Lessons from Hillsborough ignored – Snobs' Law still rules football

Lessons from Hillsborough ignored – Snobs' Law still rules football

by Stuart Waiton
article from Saturday 12, January, 2013

AS WE ENTER 2013 our ‘progressive’ elites appear now able to look into the way the Liverpool fans were treated by the authorities at Hillsborough. Ironically however it is the same elites who are surveilling, regulating, policing and imprisoning football fans for actions that the hard nosed right wing Thatcher government would never have done. Changes in football since the ‘disaster’ in 1989 have been dramatic but one thing that remains is a profound distain for the ‘great unwashed’ who watch and play the beautiful game. Today however it is no longer the Conservative establishment who have created the framework for criminalising football supporters, but the cosmopolitan elite.

The Sun’s disgusting portrayal of Liverpool supporters urinating on police officers and stealing from the dead should not be seen as an anomaly, but rather as the norm for how football fans were portrayed by both press and politicians in the 1980s. The editorial of the ‘respectable’ Times newspaper, for example, had earlier in the decade discussed football as a ‘slum sport played in slum stadiums increasingly watched by slum people’. Despite the generally accepted idea today that there was a ‘hooligan problem’ in the eighties, we should recognise that the violence associated with games involved only a tiny minority of fans and that the issue of ‘hooliganism’ was constructed in the way it was as part of a law and order crusade by the British establishment.

At the same time as football fans were being separated and labelled as different, they were also targeted as part of a wider group of ‘deviants’ in society, loosely known as the ‘enemy within’. At the 1985 Conservative Party Conference, for example, the Home Secretary Douglas Hurd, after receiving a standing ovation for his praise of the aggressive policing of the riots, promised a new law to target trade union pickets and hooligans. Here, the trade union militant and the hooligan were presented as part of the same problem, with both being used to sully the name of the other: Trade unionists were hooligans, and hooligans were part of the leftist problem of violence, criminality and irresponsibility that was destabilising society.

The result was the Public Order Act 1986, an act that, as the name suggests, was focused on the issue of public disorder and the need to enforce order. In a variety of ways this act targeted groups of people, including football crowds and pickets, making it easier for the police to regulate and arrest people who were part of these ‘mobs’. Consequently, policing of fans was carried out by an intimidating mass of police officers. Supporters, especially away supporters, were at times treated as a virtual invading army, escorted to and from grounds by lines of officers and welcomed to the ground by riot vans, police dogs and mounted police. Football fans also became the guinea pigs for new forms of surveillance and crowd control mechanisms, with CCTV and ID cards first proposed as a way to regulate fans.

Of course, most crucially on top of all of this, the ‘scum’ were caged like animals, and in this respect Hillsborough was an ‘accident’ waiting to happen.

Today we throw our hands up in horror and disgust at the Hillsborough findings but often ignore or endorse the latest panics about the vile nature of football fans. Panics about supporters remain but now they are generated not by people who talk about being ‘tough’, but by those who promote the need for ‘tolerance’.

Under the guise of both ‘safety’ and ‘offensiveness’ fans now face a level of monitoring more intensive than some British prisons, with regular stop and searches, police head mounted cameras pointing into fans faces and high tech listening equipment being used in many grounds. On top of this the number of laws to regulate fans after the Hillsborough event did not decline but actually accelerated. As Tony Evans, the Times football editor, recently noted, ‘People attending matches have to suffer assaults on their civil liberties on a weekly basis. In almost any other walk of life, these restrictions on individual freedom would cause a national uproar’ (Times 19th March 2012).

Myths about fans today have become as accepted as the old hooligan panic – indeed more so. We generally accept that there is a problem with fans being racist, sexist, homophobic – even that they are wife beaters (as with the constructed ‘Old Firm domestic violence’ issue generated by the now politically correct Scottish police force). Yet when we look at the statistics for racist incidents at football for example we find they are incredibly small. In the 2000-1 football season there were only 17 arrests for race related incidents in the English Premier League. This was a slight fall from 23 the previous season. This may well be one incident too many, but this is 17 arrests out of a total of 13 million people who went to watch these games, a problem of significance for 0.0001 percent of football fans. Nevertheless a new law was passed in this same year to increasingly police racism in football and to promote anti-racism at games.

Summit after summit is called to tackle various problems of bigotry amongst football fans by the ‘progressive’ elite regardless of the lack of evidence to support the notion that there is a serious problem within football.

In Scotland the problem of sectarianism in football is relentlessly promoted (at a time when religion has little meaning, especially to young people, and when the political and military conflict in Ireland is over) and yet even where individual court cases of ‘sectarian’ fans shouting at grounds come to light, it is rare to see the caricatured hate-filled bigot. Instead, we are left with cases of young men, often from multi-denominational backgrounds, who are apologetic, embarrassed and frequently devastated by the experience of being arrested and, at times, losing their jobs because of songs they sang or words they wittered online.

Further afield, in Europe, we have witnessed the myth of the sex slave abusing football fan falsely formulated during the Germany World Cup Finals in 2006. Before the German World Cup kicked off, the international feminist organisation Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, launched a ‘worldwide campaign’ about the abuse of prostitutes, noting in particular their concern that, ‘40,000 women will be imported into Germany from Africa, Asia and central and eastern Europe’ for the competition (Guardian 30 May 2006). Television adverts, increased border policing, government helplines, even concern expressed by the President of the United States, resulted from the concern about trafficked prostitutes. This again turned out to be a total fiction built on fantasies generated by both old conservative and the new cosmopolitan elites.

As Euro 2012 kicked off, the question of racism and even fascism hit the headlines. Will English fans be safe in the Ukraine? Should players walk off the pitch if they are abused in Poland? Should UEFA officials resign if there is any sign of racism at the grounds? Questions were even being asked about whether the competition should ever have been given to countries that are clearly not as tolerant and enlightened as us Brits. Johnny Foreigner is still inferior it seems, but now it’s because he hasn’t been to one of our anti-racist finishing schools. Don’t go to the Euros, Sol Campbell tells us in the hysterical BBC Panorama documentary entitled ‘Stadiums of Hate’, or you could ‘come back in a coffin’. And yet the army of Polish and Ukrainian racist/fascist killers did not materialise. Again, a phenomenally biased and malevolent representation of football fans was produced – a fiction presented and consumed by the ‘enlightened’ and ‘tolerant’ British elites.

Hatred and prejudice may exist in football, but some kinds of hatred are more acceptable than others. In reality, the prejudices of the ‘right-thinking people’ compete with and often outdo those of fans. Exaggerations, falsehoods, myths and even name calling are typically used in public and political discussions about football supporters. Accompanying these prejudices, the policing and regulation of supporters has escalated relentlessly over the last few decades. Today, grounds are filling up with police officers armed with the latest surveillance equipment more suited to an apocalyptic science-fiction film than an afternoon of entertainment.

Worse still, it is no longer simply the physical activities that are policed and caged in today, but also the verbal activities of fans and indeed Scotland has put itself at the forefront of illiberal intolerance with their Offensive Behaviour at Football Act – an act that could see any fan being imprisoned for up to five years for singing ‘offensive’ songs.

The elite has changed its spots but remains an elite. We rarely see their prejudices because they are the prejudices of our time – they are our prejudices. There may not be another Hillsborough but the current contempt for white working class football fans is, if anything, more hate filled and reactionary than the Tory tirade against hooligans.

As philosopher Joel Feinberg has noted, ‘We have moved from the harm principle to the offence principle1. He is right. Consequently authoritarianism has increased today around anything that ‘right thinking people’ deem to be offensive, and young men are being arrested on a weekly basis not for their actions but their words.

Say what you like about the brutality of Margaret Thatcher but she never dreamed of caging people for the songs they sang at football games. Welcome to ‘modern tolerant Scotland’. Welcome to authoritarianism cosmopolitan style.

Stuart Waiton is author of Snobs’ Law: Criminalising Football Fans in an Age of Intolerance. Available from Amazon.

1 See http://standpointmag.co.uk/node/4257/full

 

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