The Prime Minister is a man of the people only when it suits him, and what suits is when votes might be at stake. He’s hardly the first politician to attach himself temporarily to sport as a way of proving his street cred and he won’t be the last. He tipped up at a few Olympic events and suddenly became a Blues fan when the late-running 2012 Champions League final provided an unexpected G8 photo opportunity. Angela, I’m with you all the way on that one.
So when in September last year he pronounced upon the long-running dispute over the use of the Y-word at Tottenham Hotspur, he was focussed less on the good of the national game and more on his intended audience, those involved in the debate around free speech and the readers of the Jewish Chronicle, where the interview was published and whose editor happens to be a Spurs fan. Yet there’s no doubt he stuck a chord with many of us.
“There’s a difference between Spurs fans self-describing themselves as Yids and someone calling someone a Yid as an insult. You have to be motivated by hate. Hate speech should be prosecuted – but only when motivated by hate.”
He’d better change his legal advisers. Although the PM would have been thoroughly briefed in advance on the topic, the Metropolitan Police beg to differ. Last week three Spurs fans, Gary Whybrow, Sam Parsons and Peter Ditchman, were charged with using threatening, abusive or insulting words and are due to appear in court on February 4th. The BBC report a Met spokesperson as confirming the alleged offences were racially aggravated and charges brought under the Crime and Disorder Act 1998. Perhaps they could call DC as a character witness.
I don’t know anything about the precise circumstances of this case but it is possible to talk about the whole issue of active police intervention in what goes on amongst football fans, which has implications not just for Spurs supporters but for fans of football all over the country.
The debate over Spurs’ fans use of the Y word has been part of my consciousness and identity for the entire time I have been a Tottenham supporter, which dates back to the mid sixties. It’s hard to know when it began. Spurs have always had a loyal following drawn from the Jewish community in north London, which persists to this day. Tottenham itself has had a large Jewish population ever since substantial sections of the community moved from the east End in the early years of the twentieth century encouraged by employment in Jewish-owned businesses based in what is now Tottenham Hale. It was easy to walk up the High Road after schul on Saturday or even, and don’t tell the rabbi, to hop on a tram. Many used their precious leisure time to watch the Spurs, to be part of the local community, to fit in. By the mid thirties, some accounts state a third of the crowd were jewish. That proportion seems inflated but it’s certain the links with the community have lasted almost as long as the club has been in existence.
The explanation of why Spurs are the yids lies outside the club and its fans, however. Arsenal also have huge support within the same north London community. Both clubs have had Jewish representation at board level. The Manchester clubs have a jewish following too. The origins of the term lie in the pernicious, consistent abuse of Spurs supporters from other clubs, especially at away matches. Tracing the origins is difficult. Talking to a couple of long-standing Jewish fans recently, one said it began from Charlton supporters, a mild-mannered bunch there are too. Another watched the 1967 Cup Final from the Chelsea end and vividly recalled the remarks at the final whistle that the ‘the yids have won it.’ After my piece in When Saturday Comes on this topic, a contributor to the letters column blamed Alf Garnett for popularising the term, but I suspect that may have emerged as authentic bias from actor Warren Mitchell, who would have heard it regularly when he came to the Lane as a fervent Tottenham fan.
As a young impressionable jew, I heard the abuse develop in the early to mid seventies and I saw the response. Instead of marginalising the Jews amongst their number or blaming them for provoking trouble and – literally in those days – aggro, Spurs fans chose defiance and reclaimed the word to neutralise its negativity. Claiming class consciousness is pushing it but there’s no doubt that White Hart Lane was notable for an absence of the casual racism sadly rife in football grounds at the time.
I understand that there is a legitimate counterargument, that the use of the word ‘yid’ cannot be justified. It carries a long, sorry history of anti-Semitic abuse and is seen as profoundly abusive to this day by large sections of the Jewish community. It is also argued that Spurs fans cannot reclaim a word that never belonged to them.
Remember that there is no agreement over the use of the word amongst Spurs fans. Many Jewish supporters, including people who regularly and loyally read this blog and whose views I utterly respect, do not want to hear it at the Lane.
These objections are far more substantial than pointing to the culture of instant outrage and offence that prevails in social media, twitter especially. This week the words of national treasure Stephen Fry have been quoted in support of the view that outraged people can feel what they like but this does not give them rights, that being offended has no meaning other than as an expression of an individual’s feelings. “I am offended by that. Well so f**king what.” I agree but this debate has real heft, formed over decades of anti-Semitism. It’s not about Baddiel, newspaper columnists or even the Chief Rabbi – it has history and substance.
I cannot escape that context. It has over-riding significance for me. As the response was formed in fan interaction, I was there. I don’t use the word yid to describe my identity as a fan. Don’t know why, not something I have thought about, but ask me and I am a Spurs supporter. But I defend the use of the word by Spurs fans. I get the debate, the balance but come down firmly on the side of ‘no objections’.
I might fast become the minority if the FA and the Met have anything to do with it. The one point of agreement for everyone involved in the debate is that there are grey areas of interpretation. Nothing is cut and dried. Back last autumn, around the time of the PM’s comment, the FA deliberated on the matter at length. Their report as described in the papers contains a balanced summary of the debate. However, the FA chose sides, concluding, “The FA considers that the use of the term ‘yid’ is likely to be considered offensive by the reasonable observer.”
It is likely they were conscious not of anything happening on social media but problems around the alleged use of racist and discriminatory language in other prominent cases. Then, significantly, their definition was endorsed by the Met, declaring before the West Ham home league game that fans who use the language could be committing an offence under section 5 of the Public Order Act. A year before, the police publicly stated that fans would not face prosecution in these circumstances. Now, saying the word itself was enough. Only the FA’s reaction has changed, nothing else. Context was erased from the equation.
The law under which the Tottenham Three have been charged refers to section 5, which enables action against words and actions that are ‘threatening, abusive or insulting’. The phrasing of the FA ruling is deliberate and careful. Section 5 requires that offence must be caused. However, this does not mean one or more people present have to be offended before action is taken. It’s another moment in the spotlight for the reasonable man, presumably on top of if not the Clapham omnibus then the 279 to Edmonton.
My understanding is that the element of ‘insulting’ is shortly going to be removed from the law although ‘abusive’ rightly remains. In reality, an insult and abuse might run close together. When this becomes the case, a lawyer I have spoken to suggests that someone using the insult ‘yid’ would not be a criminal act. However, someone being abusive towards a Jew because they are Jewish could be liable for arrest. Again this is not cut and dried. The thorny problem of the definition of abuse remains.
As it stands, we stay with ‘abusive or insulting’. I have no idea about the circumstances of the arrest of these three men, although I believe they relate to two separate incidents, i.e. they weren’t arrested at the same time. Whatever was going on, they were not the only three Spurs fans to use the word in and around White Hart Lane. It seems to me that the FA and Met have ruled on the definition and it is this that will be tested in court.
I have deep misgivings about this case. All Spurs fans are vulnerable if the word is used. I don’t accept that the use of the word devoid of context is abusive. As Spurs fans, it seems highly unlikely they were directing the word as a term of abuse towards other Spurs fans, let alone Jewish people. If it is the word that counts in the absence of context, what happens if I as a Jew use it outside the Lane during a conversation with my yiddisher Spurs pal Dave? We’re a long way from abusive or insulting.
Another decision has been made here. Spurs supporters have been charged, not those of opposition supporters who routinely abuse us. I could mount a case that hissing noises, songs about concentration camps and Nazi salutes in the High Road are abusive and insulting, and not just to Jews but to other minorities. The FA has adopted a position so contorted that they are gazing up their own backsides.
The Tottenham Hotspur Supporters Trust have tracked this case and have pointed people in the direction of advice and representation. They say that, “It remains our firm belief that, used in a football context by Tottenham Hotspur supporters, there is no intent or desire to offend any member of the Jewish Community.” I agree wholeheartedly.
I wonder too about any wider implications for fans in general. The police these days have a sophisticated approach to policing football matches. This implies an interventionist approach at odds with current tactics. After all, police at grounds all over the country have let anti-Semitic abuse directed towards our supporters go past without any action. I have asked police officers in the past why this is. They reply that they can’t prove that any one individual is the culprit. yet the police around our club have made a decision relating to three fans. Also, those officers are acting on orders, which I suggest revolve the idea common in the football policing which is, keep a lid on trouble, if it is in one place it can be controlled and don’t provoke anything more.
Will these tactics change, in the Met and/or elsewhere? Will fans of other clubs be in danger of a word being taken as indicating a possible breach of the law? it seems a reasonable question.
Finally, evidence from twitter suggests this has not increased popular understading of the issues or decreased anti-Semitic abuse one iota. Every day there are examples of fans of other clubs using the Y word as abuse. When challenged, they often dismiss it as not being anti-Semitic, ‘it’s what you call yourselves’, ‘it doesn’t mean anything.’ They are wrong of course but there’s precious little evidence of progress. Plus we return to the problem that this goes unpunished yet three Spurs fans are in the dock. I remain extremely uncomfortable about the whole situation, for Spurs fans and others. I fully the appreciate the deep and complex debate, but to me, in the end this is plain wrong.