Written evidence submitted by the British Horseracing Authority and Professional Jockeys Association (OSB0061)
The British Horseracing Authority (BHA), the governing and regulatory body for thoroughbred horseracing in Great Britain, and the Professional Jockeys Association (PJA), the trade body that promotes and represents the interests of professional and amateur jockeys in Britain, are delighted to submit a joint response to the call for evidence by the Joint pre-legislative Committee for the Draft Online Safety Bill. This response is being submitted by the BHA and PJA on behalf of the wider British racing industry.
We welcome the publication of the draft Online Safety Bill and particularly hope it will reduce and prevent the toxic online abuse that members of our industry are subjected to daily. This response details some of the threatening, derogatory and discriminatory messages received by our participants, staff and members of the wider racing community as well as the profound and lasting effect this has on their mental wellbeing. We also call for alterations to the bill to ensure it provides suitable protections against hateful online content.
British racing is a sport with a significant cultural footprint as our racecourses are the second-most attended sporting venues in the country behind football stadiums. The last 18 months have provided record TV viewing figures for some of our major races and festivals, and over £14 billion is bet on the sport in betting turnover each year. A substantial contribution is also made in rural communities where over 17,400 full time workers are employed, generating £4.1 billion for the economy.
In March of this year, British racing’s leading organisations issued a unified ‘Industry Commitment’ to improving diversity and inclusion. We committed to improving diversity and inclusion through accountability, governance and education. Much of this is highlighted and celebrated through the Racing Together platform which has showcased over 80 initiatives across the sport enabling the broadest range of people to participate, progress and achieve in horseracing.
British racing was proud to participate, together with other sports, international governing bodies, businesses, charities and individuals worldwide, in the social media boycott earlier this year. This demonstrates our sports’ collective feeling that enough is enough and that we will no longer stand for toxic online abuse. We want to see positive action taken – both by the Government and social media companies - as soon as possible.
Abuse of jockeys
Online abuse is sadly now expected by participants (especially jockeys) in our sport, and it is a sad inditement of the current conditions faced online by athletes across the British sporting sector that the Professional Players Federation (PPF) – of which the PJA is a member – has had to put together social media guidance to help athletes deal with this plague of abuse. In an article published in the Racing Post (appendix 1), journalist Lewis Porteous spoke to professional jockeys about how online abuse “has become part and parcel of the job”. Jockey Callum Shepherd has received such messages as "A truly dodgy b*****d. Karma punish you, wish you break your neck and never ride again. A***hole. Idiot." Shepherd remarks, “they range from calling you useless and using bad language to threats of violence and aggressive language. You can even receive messages about killing you and things about your family – it's literally anything you can imagine.”
Jumps jockey Jonjo O’Neill Jr believes that “every single jockey in the weighing room gets it”. He says, “I would get it daily in the winter. It's not just when you get beat in a tight finish – a horse could pull up and you'd be getting dog's abuse and it's nothing to do with you whatsoever (appendix 1).”
During a race in 2017, jockey Ciaran Gethings was unseated from a 25-1 shot horse which was in contention to win at the time. The racecourse stewards and the BHA did not question the incident, which was an unremarkable accident. This did not stop a deluge of abuse getting directed at Gethings, many accusing him of deliberately forfeiting the race. Gethings’ partner Kate Tracey wrote an article for the Racing Post outlining the torrents of abuse he received in the wake of the incident and the effects this had on his mental health. After the race, his Twitter and Facebook accounts were bombarded with “threats, expletives, abuse and general torment in huge volumes”. Shocked and overwhelmed, he felt “no choice but to delete his Twitter account and block many sites on his Facebook.”
Given the level of abuse demonstrated received by members of our community that we have demonstrated above, we want to see social media companies take positive action to remove and prevent it. Under the draft bill, social media companies must use their filtering tools to remove priority illegal content as soon as it is identified. However, only terrorism and child sexual exploitation are listed as priority illegal content. In order to protect the mental wellbeing of members of our sporting community, we strongly advise the Joint Committee and the Government to designate abusive messaging as a priority harm within the legislation.
Abuse of trainers
As well as jockeys, racehorse trainers can also find themselves at the receiving end of vitriol. Group 1 winning trainer Eve Johnson Houghton told the Racing Post (appendix 2) about the frightening abuse she receives via social media, text and email. Johnson Houghton has felt compelled to report many violent messages to the police including threats to burn down her yard. She admits “it’s quite hard to just brush off”, “we’ve got to try and rise above it, although that’s not easy, but I don’t know what else to do”.
In order to protect recipients of threats and expedite any prosecutions against offenders, we ask that the bill mandates providers to assist authorities effectively with criminal investigations. We believe that providers must cooperate fully both with law-enforcement and regulatory bodies such as ourselves.
Abuse of our own staff (BHA)
As the official regulatory body for British horseracing, BHA staff can find themselves the target of hateful abuse for the decisions they have to make. Derogatory comments can regularly be found on Twitter. For example, following concerns over weather conditions at a jumps meeting, tweets were sent to BHA Stewards referring to them as “absolute clueless morons” who “want their heads testing”.
Whilst those comments may not be breaking any law, they could clearly cause someone to feel harassed, victimised and insecure in their work. In order to protect our staff from receiving abusive comments for simply doing their job, it is imperative that the bill contains provisions to prevent such content. Therefore, we would like to see the bill give Ofcom enforcement powers to tackle legal but harmful content and ensure providers have a duty of care to tackle both legal and illegal hate on their platforms.
Racism is a scourge on our society and as our participation in the social media boycott demonstrates, the BHA and PJA will not stand for it in any form. Racist online abuse of footballers has brought the issue to the forefront of public attention, and it is also an issue within our sport. For example, a message shared with the PJA sent to a jockey who wishes to remain anonymous reads, “Get back to your own f***ing country to lose your races d******d” (appendix 3).
On 15 July 2021, a press release from the Prime Minister stated that “Racist abuse will be designated a priority harm in the legislation [the Online safety Bill].” The BHA and PJA fully supports this intention, but it is unclear whether the legislation will deliver this promise. The draft bill as it currently stands contains no mention of racism. We would like to see racism named as a priority harm to encourage social media companies to be more active in their efforts to remove and prevent it from appearing on their platforms.
Horseracing is proud to be a sport in which all genders compete on equal terms. Unfortunately, however, female participants are often targeted with hateful messages because of their gender. In June 2021, a Facebook message sent to apprentice female jockey Saffie Osborne was shared by her father Jamie, who is a racehorse trainer. The message read “U stupid f***ing w***e... u need rapping and beating to death u s**t... daddy won't help u... U s**t... keep your t**s in you w***e... die u little b***h”. In a message sent to flat jockey Gemma Tutty, a Facebook user said, “you are exactly why people criticise women jockeys, as just don’t think” (appendix 4).
We are disappointed to see no mention of sexism or misogyny within the draft bill and believe this is an oversight. We request that the legislation specifically makes content hosts accountable for misogynist behaviour and requires them to remove it as soon as possible.
Blocking Unwanted Messages
For many of our participants, it is commercially important for them to have a presence on social media where they can promote themselves and their abilities. This is because most jockeys and trainers are freelancers/self-employed participants operating in a highly competitive market. Therefore, they can’t just leave the social media site and escape the online abuse they receive.
Within our sport, most of the abuse that we see consists of direct messages sent to the social media accounts. Whilst some social media sites such as Twitter contain a feature that allows users to block any messages from people they do not follow (as such, there is now a lot less abuse through direct messages on that site), unfortunately some popular platforms such as Facebook and Instagram do not allow users to block messages from non-followers.
Therefore, any high-profile individual wishing to hold an account on these platforms has to be open to receiving any sort of message from complete strangers. This leaves them with limited protection from abusive individuals, and we have observed that these people are often repeat offenders. We believe that requiring all social media companies to give the option of blocking messages from non-followers would significantly reduce exposure to abuse from members our community and wider society.
The BHA and PJA welcome the publication of the draft Online Safety Bill and the scrutiny of it by the Joint Committee. We strongly support the principles behind the draft bill, and we wish to see these enacted into law as soon as possible.
We would like some alterations before the bill is presented to Parliament, however. Specifically, we would like to see abusive messaging listed as priority harmful content. We would also like to see racism listed as priority harmful content as per the Prime Minister’s promise, as well as sexism and other forms of discrimination. Lastly, we firmly believe that all social media companies should be required to give users the option to not receive messages from people they do not follow. We believe these measures will provide significant protections from members of our community from online harms.
We would be very happy to answer any questions that the Committee may have about our evidence, and the British Horseracing Authority very much stands together with other sports governing bodies – further proposals from across the sporting sector can be found in the Sport and Recreation Alliance response, of which the BHA is a member - in asking the Government to take action on this important issue.
Appendices – Appendix 1