Media and police response to football hooliganism have tended to be disproportionate to the nature and extent of the phenomenon

Football Hooliganism has been given plenty of attention in all forms of the media. One of the reasons why it has garnered such coverage is because it is apolitical and suits all political parties to condemn it. Furthermore, the violence and vitriol involved in acts of hooliganism are material that are easy to sell. In other words, the sensationalism inherent in news items of this sort interest audiences of different age groups and backgrounds. So one could argue that media’s extensive coverage of this phenomenon has more to do with marketing the media product rather than any upkeep of journalistic values. With this understanding one could also see the role of police in a different light. They could be perceived as agents in the content creation process, who contribute by giving information and video footage of hooligans. And since the media seldom question instances of police mistreatment of hooligans, they tend to act brashly and ruthlessly in controlling the mob. (Crawford, 2004, p.225) In this context, there is room to believe that both the media and police tend to react in excess to what the situation actually warrants. The rest of this essay will present points in support of this thesis.

One of the most courageous and vocal opponent of the way media tends to set aside ethics when it comes to garnering revenues is John Pilger. Pilger has dedicated his life to investigative journalism, which focuses on bringing out dissident views against abuse of power. In the United Kingdom, the biggest threat today is not so much from political power as it is from concentration of media ownership. Rupert Murdoch exemplifies fears of media monopoly in Britain and other countries of the Commonwealth. And upon his media empire’s entry in the British media scene, instances of reporting on football hooliganism has increased. (Sanhi, 2009, p.909) And many of the stories are so construed as to project miscreants (correctly or incorrectly) as heavy boozing, irresponsible, violent monsters. Pilger’s first-hand account of a personal acquaintance’ experience with his son amply illustrates this point:

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“I met Eddie Spearritt in the Philharmonic pub, overlooking Liverpool. It was a few years after 96 Liverpool football fans had been crushed to death at Hillsborough Stadium, Sheffield, on 15 April 1989. Eddie’s son, Adam, aged 14, died in his arms. The “main reason for the disaster”, Lord Justice Taylor subsequently reported, was the “failure” of the police, who had herded fans into a lethal pen. “As I lay in my hospital bed,” Eddie said, “the hospital staff kept the Sun away from me. It’s bad enough when you lose your 14-year-old son because you’re treating him to a football match. Nothing can be worse than that. But since then I’ve had to defend him against all the rubbish printed by the Sun about everyone there being a hooligan and drinking. There was no hooliganism. During 31 days of Lord Justice Taylor’s inquiry, no blame was attributed because of alcohol. Adam never touched it in his life.”” (John Pilger, 2009, p.14)

What this episode of journalistic misdemeanour’s shows is the total lack of respect for facts and disregard for the feelings of victims and their families. Pilger further brought to light that Kelvin MacKenzie (who is one of Murdoch’s favourite editors) was instrumental in creating largely fictitious accounts of hooliganism involving people such as Adam Spearritt. The brazenness with which such misinformation could be passed up as serious journalism can be difficult to believe. For example, MacKenzie was supposed to have written the following headlines in the coverage of this tragic event : “The Sun front page, scribbling “THE TRUTH” in huge letters. Beneath it, he wrote three subsidiary headlines: “Some fans picked pockets of victims” … “Some fans urinated on the brave cops” … “Some fans beat up PC giving kiss of life”. All of it was false; MacKenzie was banking on anti-Liverpool prejudice.” (John Pilger, 2009, p.14) So beneath the facade of presenting facts and evidences to the readership, major newspapers in Britain (led by The Sun) have indulged in deliberate misrepresentation of facts. This supports the stated thesis of this essay, namely, that media and police response to football hooliganism have been disproportionate to actual events.

Again, while hooliganism is hyped up and misrepresented in the media, one should not get carried away and come to the conclusion that it is a negligible phenomenon. Football hooliganism in Britain especially, did not acquire its notoriety without a basis. The exercise here is to understand its true extent as opposed to the exaggerations and falsities that the media dishes out. (Stern, 2000, p.29) For example one only needs to take a look at sport-related violence and disorder in other countries to put things in perspective. Japan, which is a land known for its resolute, hard-working and polite people presents an interesting case-study. In the lead-up to the Football World Cup of 2002, which was jointly hosted by Japan and South Korea, the media in these regions were full of reports about possible British hooliganism. Indeed, the very notion of fans turning hostile on each other is something that is alien to the genteel people of Japan and South Korea, that articles were published explaining what hooliganism entailed.

“Hosting the World Cup jointly with South Korea, Japan will stage the first-round qualifying matches of England and Germany — Europe’s most notorious hooligan nations–and those of the potential troublemakers Italy and Argentina. Korea, which will receive the US team and has therefore upped security preparations against a possible terrorist attack, is thought to have much the better deal of the two host nations. “It is regrettable,” a British embassy spokeswoman protested in December, “that the news that England will play its first-round matches in Japan has been accompanied by extensive reporting of hooliganism.” Factor in diplomatic understatement and you have an idea of the state of terror in which the Japanese public — at least, in those cities with World Cup stadiums — awaits the arrival of England’s football fans.” (James, 2002, p.23)

Acknowledging that football hooliganism is a real problem is one thing and the extent of objectivity in its reporting is quite another. One of the often overlooked angles is the socio-economic context of football hooliganism. Admitting that some miscreants do behave badly and have to be controlled with brute force, one wonders if the police would react in the same way toward members of the Royal Family or toward the business/political elite. Seen from the Marxist perspective, the attitude with which both the media and the police generally react toward hooliganism can be seen as the contempt of the ruling classes toward the lower strata of society. In this sense, there is also a strong ‘class’ angle to the hooligan issue. For example,

“To draw even more firmly the line between football hooligans and the rest of the community, press reports seek to cut off the wrongdoers from their social context. On the one hand, football hooligans are not thought to be “genuine” football fans. On the other hand, this denial of group membership goes beyond the sports world to cover the whole society. Not only do journalists avoid mentioning the prevailing working-class origin of football hooligans, but also they avoid establishing any causal link between football hooliganism and the social position of football hooligans or they try to cast doubts on the very existence of such a link.” (Tsoukala, 2008, p.137)

From a historical perspective, since the 1960s football hooliganism in Britain started taking up newsprint space and news bulletin time. From the beginning the portrayals were about moral decline among working-class youth in the country, leading to a push for increasing the control and punishment of many delinquent young people and the groups to which they belong – which were seen as highly dangerous to law and order to prevail. Football hooligans were definitely the core of this target group, whose behaviour the media projected as hazardous to social harmony and civil order. Researcher Andrea Tsoukala, who has done extensive research on this subject from the backdrop of sociological theoretical frameworks, has little hesitation in inferring that there is a “prevalence of deviance-amplification process that rests upon various stereotyped binary modes of representing the wrongdoers.” (Tsoukala, 2008, p.137) Despite many attempts to create awareness among the public and condemnation of media practices, these representation schemes have not altered in any significant way over the last five decades.

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