Steve Partner: Fishing doesn't need cyber Forum cowards

I really can’t work out what I think about internet forums. Are they home to thriving communities populated by like-minded individuals who share and debate information that make their hobby a richer experience? Or are they the domain of spineless - and often nameless - trouble-makers hell-bent on making mischief?

Like I said, I’m not sure which.

Mark Lloyd, head of the Angling Trust, has no such doubts, though. He has a very clear view on what he thinks about them - so much so that he’s just shut down the Trust’s own forum.

“Personal attacks and petty arguments” were, he said, to blame for the decision. He couldn’t, as the man at the helm of the sport’s governing body, risk fishing’s image in the eyes of the  public. Name-calling and schoolyard squabbling is hardly a fitting backdrop to an organisation charged with steering angling’s ship through turbulent waters.

So, quite rightly, he pulled the plug. No arguments. No discussion. The forum just ceased to exist.

Naturally, not everyone’s happy. Critics claim the move is too draconian, too heavy-handed, too knee jerk. Arguments, they say, are par for the course when groups are brought together for debate. Fellow Angling Times columnist, Nev Fickling, an active forum user himself, described the move as ‘feeble’, stating that he found it hard to believe the site couldn’t find someone to police it properly.

But I think he’s missed the point.

While healthy dialogue is to be encouraged, outright group abuse, often aimed at an individual, is clearly unacceptable. I’ve seen users of certain sites publically humiliate and destroy people whose only ‘crime’ is to put in a claim for a fish that may or may not be 100 per cent authentic. That, in any sane person’s eyes, is just not on. As I’ve written before, these cowards treat the net like a cyber playground where, hidden under the cloak of anonymity, they act out the role of bully.

It isn’t just wrong, it’s normally in contravention of libel laws, too. What some forum users don’t seem to realise is the internet is subject to the same strict rules as broadcast and print media. Can you imagine some of the comments posted on threads ever appearing in a newspaper? Of course not.

Editors simply wouldn’t allow it.

But, for some reason, the custodians of many websites don’t seem to acknowledge that fact, trusting members who have posted over a period of time to act as moderators. Hardly the strictest security net is it?

While I hope I’m wrong, it won’t be long before someone in the fishing world, defamed on a public forum, does more than simply demand the removal of offending material. Sites will end up being shut and the owners will suffer heavy financial penalties. It’s not a matter of if but when.

The internet is a wonderful tool. But the all-encompassing qualities that make it so brilliant also provide its greatest flaw. As the Trust discovered last week, open access forums can be dangerous places - because above all else, they’ve given a voice to everybody, even those without the intelligence to deserve it.