Football fans must have freedom of speech, too

In the past, officialdom fenced in football fans like animals. Now it treats them like children, curtailing their speech and rapping their knuckles.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Politics

CCTV, ‘head cams’, lip-sync technology, and now a dossier of offensive chants. Everywhere football supporters now go in Britain, the authorities’ scrutiny follows, often in police uniform. With each indiscretion treated to official analysis, each offensive chant subject to mind-boggling hermeneutic condemnation, the criminalisation of football fans’ behaviour continues apace.

During the Tees-Tyne derby match in December, Mido, Middlesborough’s temperamental Egyptian forward, was subject to taunts from Newcastle United fans. ‘Mido, he’s got a bomb you know’, they chanted. This was not an allusion to the portly striker’s notoriously short fuse but, claimed Mido, an attack on his religion: Islam. It was a charge taken sufficiently seriously for two men to be found guilty of ‘indecent or racialist chanting’ under the 1991 Football (Offences) Act (1). And just a week ago, the hunt for criminal singing went one better, or nine better to be precise, as 11 Tottenham Hotspur fans, having harmoniously intimated that ex-Spurs player Sol Campbell was a ‘Judas cunt with HIV’ during their match with Portsmouth, were also found guilty of ‘indecent or racialist chanting’ (2).

Of course, this is offensive stuff. To be called a Judas cunt, and one with HIV to boot, is offensive enough if it occurs in everyday conversation. But imagine the depth of hurt if such an insult is chanted – that is, in the words of the Football (Offences) Act, ‘the repeated uttering of any words or sounds in concert with one or more others’ (3). This perhaps explains the decision of Merseyside Police to compile ‘a dossier of offensive chants’ ahead of Liverpool’s two games against fierce local rivals Everton, the first on Monday this week, the second this coming Sunday. With songs ranging from musings on the fidelity of Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard’s wife to observations about Everton defender Joleon Lescott’s head, there is plenty to choose from. ‘We will speak to the CPS to see if what is sung is viewed as abusive’, said Chief Superintendent Dave Lewis. ‘We could arrest people and charge them’, he continued, but ‘we won’t be arresting hundreds as we haven’t got the resources to do so and could prompt a melee’ (4).

Melees or not, the police intervention, concluded The Times columnist Oliver Kay, could be ‘the best thing that has happened to Merseyside football since the 1980s’ (5). That’s right. With the threat of a criminal conviction hanging over the heads of football fans across the country, we might finally see an end to the chanted invective, the chorused vitriol, the hymned abuse, and with it, the poisonous rivalry that is in danger of ruining the beautiful game.

How has it come to this, where at a time when many commentators and activists are concerned with liberty, very little is said in defence of stiflingly policed football fans, and where serious writers can describe anti-chanting police dossiers, spying and arrests as the ‘best thing’ to have happened to the game?

Abusive, offensive chants are not ruining the game at all. Singing rude songs to wind up the opposition is as much part of being a football fan as are the rivalries that underpin it. Certain players suffer abuse at the hands of rival supporters not because of who they are – Newcastle’s pet psychopath Joey Barton excepted – but because of who they play for. Sol Campbell riles Spurs fans not because he actually represents Judea, but because he left them for hated North London neighbours Arsenal. Steven Gerrard is the target of Evertonian vitriol, not because the fans care about his child’s paternity, but because he is Liverpool’s best player. And Mido was the recipient of Newcastle fans’ mockery not because he’s a Muslim, but because he’s the best a bad Middlesborough team have to offer.

The abuse dished out, some of it certainly offensive, is not a reflection of genuine social antagonisms; it’s an expression of the partisan world of the football fan. As James McKenna from the Spirit Of Shankly Liverpool fans’ group explained: ‘Tribalism seems to take over when you go through the turnstiles, and when there are thousands of you there, even the most mild-mannered of people can snap.’ (6) He’s right. When you ‘go through the turnstiles’ you do, in part, become someone else. Normal rules of social etiquette do not apply in the same way. You no longer think of yourself primarily as a dad or an IT technician, but as a Spurs fan, a Liverpool fan. That is what matters. In this world, workmates become sworn enemies, friends become bitter rivals, and other team’s players become objects of derision. Being a football fan is not an extension of everyday life; it’s the glorious suspension of everyday life.

However, criminalising fans for singing rude songs not only intrudes upon the fantastical partisanship at the heart of every football supporter – it severely undermines freedom of expression itself. If, to quote John Stuart Mill from On Liberty, ‘in each person’s own concerns, his individual spontaneity is entitled to free exercise’, then stopping people from chanting songs, no matter how rude, crude or crass, is a violation of just such a principle of liberty (7). Of course Mill did add the caveat that whenever ‘there is a definite damage, or a definite risk of damage, either to an individual or to the public, the case is taken out of the province of liberty, and placed in that of morality or law’ (8). But is there ‘definite damage’ or even a ‘definite risk of damage’ to an individual or the public as a result of offensive football chants?

For this to be the case, it would have to be proven that there was a clear link between thought and deed, that the act of chanting would definitely lead to damage. But football chants are not calls to arms. They are not intended to be taken beyond the realm of the match. Take the first verse of the Everton chant Royal Blue Jersey, in which they slate Liverpool fans: ‘Oh we hate Bill Shankly / And we hate St John / But most of all we hate Big Ron / And we’ll hang the Kopites one by one / On the banks of the Royal Blue Mersey.’ No Liverpool fan, in the 40 years since this was first chanted, has been hanged on the banks of the Mersey, or indeed anywhere.

There is little doubting that many football chants are offensive and in poor taste. But that’s no reason to make them illegal. They deliberately run against the grain of politeness. If anything, the stifling, tip-toeing uncertainty of contemporary social intercourse – the ‘oops, is that offensive?’ doubt that is so prevalent in the everyday world beyond the football stadium – actually inflames offensive chanting today, giving such unbounded vitriol a greater significance and sense of daring. The further beyond the pale, the better. While normally ‘you can’t say that’, you can in a football ground. And what’s more, such chanting is only to be taken seriously within the context of footballing rivalry; Spurs fans don’t scream ‘HIV cunts!’ at Arsenal fans in their place of work.

Are players offended? Jamie Carragher, Steven Gerrard’s Liverpool teammate, reckons they are: ‘I hate what [Everton fans] sing about Steven and his family. It’s disgusting and goes way beyond the kind of banter that’s acceptable in life, not just football.’ (9) But that’s the point: such banter does have meaning within the realm of football. What may not be acceptable according to the informal rules of everyday interaction changes its meaning as those rules themselves change.

By all accounts, crowd abuse tends to inspire players rather than inhibit them. ‘When something like that happens’, said Middlesborough manager Gareth Southgate, ‘I’m sure the player thinks “I’ll show you”’ (10). There are numerous examples to support Southgate’s surmise. Sol Campbell, far from wanting to ‘hang himself from a tree’ as many Spurs fans expected, gave a ‘man of the match’ performance in Portsmouth’s recent game at Spurs. Steven Gerrard, as per usual, scored against Everton on Monday, despite the ‘vile taunts’, as one report described the rival fans’ chants. And during his spell at Everton, striker James McFadden, long rumoured ‘to be playing for the other team’, just laughed off the collective ‘cooey’ he received from Liverpool fans during derby games.

But it’s not the players that are at issue here. For the most part, they’re merely pawns for the moralising colonisers of the football supporters’ sanctuary. In his summing up following the ruling against the four Spurs fans who pleaded guilty in the court case this week, the judge said: ‘Whether or not Mr Campbell was offended, decent members of the public found this very offensive and so did the bench. Anyone who indulges in this disgusting behaviour will be dealt with very severely by the courts.’ (11) This is an ominous judgement. Instead of leaving the still-anarchic match-going fans to negotiate their own fractious, indecent relations, officialdom wants to impose a non-footballing etiquette. Twenty years ago, at the time of perimeter pitchside fencing, football fans were treated like animals. Now, with someone eager to watch over them as they play, they’re treated like naughty children.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

Previously on spiked

Amanda Jacks, a member of the Football Supporters’ Federation, said fans are sick of zealous over-policing. Duleep Allirajah thought booing Eboué was no big deal. Elsewhere, he red-carded the call for ‘respect’ and said F**k off to those wanting to ban that tasteless, obscene and cruel Sol Campbell chant. Or read more at spiked issue Sport.

(1) FA regret Newcastle racist in Mido case not banned, Daily Telegraph, 10 December 2008

(2) Charges over Sol abuse, BBC News, 13 January 2009

(3) Football (Offences) Act 1991, Office of Public Sector Information

(4) Police crackdown on Liverpool FC v Everton FC derby day chanting, Liverpool Echo, 15 January 2009

(5) Liverpool and Everton Merseyside derby as spiteful as any game in England, The Times, 19 January 2009

(6) Let’s put an end to nasty derby day football chants, Liverpool Banter, 16 January 2009

(7) p85, On Liberty and Other Essays, by John Stuart Mill, Oxford University Press, 1998

(8) p91, On Liberty and Other Essays, by John Stuart Mill, Oxford University Press, 1998

(9) Jamie Carragher exclusive: I want to be Liverpool’s manager, Mirror, 2 September 2008

(10) FA to investigate racist terrace taunts towards Middlesbrough’s Mido from Newcastle fans, Daily Telegraph, 1 December 2008

(11) Four Tottenham fans banned over indecent Campbell chants, Daily Mail, 20 January 2009

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Topics Politics


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