‘Anti-racist’ censorship that should make us all see Red
When Manchester police can confiscate the Red Issue fanzine over a ‘potentially offensive’ joke, it is time to stand up for free speech in football.
Greater Manchester Police (GMP) took the unprecedented step of impounding thousands of copies of a magazine on the street on Saturday morning. Was it hardcore porn? Did it contain bomb-making instructions? Hardly. It was a football fanzine on sale outside Old Trafford before the Manchester United / Liverpool game. A chief superintendent in the GMP decided that a satirical joke image on the back cover was ‘potentially offensive’. Because of that, police impounded every copy they could find and warned that anybody caught selling the magazine or ‘provocatively displaying the image in public’ would be arrested and prosecuted.
It seems the GMP has now taken on the role of comedy police, and assumed the authority to decide the acceptable level of satire in its city. And you thought it was only shit-kicking Southern US sheriffs who arrested comedians for cracking offensive jokes.
This must rank as one of the most egregious assaults on the freedom to publish in Britain in recent memory. It should have caused a riot of indignation and had everybody with a liberal bone in their body up in arms. Yet the protests have been muted to say the least.
Why? Because the joke police used the excuse of combating racism and told those selling the magazine they would be arrested for ‘inciting racial hatred’. Raising that taboo is sufficient to silence most respectable critics these days. The episode confirms that just about anything now goes if it can somehow be justified in the name of football’s official anti-racism campaign.
The magazine in question is the small but beautifully put together Manchester United fanzine Red Issue – for which, as an old Red in both football and political terms, I have the pleasure to write a regular column. It is the bestselling and best-known United fanzine, a glossy A5 mag with more than 250 issues behind it, mostly sold outside Old Trafford on match days. Red Issue’s humour ranges from the sophisticated to the frankly scabrous. There is something ‘potentially offensive’ in every issue, especially to rival supporters of Manchester City or Liverpool Football Club. That, after all, is what fanzines are about. You pays your £2.50 and you takes your choice. Or not.
So it was inevitable that the latest issue, published for the Premier League match against Liverpool on Saturday, would have its own take on the furore surrounding Liverpool’s Uruguayan forward Luis Saurez, just back from an eight-match Football Association ban for allegedly racially abusing United’s French full-back Patrice Evra. Red Issue’s back cover featured a spoof cut-out Ku Klux Klan-style mask, bearing the legend ‘Suarez is Innocent’ at the bottom and ‘LFC’ at the top. This, the GMP decided, could spark a race riot.
Red Issue ‘categorically denies any suggestion that the magazine has ever incited racial hatred’, adding ‘and not in a Luis Suarez-type of disclaimer…’
Was the image ‘potentially offensive’? Certainly. And what is wrong with that? It’s called humour (whether you think it’s funny or not). By what stretch of the perverse imagination a joke ostensibly about racism could be construed as ‘inciting racial hatred’ is something only the self-appointed censors of Greater Manchester Police could explain. Except they didn’t have to. All they had to do was raise the entirely hypothetical possibility of the ‘potentially offensive’ image provoking race-related trouble at football, and their outrageous attack on freedom of expression could be presented as the only reasonable thing to do.
As that chief superintendent in charge at Old Trafford on Saturday put it: ‘We cannot be in a situation where hundreds or thousands of people were displaying offensive images at a football match. The consequences of taking no action could have resulted in public-order incidents inside or outside the ground.’ Thus they had no choice but to confiscate the offensive magazines in order to save the supporters from themselves.
However it ends, and even if the magazines are eventually returned, it will be important to remember this sorry episode – and not only for United fans. It illustrates well what is really behind the phoney moral crusade around racism in football – and the dangerous direction in which that rattling train is taking us all.
The GMP’s view that a joke could be ‘inflammatory’ was based on the assumption that a football crowd is basically as stupid as firewood, so inflammable a mass of wooden-headed humanity that any spark could start a conflagration. That prejudice is far from confined to senior police officers in Manchester. It is the message coming down from the government – which is now threatening a summit on racism in football – and the football authorities, amplified through their compliant mouthpieces in the media.
Today the isolated authorities view football as one of the few ways in which they can connect with and teach a lesson to the masses, specifically the white working class. These elites truly believe that football has replaced religion as the opiate of the people, with players viewed as holy role models if not actual gods. Hence they want to turn the game into a moral staff with which to beat the ignorant and inflammable crowd into following the path of righteousness. Official anti-racism has become the main banner in this phoney crusade.
Never mind that fans themselves have already largely ‘kicked it out’ of football. The official assumption is that a football crowd is a racist lynch mob waiting to happen. Thus any minor incident or mention of race must be blown up into a major outrage to teach us all a lesson. Anybody accused of using a wrong word or gesture must be publicly hanged as an example to encourage the others. The authorities must police not just the match, but the minds of the match-goers. Which means we cannot be allowed to see, far less display or laugh at, a ‘potentially offensive’ joke.
This top-down attitude is the key to much of the apparent madness around football of late. It explains why John Terry has been not only prosecuted, but summarily sacked as England captain, for allegedly using the word ‘black’ when abusing an opponent in the heat of a match. Why England manager Fabio Capello has been effectively forced out by the FA for daring to suggest that Terry might have been treated as innocent until proven guilty. Why the non-event of Suarez’s refusal to shake hands with Evra before Saturday’s match has been treated as a major diplomatic incident. And why authoritarian measures such as stewards wearing helmet-cams to film football crowds, and now a fanzine being impounded by the police on the streets of an English city, can all allegedly be justified in the name of official anti-racism.
None of this is good for the game, or for society. Recent events demonstrate that the attempt to impose a polite etiquette on football while hurling around accusations of racism can only lead to more bitterness, deeper divisions, and escalating authoritarianism. The loser is not only football, but our liberties.
Yet this carry-on seems set to continue. In recent years we have noted on spiked the many ways that football has been inflated to fill the gap where our society’s proper public life ought to be, brought on to the field of debate as a substitute for the elites’ exhausted politics. I have called this phenomenon the rise of ‘Soccerism’. We can see the ascendancy of Soccerism today in prime minister David Cameron’s plan to pose on the moral high ground by calling a summit on football and racism (just when you thought things couldn’t get much worse…). Meanwhile, the FA has proved itself useless at anything to do with football, from building the national stadium to the World Cup bid debacle. But the FA can now bask in political praise for its new role as the vanguard of the moral crusade to give football and fans another kicking in a Good Cause.
It is time to start a campaign to stand up for free speech in football, kick out all this political and moralistic posturing, and defend football for football’s sake.
A slightly ironic footnote. In the confiscated Red Issue, my ‘View from the Smoke’ column notes that, while I generally believe conspiracy theories are bunk, recent events mean ‘it does sometimes seem as if there might just be a secret top-level FA/government/media cabal operating down here in London, perhaps called the Committee for the Persecution of Footballers and Fans (COPOFF)’. On Saturday it seemed as if COPOFF had reached out to Manchester to persecute press freedom, too.
Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked.