighted by the Irishman's investigation.
Clearly, the glamour of winning silverware and signing top players in the Abramovich era is enough to blot all of this out. As new fans have jumped on the Stamford Bridge bandwagon in recent years, it is to be assumed that they have given little thought to these darker aspects of the club's image.
Probably no football club is entirely without a violent and unpleasant contingent among its fans so it would be unfair to single out Chelsea as being somehow unique in this regard. After all, ageing berks 'supporting' our little QPR went on the rampage in the bar at Manningtree station a couple of years ago, getting arrested for their efforts. But whether our club will ever be associated with quite so many unpleasant characters as our neighbours in SW6 is to be doubted.
QPR manager Neil Warnock is no fan of Twitter. His latest criticism of the pervasive microblogging service was directed at Ferdinand, whom Warnock feels is a "twit" for using it. The veteran manager has expressed concern about the downside of players engaging so directly with groups of fans.
Warnock is unlikely to be able to insist on a Twitter ban for this players, though. It seems that team captain Joey Barton is already a highly influential member of the squard - and Barton is a famously prolific tweeter. More importantly, a significant component of a new era of openness at QPR is the willingness of charismatic club Chairman Tony Fernandes to engage with supporters via Twitter, of which he too is a very enthusiastic user. Vice-Chairman Amit Bhatia is also among the active Twitterati.
It seems, then, that while Rangers fans will continues to enjoy these new opportunities to feel closer to previously distant players and boardroom bigwigs, we may have to continue living with the ever-present danger of Twitter and related media drawing the unwanted attention of trolls and worse.
The view of this is my england is that, as Warnock said with regard to Twitter, the rough must be taken with the smooth. The feeling here is that upside of new media outweighs the disadvantages. Moreover, the fact that these media can be abused does not imply that the abuse needs to be meekly tolerated. If someone abuses you in the street, it's unlikely that many people would urge you to stop walking around outside. If some lone idiot abuses you at a football match, it's unlikely you would call for an end to football matches. Instead, you would be faced with two choices - live with the abuse, accepting it as an unpleasant fact of life; or tackle it head on, perhaps naming and shaming the abuser and getting the law involved. It seems instinctive to go for the former approach by default, switching to the latter when levels of abuse escalate to an intolerable or dangerous point.
Political correctness gone mad
A quite instructive discussion of online abuse was had in yesterday's Guardian. This covered the issue of the sexist abuse received by some female writers. Helen Lewis-Hasteley reported the experiences of women bloggers who have been "threatened with death or rape, often in very graphic, detailed terms."
"Now, I believe in freedom of speech," she writes, "but – and several existing laws are clear on this – you absolutely don't have the right to threaten violence against people with whom you disagree."
Her suggested response? "The first thing is to speak up. People might say that you're exaggerating, that you 'can't handle bad language', that 'everyone gets a bit of abuse on the internet', but the more evidence we collect, the harder that will be to maintain. If you receive a specific threat, report it to the police. If they don't take any notice, blog or tweet about it."
In quoting feminist Guardian writers and in agreeing entirely with the sentiments expressed by Helen Lewis-Hasteley (as exemplified by last week's 'outing' of Paul Brennan), this is my england will perhaps attract scorn from some readers. Perhaps this blog is humourless? Over-sensitive? Part of the 'PC brigade'?
In respect of the latter accusation, this is my england pleads guilty. If you think 'political correctness' has 'gone mad', I would suggest you consider the highly articulate response to that charge by comedian Stewart Lee:
"I'm of an age that I can see what a difference political correctness has made. When I was four years old, my grandfather drove me around Birmingham, where the Tories had just fought an election campaign saying, 'if you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour,' and he drove me around saying, 'this is where all the niggers and the coons and the jungle bunnies live.' And I remember being at school in the early 80s and my teacher, when he read the register, instead of saying the name of the one Asian boy in the class, he would say, 'is the black spot in,' right? And all these things have gradually been eroded by political correctness, which seems to me to be about an institutionalised politeness at its worst. And if there is some fallout from this, which means that someone in an office might get in trouble one day for saying something that someone was a bit unsure about because they couldn't decide whether it was sexist or homophobic or racist, it's a small price to pay for the massive benefits and improvements in the quality of life for millions of people that political correctness has made."
Well said, Mr. Lee.
So let's keep enjoying our football and enjoying the opportunity to connect with players and team owners in ways we never dreamed of even a few years ago. Let's keep enjoying TV coverage that brings the on-pitch activities of players right into our living rooms in glorious HD colour.
Let's accept, too, that sometimes this open access will bring us into contact with words and actions that may cause offence. Let's not make a sport of being offended for the sake of being offended. But when the offence is real and grievous, let's kick back against it.