Brendan O’Neill

In defence of Eric Bristow

In defence of Eric Bristow
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The Twitch-hunters, those antsy, intolerant guardians of what it’s permissible to say on Twitter, have claimed another scalp. Eric Bristow’s. The former darts champion, lovably known as the Crafty Cockney, will now probably be better known as hate-speaker thanks to the offence-taking army that took umbrage at his tweets about child abuse. For this quarrelsome mob has the power to destroy reputations, and it looks like it has successfully destroyed Bristow’s.

Bristow’s speechcrime, or tweet-crime, was to gruffly express his views on the child-abuse scandal rocking football right now. Last night, somewhat unguardedly, he wrote a series of tweets in which he asked whether it is wise for the former players who experienced abuse to tell their stories in the media, as some have done in recent days. ‘Might be a looney,' he allowed, recognising the danger that comes with expressing one’s views these days, ‘but if some football coach was touching me when I was a kid, as I got older I would have went back and sorted that poof out’. He continued: ‘Darts players tough guys footballers wimps’. He eventually apologised, kind of: ‘Sorry meant paedo not poof.’

For these tweets he has been hounded and demonised. The insatiable outrage machine on Twitter, which needs to crush tweet-criminals as surely as Moloch needs to devour souls, has pumped out tweets calling him nasty, evil, extreme, and worse. Sky Sports has dumped him as a darts commentator. His tweets were ‘toxic’, says a Guardian columnist, and could cause ‘hurtful anguish’ to victims of child abuse. It’s the usual ancient argument for self-censorship: your thoughts are dangerous, so keep them to yourself. Or else. Or else you’ll be dumped from your TV job and rebranded an unspeakable person.

I want to defend Bristow. Firstly because everyone should be free, and should feel free, to express themselves. And second because beneath the rough, late-night language he used, I think he has a point.

The freedom of speech point can’t be overemphasised. Slippery defenders of Twitch-hunts, of the online kangaroo court that almost daily finds someone guilty of evil speech, will insist this has nothing to do with censorship because he said what he wanted to say and he hasn’t been arrested. What they overlook, or just don’t care about, is the cumulative chilling effect that illiberal hissy fits and bellows of ‘You Can’t Say That!’ have on open public life. How they encourage people to suppress their dangerous, eccentric or simply non-mainstream views. How they cultivate self-silencing.

You don’t need a court or a copper for censorship. As John Stuart Mill argued, a non-official ‘tyranny of custom’ can chill speech more effectively than statute. It nurtures conformism, until ‘the mind itself is bowed to the yoke’. Twitter is a hotbed of the tyranny of wisdom, always bowing minds.

Then there’s Bristow’s point. In his own way he was issuing a challenge to today’s victim culture. Especially to the questionable moral voyeurism that demands all former victims of child abuse must relive their experiences in public, on TV, best of all in misery memoirs. Is this healthy? Bristow is suggesting it isn’t. I think he’s right.

Of course he shouldn’t have called those footballers ‘wimps’ and he shouldn’t have said ‘poof’. And he’s wrong to encourage the beating-up of child abusers. ‘When the football lads got older and fitter they should have went back and sorted him out,' he said. No. But still, there’s something important in Bristow’s comments, something about encouraging people to deal with bad past experiences in a more personal, perhaps confrontational way, that should not be rubbished.

In these post-Savile times, we’ve come to think that all former victims of child abuse have some kind of responsibility to parade their wounds. We have come to expect, somewhat greedily, even perversely, that the abuse of decades ago must be relived, as publicly as possibly, in order to ‘raise awareness’. I’m sorry, but I think it’s possible there’s an element of moral titillation to all this. And I think it’s possible that it makes abuse victims even less likely to get over their experiences by making them go through it all again for our viewing or reading pleasure. I think it’s possible this is wrong. And I think Bristow should be free to suggest this.

Bristow comes from a different part of the world to today’s media finger-waggers and Twitch-hunters. He comes from one of those bits of Britain where, guess what, people believe it’s better to be an actor than a victim. That you should fix your troubles yourself. That therapy might not be the solution to bad experiences. That the public has no right to know what you’ve suffered. These are unfashionable views now, but millions of people hold them. I agree with them. Though I bet far fewer of them will express these rather independent, brave views now that they know you can be so severely punished for doing so.