Slow news days always produce stories that can make a person wonder if they have just woken up in an alternative reality. One where the journalists failed to use the The Day Today’s calculation of “Fact x Importance = News”. The slow news day has been blighting and amusing news consumers for many years with stories about large vegetables, semi Royal visits, pork chops that look like James Cordon and James Cordon looking like a pork chop.
At the moment, there is enough going on with phone hacking scandals, emergency international debt reduction measures and perishing celebrities that you may be forgiven for assuming that the tabloids, broadsheets and other news outlets might have their hands too full to chase up the massive radish stories. You may also be forgiven for being shocked that they do have the time to cover the musings of public figures who choose to inform the masses on social media. While the argument for the “who cares what Stephen Fry had for breakfast” holds some water, the discussion can have some rather ominous warnings for Joey Public. For the record, I do follow Stephen Fry and a lovely, interesting and caring man, he seems to be. I bet he had a croissant.
The news media has been closely following Newcastle United footballer Joey Barton for a number of years after a series of incidents that were, I think it is fair to say, unpleasant to say the least. Footballers have been headline staples for many years, but Joey has attracted the attention of the media in ways that surpass the “ordinary” superstar footballer. I am neither a Joey Barton biographer, nor a legal expert, so I will leave you to look into the history on this one and find out for yourself what he has been up to.
More recently, Joey has been hitting the headlines after contract disputes and various fallings out with his club, from the owner to the manager and allegedly his team mates. How do we know about this? Because Joey has been keeping us all well informed through Twitter. Publicly airing your laundry is always an entertaining, and yet dangerous spectacle. Jeremy Kyle has made a name for himself with his controversial refereeing of people who crave the limelight more than an amicable solution to their problems. The public meltdown and subsequent “release” of Charlie Sheen from his role in Two And A Half Men has graced the covers of publications more than his acting career of late. Some even suggest that Barton has engineered his current situation to facilitate a move to a new club. All are forms of publicity, and as we know, all publicity is good publicity. Jim White of Yahoo Sports sums up Barton’s situation well here.
It is unlikely that a disgruntled footballer is going to endear themselves to the owners and managers of a club by discussing the relationship where anyone can read about it. Maybe Barton feels that the moment for reconciliation has long since passed. There are rumours that his being placed on the transfer list on a free and fined two weeks wages are as a result of his dalliances with social networking along with the disharmony between him and the club officials. The who said what is only of passing interest to me.
What does interest me, and maybe should interest everyone on Twitter or who writes a blog, is where the line between Joey Barton the person and Joey Barton the Newcastle United Football Club employee lies. At what point does he stop being an employee after he has conducted his contractually obliged work for the day? Can a club, or any company for that matter, really direct the content of a persons relationships outside of the workplace? Don’t we already have the legal mechanisms to deal with false and libellous comments and the disclosure of trade secrets? The protection of sensitive information is vital, be it team formations, prototype specifications or soft drink recipes. You will never see a boxer or mixed martial artist announce, pre fight, that he has been feeling anything except “in the best condition of my life”, as information about his broken toe will offer a tactical advantage to an opponent. Discussing your day at work would not ordinarily fall into the “sensitive material” bracket even if that day involved a butting of heads with your boss. So are Newcastle United acting Ultra Vires when trying to control an employee’s freedom of speech once he takes off the black and white stripes? What about the suggestions that some football clubs are preparing to ban players and employees from even using Twitter?
The phrase that gets rolled out with Joey Barton’s case is that he is “bringing the club into disrepute”. But is he? Having a bust up with his boss is unfortunate, but should he be chastised for, or banned from, telling whoever he wants to, the story of his day, provided that he is honest and doesn’t reveal such aforementioned sensitive information? He clearly doesn’t agree with what he perceives his club’s owner is doing, but Barton himself was considered to be the best player on the pitch last season. Isn’t it enough that he does his job very well? Does he have to publicly agree with Mike Ashley as part of his contract? And if the things that Barton says are true? The fact that Barton chose to voice his opinion, and do so on Twitter, does not necessarily make what he said disreputable. Surely, if the details of his tweets are true, it is the architect of the actions he refers to, that should consider who is damaging the club.
For example, Barton is fined and told to train alone rather than with the rest of the team after telling his manager that he is unhappy at the teams direction and the clubs management. Barton tells Twitter. Barton is then accused of bringing the club into disrepute for telling the world at large about the altercation and being ordered to train alone. Is reporting the incident is considered disreputable? Uncomfortable maybe, but what if Barton is accurate with his account? What if Newcastle are being run badly and without proper direction? Then that, surely, would be the cause of any disrepute. Should Barton be talking about these matters openly? It seems as though he has voiced his concerns in-house but is dissatisfied with the reaction and turned to media (social or otherwise) to blow off steam and release his frustration. Similarly, should Newcastle United Football Club be able to inform the press about the bust up, while Barton is prevented? It is worth noting that Barton welcomed the possibility of an appeal against his punishment fine.
Consider if I bought a sandwich from a shop and it was mouldy. Should I be prevented from mentioning this on Twitter because it could bring the shop into disrepute? What if I worked at the shop? If a nurse describes poor conditions in a hospital on a blog after bringing the situation to the management’s attention, is she bringing the hospital into disrepute or is the hospital responsible for the dilemma the the nurse feels? Should the nurse then keep quiet about it to avoid a suspension or other punitive measure because the hospital doesn’t want to be found to have poor conditions? By hushing up the nurse, aren’t the hospital treating the headache whilst ignoring the underlying tumour?
Joey Barton may have an unenviable history but he is not a stupid man. He knows that this incident will affect whether he is offered another contract as the club, quite rightly, can decide if they want to pay for his services. Likewise, he doesn’t have to accept any new contract. The argument that he should be quiet because the club pay his wages doesn’t stand up. They pay his wages for his football skills and daily duties within the club. Not for his complete acquiescence when he feels something is not right. He has been applauded for turning his life around and battling his demons. His current battle seems to involve how much of his life and opinion Newcastle United own. I have my own opinions. But opinions are like arseholes. Everybody’s got one. For what it is worth, I happen to think that Joey Barton owns his own and no one else.