Thursday, 6 September 2012

Leon Knight: any lessons for the unwise?

Back in July, this is my england made a few remarks about the failed journeyman footballer Leon Knight. The itinerant forward had just hit the headlines for unleashing a torrent of seriously unpleasant Twitter abuse towards the wife of Wolves midfielder Jamie O'Hara.

For Knight, this was not out of character. Despite being the father of a young girl, his output on Twitter made clear that he dislikes women, speaking about the opposite sex purely in degrading and hateful terms. To the former striker, now unemployed and on the scrapheap at just twenty-nine, young women are all to be dismissed as sluts and slags. 

Anyone observing all of this who has even just a cursory knowledge of the Malicious Communications Act (1988) may well have been thinking that it's only a matter of time before Leon Knight's online antics are interrupted by the long arm of the law. Rumour now has it that this has indeed come to pass. Because last night, having made the move from casual written abuse to a more elaborately planned and really disgusting stunt, it seems that the much-travelled striker may well have been arrested. There is certainly chitchat to that effect circulating on Twitter right now. Time will tell, no doubt, if there is substance to those rumours because an arrest in Knight's case would be sure to get some media attention. In the meantime, we do know that his Twitter account has been suspended.

Dirty pictures: maybe not a good idea?
So what was that disgusting stunt? Well, the vile little creep spent several days tweeting regularly to drum up interest in a nasty and presumably illegal exercise. He encouraged other idiots and other people of low character to email him compromising photographs of young women. With Knight having tens of thousands of Twitter followers and with this world being generously supplied with utter wankers, it seems that his appeal yielded a fairly plentiful supply of smut. As far as can be made out from Twitter activity, it seems that horrible sods were sending in intimate photos of ex-girlfriends or of girls with whom they had more casual sexual contact.

At this point, you are warmly invited to question the wisdom of any person who allows another person to make a digital image of that nature. Stories about the repercussions of this are rife and widely known. A girl allows a boyfriend to take an explicit photo of her. The couple break up. The boy decides to forward the picture on to schoolmates, possibly as an act vengeance if his fragile pride has been wounded by the breakup. The picture circulates more widely, and before long the girl has been thoroughly humiliated. The possibility of really serious effects on her mental health and self-esteem cannot be discounted.

But not everyone is wise. People, especially young people, do make mistakes. It's not hard to imagine a girl believing herself to be in love and feeling some pressure to please her boyfriend by consenting to have a compromising picture taken. She believes him when he says the image is just for his own pleasure. Perhaps at the moment he makes the promise, he really is speaking in good faith. But feelings change. Rejection follows. Egos are bruised. It's horrible. But it happens. 

Moreover, if a young man does something like this once and then regrets his actions, perhaps he is not to be condemned forever as a nasty piece of work. Perhaps it teaches him something about other people's feelings, about actions having sometimes very serious consequences and about what it means to be thought of as someone lacking decency. It's a terrible way to learn lessons of that sort, but it's not beyond the realms of possibility that redemption could follow such a stupid and horrible act.

Premeditated nastiness 
But Leon Knight was planning something of this nature on an almost industrial scale. It was also clear that he was not acting on a sudden impulse. This was a proper project for him, premeditated and carefully worked out. Earlier this week, his follower count on Twitter was under 70,000. By last night, having spread the word about his planned 'slag alert' stunt, this number had risen to over 100,000. So any pictures shared by the former footballer would have reached a far wider audience than those spread in the usual instances of this kind of harassment. Knight also intended to identify by name the girls in the pictures, using their Twitter account names if he had them. In the build-up to his planned stunt, he was taking obvious delight in the inevitable fallout. He was laughing at the prospect of girls' current relationships breaking down as a result of his antics. More than once, he taunted women he knew to be married or engaged, delighting in the prospect of them being dumped by embarrassed or angered husbands and fiancés. It's easy to come to the conclusion that Knight would take pleasure from the idea of having ruined someone's life. 

It seems, however, that his plan did not reach its conclusion. It appears that pictures were deleted as soon as he posted them and that the suspension of his account swiftly followed. A number of wags are right now repeating the joke that Knight's #SAP stunt turned out to be roughly as successful as his football career.

There are rivers of shit out there in cyberspace. An ocean of ordure. Every day, the details of some horrible personality or the workings of some deranged mind are mainlined into our homes. Leon Knight has both, and it is to be applauded that his latest and more ambitious piece of nastiness has fallen flat.

So what lessons can be drawn from this sorry incident (or non-incident, if you prefer)?

Well, one rather depressing aspect of this dismal affair is that a pretty large number of young men were out there condoning Knight's unpleasantness, offering him encouragement and eagerly anticipating a deluge of humiliating filth. Of course, you would be forgiven for wondering how a Leon Knight fan would have reacted to seeing his own sister or girlfriend humiliated in the way that Knight was planning. That said, it was no good remonstrating with Leon's online worshippers with that line of argument. To do so was simply to court the inarticulate and hateful response of someone with no regard for decency and no empathy for his fellow human beings. A wasted effort.

Beyond this dispiriting reminder about just how many people seem to be absolute wankers, the more useful lessons are around the disjoints between the wonderful potential of digital technologies and the capacity of our culture to agree on how best to enjoy them.

Upside with the downside
If you're old enough to remember living before the digital age really got going then you may sometimes marvel at the changes you've seen. Remember what it was like before everyone had mobile phones? Meeting up with friends was different then, wasn't it? You had to specify an exact time and place, and you would sometimes hang around for ages wondering why your pals were running late. Also, certain kinds of spontaneity which are possible now were not possible then. For instance, these days, if you decide at the last moment to go to your local pub or to a game of football, you can text a few friends to see who's around and up for a drink and chat. When you add the broadcast functionality of social media to the immediacy of mobility this becomes more powerful still. As you head down to the boozer or the football ground, you can update your Facebook status and/or write a tweet to let your associates know what you're up to. Pretty quickly you will know who is out and about. All very useful. Do today's youngsters realise quite how much these now ubiquitous technologies have transformed the daily lives of their elders?

Digital photography and digital video have also been massive game changers. Creating still pictures and moving images used to be expensive. Remember what it was like with a film camera? You would go on holiday with a couple of rolls of film, each with thirty-six exposures. You'd worry about wasting a shot and you'd take ages getting the family lined up in a grinning group. What a disappointment if that one snap of your happy clan in front of a popular landmark was spoiled by mum having her eyes closed or by part of someone's body being cut out of the picture. But now? You just rattle off the images at speed. Take ten pics of something and one of them is sure to be half-decent. You can just delete the others if you get close to filling the massive capacity of the memory card on your camera or, for that matter, the pretty decent camera now built into many popular mobile phones.

Consider your digital footprint 
The volume and variety of data generated by ordinary punters are increasing with giddying speed. We now create as much information every two days as the human race managed to create between the dawn of civilisation and the year 2003. In the specific case of video, YouTube users now upload more content in any given sixty days than all three major US television network created in sixty years. We can all be photographers. We can all be film makers. We can all be artists. We can all be publishers. This is empowering. Potentially, it represents a form of democratisation. But it comes with dangers and it comes with responsibilities that many people simply don't seem to understand. Too many people fail to realise that making a digital image or writing a comment online potentially leaves an indelible mark that may one day be bitterly regretted.

Perhaps you are involved in hiring people. Perhaps you will be involved in considering an employee for promotion. Maybe you will have some influence on someone's admission or otherwise to a course of study. Perhaps you are considering doing business with someone. In any one of these contexts, you might well Google a person's name to get a bit of insight into their character, their background or their interests. If you see something you don't like perhaps you will quickly eliminate that person from your plans.

It's a little frightening that so many people learn how to use a mouse and keyboard or the functions of a mobile phone without also acquiring a sense of the dangers around certain kinds of online behaviour. Compare this with the business of getting a driver's licence. To do so, one must demonstrate the ability not only to operate a vehicle in the most basic way but also the ability to drive safely. Learner drivers are appraised of the dangers they will pose to themselves and to other road users. Only when the learner can prove that these dangers have been understood can the licence be handed over. There is, however, probably no equivalent way of limiting online activity only to those able to demonstrate the ability to use communications technologies responsibly. This is a shame, really, given the daily evidence of both self-destruction and harm to others that thoughtless and spiteful online behaviour can cause.

An army of idiots?
this is my england has followed a number of examples of this over the last few months. Back in March, we saw Welsh student Liam Stacey making a name for himself by racially abusing Fabrice Muamba as the Bolton player lay unconscious on the White Hart Lane pitch. Very shortly afterwards, Stacey's comeuppance arrived in the form of arrest by South Wales Police and suspension from his university.

But despite the prominence of Stacey's case, it has become apparent that some idiots have either never heard of it or have failed to learn from it. Take the case of Alan Haywood, a West Ham fan from Southend. Outraged by his team's capitulation to a rampant Swansea City side, Haywood took out his frustration by directing racist abuse towards Hammers striker Carlton Cole:

At the time, this is my england made the confident prediction that Haywood would be arrested. So it came to pass. Of course, you are welcome to debate the issue of whether the police and our legal system have responded to this in a manner disproportionate to the nature of the offence. Perhaps you consider it to be an erosion of freedom of speech if one person is denied the opportunity to address another as a "fucking useless nigger cunt". Perhaps you consider the words "fucking useless nigger cunt" to constitute the expression of an opinion rather than as simply an act of harassment. That's entirely up to you, of course. For now, though, the prevailing trend seems to be that behaving in this way will lead to arrest and imprisonment.

Even if you don't like this provision of our legal system, you have to live with it. So by all means write an article in which you argue the case for people being allowed to say absolutely anything to absolutely anyone without fear of legal consequences. But until you get your desired change in our laws (and in the way our laws are applied), you need to realise that saying certain things in certain ways will get you in trouble. Moreover, using Twitter and other social media to say those certain things may have quite long-lasting consequences. Liam Stacey, for instance, has at least delayed his career progress, if not fatally stalled his ambitions before he really got started on making them a reality. Alan Haywood, too, may find that his idiocy follows him around and causes him more trouble for a while yet.

Forget Leon Knight and think about your own online life
The likes of Alan Haywood and Liam Stacey actually don't look too bad when compared with the vile and persistent trolling of Leon Knight. Haywood and Stacey are undeniably idiots, young men who failed to understand the potential consequences of their online outbursts. Knight's actions, on the other hand, were altogether more premeditated. At one stage last night, he was even responding to suggestions that he would be arrested with taunts, inviting his detractors to call the police. Knight, then, it must be assumed, is either seriously mentally ill or has a personality disorder of some kind. Probably, no lessons can really be drawn from his actions because hardly anyone else would go to so much trouble to get in trouble. 

One lesson that can, perhaps, be learned from Knight's abortive stunt, though, is around the wisdom of letting someone take a compromising photo of you, however much you currently love or trust that person. Equally, if you already live by the useful idea of 'think before you speak' in the physical world, then you may want to check whether you apply that principle online.

Digital technologies: changing faster than we get get our heads around the risks which come along with the useful functionalities. So let's be careful out there.


  1. These girls who have had their private pictures published have my upmost sympathy. However the girls who routinly send these pictures to the likes of leon and his mates deserve everything they get in my opinon. If you want to trade your dignity to hang around in bars drinking champagne you cant afford and wearing shoes it will take you 12 months to pay off and then get passed about a group of over paid idiots like a porno then go for it but dont come crying when the inevitable happens.

  2. Interesting article. Thanks.

    My basic principle for Twitter is don't say anything to or about someone that you would not say to their face. This should keep you out of trouble.

  3. Absolutely correct. Great piece. He should be embarrassed and ashamed. If one of those women was my misses, daughter or sister he'd be in trouble. SNM.

  4. Not defending Leon and his actions, but there were several cases where he accepted requests from various females who felt they were unfairly in danger of having photo's exposed and promised not to upload them. From what I saw he also encouraged girls to come forward and explain why their photo's shouldn't be shown. Let's try and have some balance.