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Public comment and private pain

County View

County View
John Healy

It was a bitter sweet end to 2020 for Jackie Fox with the signing of Coco’s Law on to the Irish statute book.
Coco’s Law is called after Ms Fox’s daughter, Nicole, who died by suicide aged 21, following years of humiliating abuse on social media. It was thanks to the persistence of Jackie Fox, who campaigned, held rallies, lobbied the great and the good, and finally got Brendan Howlin, Labour TD, to steer through the Oireachtas a bill that will make online bullies amenable to the law.
More formally titled the Harassment and Harmful Communications Act, the legislation will criminalise the distribution of intimate images on the internet without consent, with those found guilty liable to a penalty of unlimited fines and up to seven years behind bars. And the legislation goes even further, making it an offence to even threaten to distribute images without consent.
For the Fox family, the passing of the act brings closure of sorts to the terror that is every parent’s nightmare. The coarsening of human discourse is the price of new media, as can be seen in the insidious, vile nature of online abuse; its anonymity; its facilitation by the Twitters and Facebooks of a new age; the sheer, feral hatred it fosters in those who find perverse pleasure in its sadism. And it was only when Jackie Fox discovered that those who caused her daughter’s death were beyond the reach of the law, and could not be prosecuted, that she resolved that the tragedy would not be in vain.
Once the Fox campaign gathered momentum, it quickly won the support of the legislators, who would see it safely through the Oireachtas. But the then Minister Charlie Flanagan did observe that we were now in an area where the right to individual privacy would be set against the right to freedom of expression, and that not all cases would be as black and white as that of Nicole Fox. There will be future times when the boundaries of fair comment will be tested, and where the lines will be more blurred than they are now.
There was an interesting parallel – although thankfully with less tragic results – in the recent revelations concerning the career of the footballer, Luke Chadwick. Twenty years ago, Chadwick was a shy, nervous, gauche 18 year-old, yet talented enough to be one of the bright young stars of Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United. But, by his own admission, he was no movie star; his spotty features, prominent teeth and jug ears caught the attention of the satirical sports show, ‘They Think its all Over’.
Week after week, he became the butt of merciless, cruel jokes from Gary Lineker, Jonathan Ross, Nick Hancock and their cronies; a ceaseless barrage that broke the youngster’s spirit, undermined his emotional health and forced him to walk away from football.
“Iron Maiden’s biggest hit is Number of the Beast,” one gag would go, “and if you want to know the number of the beast, Luke Chadwick wears number 36.” The presenters would chortle, the audience would applaud, and soon rival fans would take it up on the terraces.
“This photo of Luke Chadwick was ruined – when Luke Chadwick turned up,” another punchline would go.
Twenty years on, Chadwick has gone public on the hurt and devastation he suffered – and his inability to deal with it. Lineker and Hancock have genuinely apologised, admitting that “if you are getting laughs, you think you are doing a good job.”
Mockery and lampooning of public figures can be hilarious for an audience, and rich fodder for a comedian. But it would be interesting to see just how thin skinned the impressionists might turn out to be if the shoe was on the other foot.