Football fans need free speech, too
A man has been jailed for singing a song that mocks a religious leader, yet liberty campaigners have said nothing.
Imagine the scene: a young man is led away in handcuffs to begin a prison sentence as his mother is left crying in the courtroom. He is 19 years old, has a good job, has no previous convictions, and has never been in trouble before. These facts cut no ice with the judge, however, as the crime is judged so heinous that only a custodial sentence is deemed appropriate. The young man in question was found guilty of singing a song that mocked and ridiculed a religious leader and his followers.
So where might this shocking story originate? Was it Iran? Saudi Arabia? Afghanistan? Perhaps it was Russia, a variation of the Pussy Riot saga, without the worldwide publicity? No, the country in question is Scotland and the young man is a Rangers fan. He joined in with hundreds of his fellow football fans in singing ‘offensive songs’ which referred to the pope and the Vatican and called Celtic fans ‘Fenian bastards’.
Such songs are part and parcel of the time-honoured tradition of Rangers supporters. And I have yet to meet a Celtic fan who has been caused any harm or suffering by such colourful lyrics. Yet in sentencing Connor McGhie to three months in a young offenders’ institution, the judge stated that ‘the extent of the hatred [McGhie] showed took my breath away’. He went on: ‘Anybody who participates in this disgusting language must be stopped.’
Several things strike me about this court case. For a start, if Rangers fans singing rude songs about their arch rivals Celtic shocks this judge to the core, I can only assume he does not get out very much or knows little of life in Scotland. Not that his ignorance of football culture is a surprise – the chattering classes have always viewed football-related banter with contempt. But what is new about the current climate is that in Scotland, the middle-class distaste for the behaviour of football fans has become enshrined in law.
This new illiberal climate has created a situation where football supporters are increasingly viewed as a public-order incident waiting to happen. Tragically, young fans like Connor McGhie are now fair game because those in powerful positions don’t like what they sing. They have been demonised and criminalised for many years, a trend which reached its logical conclusion last year with the introduction by the ruling Scottish National Party (SNP) of the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communication Act, which made it a criminal offence to shout or sing offensive slogans. The consequence is that to be a Celtic or Rangers fan today is to be watched over, regulated, censored and generally treated like a threat to society. There is no discrimination towards different groups of fans – all are treated equally badly. It was this time last year that I wrote on spiked about a dawn raid on the home of a 17-year-old Celtic fan, who was remanded in custody for allegedly singing a republican song the police objected to. In short, the civil liberties of Celtic and Rangers fans alike are now fair game to be trampled on.
What is also noticeable about the imprisonment of McGhie for singing songs is the response of civil-liberties activists and religious-freedom campaigners. Or rather, the lack of response. There has been complete silence. Where are all those who protested vehemently against the detention of Pussy Riot for making similarly profane statements in a Russian cathedral? Where are all those newspaper editorials howling in rage against the incarceration of this young Rangers fan? Perhaps if he stormed into St Andrew’s Cathedral in Glasgow, the spiritual headquarters of the Catholic Church in Scotland, and hurled obscenities at worshippers, he would attract more support.
The other thing that strikes me is how anti-Catholic prejudice seems to be tolerated when it comes from our ‘national treasures’, like Stephen Fry or Richard Dawkins, but not when it comes out of the mouths of football fans. When the pope visited Britain two years ago, liberal campaigners lined up to accuse him of everything from hatred of women to paedophilia. To my knowledge, none of these words were deemed offensive enough to the UK’s Catholic community to prompt arrests or detentions, yet when a Rangers fan shouts of his hatred for the pope, that fan is locked up.
Tolerance, it seems, exists for those safely ensconced in polite society but not for Rangers or Celtic supporters, the great majority of whom are just ordinary working-class guys who love their team and enjoy expressing their passion for 90 minutes a week. True, they are not observing polite dinner-party etiquette when at a football match, and those of a more delicate nature should perhaps avoid Celtic or Rangers games. But part of the ritual of supporting a team is to wind up your rivals and, for some, this involves being raucous and boorish and hurling the occasional insult.
At the time of writing, Connor McGhie has been released on bail pending an appeal. Young men like him need and deserve the support of people who claim to care about free speech and civil liberties. This support should not be reserved for nice, respectable people, and withheld from those deemed less respectable. Despite my fanatical support for Celtic and my deep loathing for Rangers, there are things that cut through football rivalry. The right to shout the slogans we choose during the game is one of them.
Kevin Rooney is a teacher based in London.