Martin Cloake

Martin Cloake

The media, manipulation, and democratic cultural policies
Friday, 04 May 2018 19:08

The media, manipulation, and democratic cultural policies

Martin Cloake discusses issues around media manipulation and self-censorship, ownership, and the questions for a progressive cultural policy on the media to address. 

On the morning after the last General Election, Channel 4’s Jon Snow introduced the channel’s post-election roundup with the following words: “I know nothing. We, the media, know nothing.”

He was not the only one to pick up on the fact that it is not just political discussion that has been transformed, but the way that discussion is framed. Of course, both can be seen as part of the political process, but understanding the way the media has set the parameters of the debate is key to beginning to understand what has happened.

For too long the public has been told what ideas are acceptable and what are not. Large parts of a media that established itself by reporting what happened became a media that commented on what happened. This was, to some extent and especially in the print media, a product of digitalisation and the era of instant news. But it increasingly became the case that much of the media presented interpretation as fact much more starkly than traditional notions of perspective had recognised. Where that ended up was demonstrated in 2017’s General Election.

Reading the Labour Party manifesto, anyone with a passable historical knowledge of the history of the last 200 years and of the development of the Labour Party would have seen an ambitious social democratic programme. I need to be clear here, because the shaping of debate I’m talking about means that ‘social democracy’ has come to mean something very different to that traditional definition. The social democracy I’m talking about is defined as “a political, social and economic ideology that supports economic and social interventions to promote social justice within the framework of a capitalist economy”.

Neoliberalism and the media

Over the last 30 years, as neoliberalism has taken hold of every part of our lives, the idea of any intervention to promote social justice has been pushed to the fringes. That has happened to such an extent that intervention to promote social justice within the framework of a capitalist economy, denounced as misguided reformism by actual Marxists, is now presented as actual Marxism by establishment commentators. As establishment desperation began to set in in the days running up to last year’s General Election, the bogey word “Marxists” was increasingly deployed to describe Labour 2017. (And if you want a definition of ‘neoliberalism, by the way, you can do worse than read this from //medium.com/@renegadeinc">Renegade Inc.)

The fact that people saw through the attempt to portray reform as revolution is very significant. Because the centre has been shifted leftwards. This idea of the centre has dominated UK politics for decades. It is presented as a scientific fact. The centre is the place where most people are, a fixed point, and the way to be successful in politics is to go there. Or so we are told.

But the centre is not fixed. Take this example. In 1830, if you had suggested women should be able to vote you would have been on the political fringes. If you said the same thing in 1930, you would have been reflecting mainstream opinion. The centre ground shifts because circumstances and attitudes change.

Occupying the centre ground was central to the concept of New Labour. That focus on the centre continued while the entire ground moved to the right. Margaret Thatcher had reshaped society by imposing a vision and seeking to take people with her. In this, she largely succeeded. So New Labour’s pursuit of a centre ground already to the right of traditional Labour vision was already a retreat. What’s more, presenting any achievement as centrist rather than left made the supposed unpopularity of left policies a self-fulfilling prophecy. To succeed, an idea couldn’t be left of centre, therefore any idea that did succeed could not be left of centre. So instead of moving the centre ground left, it continued to move right. And that made it so much easier for those achievements to be undone by subsequent governments.

For all the success of the three New Labour governments, the party got five million fewer votes in 2010 than it did in 1997. The interpretation of that fact across pretty much the entire commentariat was that the centre was moving right. So the only conclusion was that if occupying the centre was the key, you had to move right.

But for increasing numbers of people, moving right wasn’t delivering. And what’s more, it was making Labour irrelevant. All they saw was a watered down version of what was already on offer. So they gave up. The last General Election was supposed to be the final act in a long process aimed at wiping out even the possibility of discussing left-of-centre ideas. It didn’t work, because what people saw were ideas they liked, ideas they thought could and should work. And that was because those ideas were increasingly presented outside the parameters described above.

It was fascinating reading about the media strategies deployed by Labour in the election. Especially so when the accepted wisdom of the media strategy experts who got it so wrong was that Labour’s media strategists were getting it wrong. Matt Zarb-Cousin was one of Labour’s media strategists – he’s well worth following on Twitter at @Mattzarb One of his tweets post-election day said that “In the last week of the campaign, 25% of UK Facebook users saw a Momentum video in their news feeds.”

What’s notable about that is not just the reach, but the fact that the means of distribution and exchange – to coin a phrase – have changed. He went on: “Momentum focused on producing quality content that would be organically shared. If your mate shares it, you’re more likely to watch it”.

The great Conservative communications guru Lynton Crosby was, said Zarb-Cousin, exposed because he used “analogue methods in a digital context”. The rules of engagement have changed.

There are signs that sections of the established media recognise this. But fewer that they understand it. The excellent Liz Gerard, @gameoldgirl on Twitter, mocked the stories in the printed press bemoaning ‘fake news’ and ‘distortion’ on an internet that was portrayed as misleading ‘vulnerable younger voters’. It is indeed a bit rich for some of the traditional media to seek to blame social media for spreading ‘fake news’ when too many in traditional media have played too fast and loose with the facts for too long. The ire of the traditional press big beasts cannot be too far removed from the effect new forms of media are having on their commercial model either.

The new, progressive media?

As a result of all this, the cry for some time among those on the left has been ‘create your own media’. And the internet has helped that happen. But…….

While there are some excellent sites providing in-depth reporting, analysis and opinion — and which remember there is a difference between those three things — there is also material that looks a little too much like what the traditional media has done for too long as well. Using methods we have criticised to get across a message we agree with cannot be the way forward.

Being left-leaning and working in the media has always presented a challenge. Asking awkward questions, trying to stand up claims, pointing out uncomfortable truths — all these staples of the trade tend to irritate people whose primary concern is to get the line out. Equally, the almost religious fervour with which some in the media promote the mantra that all of us in the trade must be ‘unbiased’ means we do not acknowledge enough the fact that every individual brings a degree of bias to every situation. Which is why progressive media reformers have always argued for a diverse set of views to be encouraged.

Calls to reform the media seem too often to be calls to control or regulate the media. And that brings with it serious problems. Because who will make the decisions about control or regulation? Will their biases be acknowledged?

Some attitudes to the media on the left seem sometimes to be more about closing down views that aren’t agreed with than anything else. It could be argued that it’s a more honest approach than shutting down views by placing them outside the parameters of permitted conversation, but the end result is the same. Shutting down conversation is rarely a good thing.

The censorious tendency comes partly from a belief that ‘the media’ is to blame for the left’s ideas not being accepted. But that’s too simple a view, and one that assumes the vast majority of people are so stupid they will believe everything they read. I’ve explained above why the media’s role in setting the terms of debate is important, so I’m not arguing that the media has no effect. I have much sympathy with the analysis in this piece from Press Gazette headlined Why Labour supporters may over-estimate the influence of the partisan pro-Tory press, but I think it misses an appreciation of the role the press does have in setting the mood music.

While much of the press behaviour of recent times is rightly being called out, and while the growth of a more independent, DIY media should be welcomed, we can’t simply seek to replace a right-partisan media with a left-partisan media. Not least because we should have confidence in the strength of our ideas. Reforming the media was supposed to be about getting a fair hearing for multiple views.

I worry, too, about enacting measures such as Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013 for the same reasons as two of the more progressive newspapers, The Guardian and the FT, did.

So there are lessons to be learned all round. The traditional media needs to understand what is happening, and to do that requires listening to the people who are making it happen. A particularly big challenge for traditional media is accepting that its audience contains people who may be more well-informed about a particular subject, and who can counter accepted narratives quickly and accurately. Those deploying newer methods, and those consuming what those methods disseminate, also need to look at the more traditional standards those working in the trade sought to use to see what needs to be retained. The sad thing about saying that is that ‘traditional methods’ means phone tapping rather than standing up stories and protecting sources in too many people’s minds.

Grenfell Tower and the media

Barely a week after the Election, the fire at Grenfell Tower happened. The reporting of the fire and its aftermath prompted some of the fiercest debate yet on media coverage and the assumptions behind it. Many of us who remembered coverage of Orgreave 33 years before, and Hillsborough four years later, recognised some familiar tactics. Some elements of mainstream media sought to find individuals to blame, while others sought to portray angry residents getting organised as a “mob”. And any attempt to suggest that political decisions were to blame for what happened was denounced as ‘making capital out of tragedy’.

Let’s be clear what that last accusation amounts to. It is an attempt to shut down discussion on what caused an event that led to people burning to death in their own homes, and that is leading to continuing suffering. When shutting down legitimate discussion is put forward as an accepted mainstream opinion, the reasons why people are opting to create and consult their own media – something John Pilger called the fifth estate — become clear. But what recent events have also shown is that this new media is not without fault.

There’s been a feeling in the business for years that the media is disproportionately interested in itself, but the current discussion of the way it operates is directly connected to the way it interacts with people — something that elevates the discussion above the realms of media theory and into real life.

One of the best pieces I’ve read on the subject is the take by Buzzfeed political editor @jimwaterson This Was The Election Where The Newspapers Lost Their Monopoly On The Political News Agenda. It looks not only at how the ability of the traditional print media to shape debate seems to have diminished, but also at how new forms of media have changed the rules of engagement. That analysis, in itself, is nothing new, but where Waterson’s piece moves things on is in examining those new media forms in more depth. And an observation he makes after doing this should make us pause for thought.

“Crucially the lines between what is political reporting, what is political comment, and what is simply partisan internet ephemera seem to be blurringto little concern from an audience who don’t distinguish between spoof videos, traditional analysis pieces, and celebrity endorsements.”

It’s the bit about the audience having little concern for what is happening that stands out.

You don’t have to believe the old myth that ‘journalists must be impartial’ to be concerned about that, and it’s worth expanding a little on that idea of journalistic impartiality before moving on. Good journalism certainly should mean being curious, open to facts that challenge the writer’s interpretation, and willing to consider opposing viewpoints. But to imagine that any individual living in any society is not shaped by their surroundings and experiences is fantasy.

One of the things that shaped me as I grew up was reading John Pilger in the Daily Mirror, and I tend to agree with his view on journalistic impartiality.

“The problem with those words “impartiality” and “objectivity” is that they have lost their dictionary meaning. They’ve been taken over. “Impartiality” and “objectivity” now mean the establishment point of view.”

That is all too often true, and is why I’ve never been reticent about making clear my own take on issues I write about if I can. Something which, ironically, has made it easier for some people to immediately dismiss what I say. There are advantages in styling yourself as an impartial teller of truths.

But we seem to be reaching a point where what is happening is that some of the media emerging to challenge ‘the establishment’ is merely mirroring it. And where the response when this is pointed out is increasingly along the lines of ‘who cares, the mainstream media have told lies and misrepresented things for too long’.

Take an argument that broke out in the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire. The Skwawkbox, one of the new left-leaning sites, published a story headlined Govt “puts ‘D-Notice’ gag” on real #Grenfell death toll #national security. The Skwawkbox story is here, so you can read it for yourself. All that has changed since it originally went up is the headline and the explanatory note at the top. Just to fill you in on the argument, here’s James Ball on Buzzfeed running a story about the Skwawkbox piece.

//medium.com/@martincloake/the-fifth-estate-needs-to-beware-mirroring-the-media-it-deconstructs-a52dd31a24b">I set out my views on the way the story was handled on my Medium channel, and I’ve used and developed some of that piece here. I concluded with the following observations.

I’m all in favour of Pilger’s fifth estate, something he defines as: “a journalism that monitors, deconstructs and counters propaganda and teaches the young to be agents of people, not power”

What we are witnessing now can be seen as the rise of such a fifth estate, something that has been aided by the growth of the internet and its ability to deliver not only the means of production but of distribution to hands outside the control of the big media corporations. But such a fifth estate can only really succeed if it is trusted, if it delivers information as honestly as it can and invites readers to learn from their own conclusions.

At the end of Jim Waterson’s article on the breaking of the mainstream newspapers’ monopoly, he quotes Matt Turner of Evolve Politics. Turner says:

“The direction of travel for political journalism is set and the crossover between activism and reporting is only going to increase: ‘People want writing and content that lights a fire in their belly and gets them riled up’.”

I’m not convinced the crossover between activism and reporting increasing is necessarily a good thing – and I speak as someone who has written politically engaged journalism. I worry about the observation Waterson makes about the line blurring between “political comment and what is simply partisan internet ephemera”. That’s partly because I believe my political views can stand up to journalistic examination, but also because I believe it is important for people to trust what they are reading isn’t being spun. Deconstructing the spin is very different to reversing the spin.

A democratic media policy

All of this also raises questions about the media policy a progressive government would need to enact. The focus of Labour’s last manifesto was on ownership, and the need to promote pluralism and prevent market dominance by a small, powerful group of interests is obvious. But there are deeper questions. Much of the discussion promoted by initiatives such as the Movement for Cultural Democracy is around rolling back aggressive commercialisation. But it’s questionable how relevant the argument that media standards are driven down in order to secure greater profits is in an age when the commercial model the media was built on is broken. It’s a business trying to make money from producing something that increasingly few people want to pay for. Arguing that media should be paid for is becoming as difficult as trying to convince the under-25s that music should be paid for.

I think it is too simple to say that rolling back commercialisation is the answer to the question of how we achieve a better media. That doesn’t mean dismissing the very real negative effect of poor pay and resourcing on the quality of what is produced. It just means realising that is only part of the picture. There are other questions to confront too.

How far would a progressive government be prepared to tolerate dissenting views? What are the limits of debate? What is an acceptable way of conducting debate? Should there be any limits or restrictions at all? How do you ensure measures intended to protect individual citizens against the power of media companies aren’t used to restrict the power of media companies to hold those in power to account? Recognition of the realities of who holds and wields power are necessary here.

All these questions are being played out in the debates between traditional and the self-styled alternative media, and in the National Union of Journalists, where there continues to be a rift between a grass roots worried about the practical effects of measures such as Section 40 and Leveson 2 and a layer of activists and the union machinery itself that is predisposed to both. It may be that, instead of looking to traditional methods of imposing regulation, the tougher task of embedding the kind of professional standards that are central to a progressive trade unionism is the answer. In short, convincing people people something is the right thing to do could be more effective than telling them.

The more you look at it, the more the need for a back-to-basics discussion becomes clear. Plurality sounds a noble objective, but how do we really deal with multiple views, especially when they push the boundaries of what we hold dear? Can a commitment to a set of views and sheer bloody minded awkwardness ever sit comfortably together? How do we establish accepted and recognisable standards of producing media in an age when the concept of truth and the idea of objectivity are under challenge as never before?

These kinds of questions may be frustrating to those looking for clear solutions, but we won’t get the clarity needed if we don’t confront them.

Tuesday, 01 November 2016 15:30

'That's Capitalism!' Football, Fighting and Fashion

Published in Sport

Martin Cloake interviews Phil Thornton, author of Casuals: Football, Fighting and Fashion - The Story of a Terrace Cult.

Phil Thornton’s book Casuals is an insightful cult classic. Easily lost in the midst of waves of football counterculture tales – and fairy tales – that clogged up the sports section shelves when the book trade discovered there was money in selling vicarious thrills to wannabe geezers, Casuals was something apart. It was about a culture created independently and spontaneously, frequently ignored and misunderstood by media style gurus, but which drew on working class traditions of street nous and sharp dressing that date back to Victorian days and mixed with the music and hedonism and wanting to belong that go along with youth cults.  In the 13 years since the book first appeared, casual culture has been annexed by the mainstream, another instant lifestyle available to buy. At the same time, a new generation of football fans is drawing on the casual attitude as part of a reaction to a perceived effort to take the soul out of the experience of watching football. I caught up with Thornton and asked him for his thoughts on current events.

What's your reading of the current developments in fan culture? How do they fit it with the historical line that you traced through Casuals?

The 90s witnessed a real sea change in the way fans were treated. Post-Hillsborough and the Taylor Report the stadiums were transformed, not only the all-seater requirements but new stadiums built away from the old terraced estates and the advent of the Premiership totally transformed ‘home’ supporting. The old casual firms felt alienated in their own grounds due to the influx of new fans and ‘shirters’. You look at any game now and it's a sea of replica kits – that's something that never happened in any era before the 90s. The whole fashion element of the fanbase has almost disappeared and the hardcore are now the away fans who always make more noise because they're grouped together.

It's only really for big cup games and the odd important European match that you get anything like the old atmospheres inside British grounds. Something as seemingly trivial as standing which really took off at Old Trafford in the 90s at European games was treated with fatwas from the clubs at first, but now I think they recognise that generating an atmosphere inside a ground can only be achieved with fans standing.

Obviously at Liverpool there's still some opposition because of what happened at Hillsborough but even at Anfield the standing led to perhaps the best atmosphere there – against Chelsea in the Champions League game –since the days of St Etienne. ‘Safe standing’ and ‘singing areas’ seem almost laughable terms to those of us brought up in the rough and tumble of the 70s and 80s but the culture must change unless we want these soulless, sterile stadiums to continue pushing away vocal fans.

Is it possible for an independent fan culture to develop now, or has the whole thing already been co-opted?

It's a rigged game and whether Magnier and McManus, or the Glazers have a genuine interest in football is irrelevant, they have a big chunk of dough to put down and it doesn't matter how they raised it. That's capitalism! I think the clubs only get truly worried by direct action. Everyone gets used in the end. Fan groups such as Spirit Of Shankly do a great job of representing fans’ concerns and issues but they have no real power to influence club policy. Matchgoing fans play an ever decreasing role in any club's bottom line and you can see how the likes of JW Henry and the Glazers can't wait till the boring season is over and they can get on with the real business of far east tours and boosting revenue with huge sponsorship deals. As long as the TV money keeps rolling in then there's no real incentive to actually win competitions any more.

We've had the hooliporn industry – there are a plethora of books and label shops and companies pushing a look – and ideas of class identity have changed along with the economics of the game and the demographic of the crowd. How does all this affect terrace culture?

Hooliporn! I like that. I suppose I'm partly responsible for this myself with Casuals although I still think that it's a book far more about working class culture in general than the aggro at matches. There has obviously been a lot of sentimental nostalgia by those of us who grew up on the terraces during the 60s, 70s and 80s as ‘our’ culture ended and we looked back on the good old bad old days.

Most of the stuff that's come out since has been wildly exaggerated and some of it is laughable. I liked Martin King's Hoolifan and Mickey Francis's Guvnors – two of the first hooligan memoirs – but they started a trend for anyone who'd ever had a fight to launch their own tedious account. For the younger kids, films such as Green Street, The Football Factory and The Firm have presented the past as a sea of Tacchini and Stanley knives with mass brawls on wasteground leading to hundreds of injuries. It was never like that of course but, then again, The Gangs Of New York was stylised and exaggerated.

I think the younger kids coming through now feel as if they've missed out on this golden era and are now trying to recreate it but the whole culture has changed so much in the past 30 years that it feels almost like karaoke posturing.

Where do you see currents such as STAND, supporter unions, Trusts and organisations such as Supporters Direct fitting in to all this? Does terrace culture have to be anti-establishment to be real, or have we changed the game more than we thought?

I organised a debate for a Liverpool literary festival, Writing On The Wall, last May entitled ‘Against Modern Football? Clubs, commerce and community.’ We had Man City fan and Guardian writer David Conn, Liverpool fan and Daily Mirror columnist Brian Reade and singer and Liverpool fan Peter Hooton all talking very passionately about the need for fans to reclaim the game from the corporations.

The Stand AMF movement has gone global or pan-European at least and I think there's definitely a growing resistance movement brewing as more and more fans become disillusioned with how the game is run but we're still dealing with the likes of the FA, UEFA and FIFA. These are administrative monoliths filled with incompetents and corrupt egotists. It makes me laugh when you get someone like Brian Barwick who talked a good game about working class fans and then appointed Prince William as the FA's president based on an alleged allegiance to Aston Villa and er, the fact that he's an aristocrat who they can pimp out to win juicy contracts, which is essentially the role of the royal family, to ho for big business. I don't need Prince fucking William telling me not to be racist when his family enriched themselves from raping Africa and India.

Now the Russians are involved and Gazprom sponsor the Champions League, the circle from old industrialists in 19th century England starting clubs through to spivs controlling the game in the post war years to the oligarchs running the show is complete. It's a gangster's game and always has been.

What's your take on English and Scottish fans drawing on European Ultra traditions and activities?

It's all playacting really. I'm not a fan of these massive flags and mosaics myself. I think they smack of the circus. I yearn for the days of surreal, abusive flags and chants. The thing with the ultras in Italy and other countries is that the clubs support them, the clubs sponsor away travel and allow them to control their own gates whereas Celtic's Green Brigade get arrested in dawn raids by the bizzies. That's the difference, right there.

People can say the class system has gone till they’re out of breath but the ruling class in this country treat the working class with utter contempt and hatred. We experienced that in football grounds and that eventually resulted in the Hillsborough cover up. The FA, supposedly socialist councils, the police, the coroners, the BBC, the papers, the Government, they ALL conspired to blame Liverpool fans for the death of 96 innocent people who simply wanted to watch a football game. That's the price we pay in the country for the class system and it’s not simply Bolshevik hyperbole, it's real and it happened and now we're finding out just how deep this hatred ran.

In Casuals one of the fans you interviewed, Gareth Veck, said: “Casual culture sounds great, the nice trainers and all that, but it had this very dark side to it that people want to forget about now.” The issue of violence is always used as a warning whenever people develop an independent attitude. What's your take on where violence fits in and whether we've let ourselves be defined by it too much, or flirted with it too much?

Gareth's a very insightful lad and I think what he was trying to say was that there WAS violence, a lot of violence associated with casuals or their forebears in the 60s and 70s because that was absolutely central to working class male culture, especially in England which is tribal and concentrated in many towns and cities within a close proximity. But this became fetishised in a way, it became almost a pose, you wear a Mille Miglia and a pair of Adidas Stockholms and an Aquascutum scarf wrapped round your face and you BECOME a hoolie. You buy the T-shirt and you watch Awaydays and try to live a lifestyle that was never like that in the first place. I loved Kev Sampson's Awaydays book but no film could ever recapture those early scally days of 79 and translate it to an audience not yet born when ‘plum mushies’ were all the rage. It wasn't nice, it was brutal and often terrifying going to games in those days and kids need to recognise that.

What can you see happening in the next 10 years?

I think the top 20 or so clubs in Europe will consolidate their power over TV rights and have even more sway in the running of the game, and some of this may be beneficial as they will hold the likes of Blatter to account. As an internationalist, I predicted the end of international football years ago, not through any political movement but because the clubs won't pay £28 million for a player only to lose him in a European Championship or World Cup match, never mind a friendly. Why would they? It's happening already with insurance clauses and managers not releasing players and players themselves withdrawing or retiring from international games. I can’t wait till a young player does it, not one at the end of their career. It may never happen as there aren't many political players out there although a few are keen on presenting themselves as such. It's difficult because we need another Paolo Sollier not another ‘red’ Gary Neville.

The new edition of Casuals is available from Milo books, price £7.99. This interview first appeared in New Statesman online. Martin Cloake’s latest book, written alongside Alan Fisher, is A People’s History of Tottenham Hotspur Football Club.

Thursday, 13 October 2016 14:51

Football's culture wars

Published in Sport

The recent exposure of greed and possible corruption at the highest levels of English football raise questions about the way sport in Britain, under tremendously strong and well-financed commercial pressures, is changing. In the first of a series of articles, Martin Cloake provides an introduction to football's 'culture wars', linking the history of football and issues in the modern game to the capitalist economic and social environment which informs and conditions a game whose core is community.

It is possible to trace a social, economic and political history of England alongside a history of its football clubs. And the current deep sense of discontent in the English game is rooted in this fact. The roots of England’s football clubs lie in the efforts of church and factory to create community. Those who stood in the pulpit saw something that could provide a more wholesome outlet for the energies of the mass than drink and brawling. That mass of people had been brought together as never before by industry, and it is industry that looms large in English football’s formative years. The game’s early giants came from Blackburn, Preston, Burnley, Manchester, Sheffield, Birmingham, Bolton, Derby, Nottingham, Stoke, brought together by men connected with steel, railways, textiles, manufacture… The world’s first Industrial Revolution shaped England, and England’s sport. Community is at the core of football, and with it notions of identity and place.

As the country changed, so did football. As the heavy industrial age petered out, affecting the fortunes of the early northern giants, the suburbs began to rise in the south. London, of course, had its industrial clubs, West Ham from the Thames Ironworks, Millwall from the docks, Arsenal from the munitions plant in Woolwich. But there was also Fulham, formed by a schoolteacher and churchmaster; Chelsea, established by a businessman who wanted to utilise a stadium; and Tottenham Hotspur, formed by a group of middle class boys under the watchful eye of a Bible teacher from a local church. These were teams that rose to represent the south and the suburbs, the new world. When Tottenham Hotspur took on Sheffield United in the 1901 FA Cup final, 114,000 went to Crystal Palace park in south east London to see the Flower of the South against the established might of the north. A turning point in football on the turn of the century itself.

Now, the Premier League is the richest and most glamorous in the world, English football is an in-demand global brand. But while it attracts support it does not inspire love. Love the game, hate the business; love the team, hate the club… The phrases fall readily from the lips of fans as we struggle with the contradictions that define us as football supporters. So too does the word ‘meaning’.

Football is successful commercially because it means something. The trouble is, we’re not sure what any more. For many fans at many English clubs, it seems increasingly as if we support an idea that ceased to exist some time ago, a name that once meant something but is now just a badge sitting atop a global corporation or, most recently, a foreign government’s public relations spin. Those who own and administrate are also confused. The money is rolling in, facilities are better… hell, there are even toilets for men AND women at grounds, so modern and customer-orientated has the game become. And yet there is still discontent. Why, they wonder, can the fans not be happy?

One important element of what made English football so marketable was the passion of its supporters. That passion was rooted deep in the meaning supporters gave to the clubs that now project themselves as brands. And those brands have something that is the Holy Grail in marketing – absolute customer loyalty. Changing your team… it’s just not done. It’s all to do with those deep-rooted ideas of identity and place. So the owners and the administrators thought they were on to a dead cert. They could do what they wanted and the mug punters would keep coming back. But as English football continues to wrestle with its contradictions, the owners and administrators – at least, that minority blessed with some awareness of the real world – have begun to worry.

At the start of the 2013/14 season, English Premier League chief executive Richard Scudamore said that fans were a vital part of what he termed the “show”. He said: “Unless the show is a good show, with the best talent and played in decent stadia with full crowds, it isn’t a game you can sell.” Writing in The Guardian some months later, journalist Owen Gibson identified “a groundswell of opinion, now recognised by many clubs and managers, that… one of the factors that defined English football – its vocal, passionate crowds – is at risk of ebbing away if no action is taken.”

Discontent among football fans is nothing new. In the 1960s there were protest marches about ticket allocations for FA Cup finals, for example. But now the discontent is more widespread and a number of factors have come together to create a situation pregnant with possibility, but also fraught with danger.

A generation of fans who cut their teeth in the independent fan currents of the 1980s are now experienced and battle hardened enough to create a narrative to challenge the PR spin of The World’s Most Successful League. Organisations such as Supporters Direct, set up “to promote sustainable spectator sports clubs based on supporters’ involvement and community ownership”, and the Football Supporters Federation are putting the fans perspective in an increasingly sophisticated manner. Even more importantly, the fans, who it was said for years would make a mess of running their clubs, began to prove they could do it, There are now 180 supporters trusts across the whole of the UK, with over 400,000 members. And 32 clubs, some professional, some not, are owned by their fans.

Supporter organisation is becoming more sophisticated, in places more overtly political. At Liverpool FC, the Spirit of Shankly group calls itself “the country’s first football supporter’s union” and states as its ultimate aim the achievement of “supporter ownership of Liverpool Football Club”. In its campaigning work, it targets areas such as ticket pricing, away travel and policing, and was instrumental in instigating the campaign that secured a £30 away ticket price cap across the Premier League.

At some of the biggest names in the Premier League – Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal, Chelsea – Supporters’ Trusts have established themselves as organisations with knowledge and ability that can achieve practical successes, giving the lie to the assertion that organised fans can only make a difference further down the scale.

This article is based on Martin Cloake's ebook Taking Our Ball Back: English Football's Culture Wars, available from http://www.martincloake.com/Bookstore.html. Martin's latest book, written with Alan Fisher, is A People's History of Tottenham Hotspur Football Club, available from http://www.pitchpublishing.co.uk/shop/peoples-history-tottenham-hotspur-football-club.

Taking our ball back: English football's culture wars
Thursday, 29 September 2016 14:32

Taking our ball back: English football's culture wars

Published in Sport

The recent exposure of greed and possible corruption at the highest levels of English football raise questions about the way sport in Britain, under tremendously strong and well-financed commercial pressures, is changing. In the first of a series of articles, Martin Cloake provides an introduction to some of the issues involved. 

It is possible to trace a social, economic and political history of England alongside a history of its football clubs. And the current deep sense of discontent in the English game is rooted in this fact.

The history

The roots of England’s football clubs lie in the efforts of church and factory to create community. Those who stood in the pulpit saw something that could provide a more wholesome outlet for the energies of the mass than drink and brawling. That mass of people had been brought together as never before by industry, and it is industry that looms large in English football’s formative years. The game’s early giants came from Blackburn, Preston, Burnley, Manchester, Sheffield, Birmingham, Bolton, Derby, Nottingham, Stoke, brought together by men connected with steel, railways, textiles, manufacture… The world’s first Industrial Revolution shaped England, and England’s sport. Community is at the core of football, and with it notions of identity and place.

As the country changed, so did football. As the heavy industrial age petered out, affecting the fortunes of the early northern giants, the suburbs began to rise in the south. London, of course, had its industrial clubs, West Ham from the Thames Ironworks, Millwall from the docks, Arsenal from the munitions plant in Woolwich. But there was also Fulham, formed by a schoolteacher and churchmaster; Chelsea, established by a businessman who wanted to utilise a stadium; and Tottenham Hotspur, formed by a group of middle class boys under the watchful eye of a Bible teacher from a local church. These were teams that rose to represent the south and the suburbs, the new world. When Tottenham Hotspur took on Sheffield United in the 1901 FA Cup final, 110,000 went to Crystal Palace park in south east London to see the Flower of the South against the established might of the north. A turning point in football on the turn of the century itself.

Now, the Premier League is the richest and most glamorous in the world, English football is an in-demand global brand. But while it attracts support it does not inspire love. Love the game, hate the business; love the team, hate the club… The phrases fall readily from the lips of fans as we struggle with the contradictions that define us as football supporters. So too does the word ‘meaning’.

Football is successful commercially because it means something. The trouble is, we’re not sure what any more. For many fans at many English clubs, it seems increasingly as if we support an idea that ceased to exist some time ago, a name that once meant something but is now just a badge sitting atop a global corporation or, most recently, a foreign government’s public relations spin. Those who own and administrate are also confused. The money is rolling in, facilities are better… hell, there are even toilets for men AND women at grounds, so modern and customer-orientated has the game become. And yet there is still discontent. Why, they wonder, can the fans not be happy?

Passionate and discontented fans

One important element of what made English football so marketable was the passion of its supporters. That passion was rooted deep in the meaning supporters gave to the clubs that now project themselves as brands. And those brands have something that is the Holy Grail in marketing – absolute customer loyalty. Changing your team… it’s just not done. It’s all to do with those deep-rooted ideas of identity and place. So the owners and the administrators thought they were on to a dead cert. They could do what they wanted and the mug punters would keep coming back. But as English football continues to wrestle with its contradictions, the owners and administrators – at least, that minority blessed with some awareness of the real world – have begun to worry.

At the start of the 2013/14 season, English Premier League chief executive Richard Scudamore said that fans were a vital part of what he termed the “show”. He said:

Unless the show is a good show, with the best talent and played in decent stadia with full crowds, it isn’t a game you can sell.” Writing in The Guardian some months later, journalist Owen Gibson identified “a groundswell of opinion, now recognised by many clubs and managers, that… one of the factors that defined English football – its vocal, passionate crowds – is at risk of ebbing away if no action is taken.

Discontent among football fans is nothing new. In the 1960s there were protest marches about ticket allocations for FA Cup finals, for example. But now the discontent is more widespread and a number of factors have come together to create a situation pregnant with possibility, but also fraught with danger.

A generation of fans who cut their teeth in the independent fan currents of the 1980s are now experienced and battle-hardened enough to create a narrative to challenge the PR spin of The World’s Most Successful League. Organisations such as Supporters Direct, set up “to promote sustainable spectator sports clubs based on supporters’ involvement and community ownership”, and the Football Supporters Federation are putting the fans perspective in an increasingly sophisticated manner. Even more importantly, the fans, who it was said for years would make a mess of running their clubs, began to prove they could do it, There are now 180 supporters trusts across the whole of the UK, with over 400,000 members. And 32 clubs, some professional, some not, are owned by their fans. Even in the Premier League, supporters own 20% of Swansea City, and have been instrumental in returning Crystal Palace to the top flight.

Supporter organisation is becoming more sophisticated, in places more overtly political. At Liverpool FC, the Spirit of Shankly group calls itself “the country’s first football supporter’s union” and states as its ultimate aim the achievement of “supporter ownership of Liverpool Football Club”. In its campaigning work, it targets areas such as ticket pricing, away travel and policing, and was instrumental in organising a march on Premier League HQ last summer that drew together fans from over 20 clubs.

At Manchester United, the Independent Manchester United Supporters Association is a well-financed and astute organisation that was formed in 1995 as a direct response to a tannoy announcement that fans in the hard core K-Stand would be ejected if they continued to stand during matches. Since then, IMUSA has campaigned on ticket pricing, crowd atmosphere and club governance, and played a prominent role in blocking Rupert Murdoch’s takeover of the club. The success of these two organisations gives the lie to the assertion that organised fans can only make a difference further down the scale.

In the last few years, a fresh challenge to the modern game has emerged. It is grass-roots based, more fluid and organic than the established supporter opposition, in places more anarchic, autonomous and uncompromising, and generally less-concerned with questions of governance than immediate issues such as stadium atmosphere.

Ultras and the Holmesdale Fanatics

It would be inaccurate to describe this challenge as a movement, but there’s a common theme of drawing on the traditions of Europe’s Ultras – an interesting development if you bear in mind that many European Ultra groups drew on English fan culture for their inspiration. One of the most established and active of the new groups in England are the Holmesdale Fanatics at Crystal Palace – the Holmesdale end being the traditional gathering point for the club’s hard core support. Formed in 2005, HF regularly stages big displays at the club’s Selhurst Park ground, using flags, banners and cards together with loud vocal support to drive the atmosphere, and taking larger and louder away contingents to grounds across the country.

Interviewed by the European Football Weekends website, some of HF’s active members explained their approach. “We wanted to make a stand against the threats of modern football and fight back for the culture, and believed by creating a strong unit, based on the way hardcore would congregate on terraces, that visual and vocal dominance could naturally stem from this section.”

Asked if they thought the mindset of English fans was changing, they said: “Supporters are becoming bored and disillusioned with the way football has been pushed by Sky, and the authorities. There is little or no fun left. When you compare the old style of support and look at the demographics, it's completely different. Young people are in the minority now, either priced out or simply having better stuff to do, as stadia are generally over policed, over priced and soulless. I feel sorry for the average young fan growing up in this climate, never knowing how football crowds can inspire and stay with you for life.”

The HF approach is about fans playing a part, not simply waiting to be entertained. That feeds into efforts to promote a positive culture of support for players, particularly younger ones, rather than criticising when things begin to go wrong. One of the criticisms of the modern, commodified fan culture is that there is an expectation of success, rather than a commitment to support the team come what may. The new Ultra currents promote the idea of ‘supporting the shirt’, a strand embraced particularly strongly by the 1882 movement at Tottenham Hotspur.

At HF, there’s also a stronger political approach, manifested in regular efforts to expose and challenge repressive policing and stewarding, and in direct action, such as the forcing open of the gates and occupation of the ground when the club was threatened with liquidation. “We continue to fight against authority, modern footballing principles and look to restore the true spirit of fan culture,” the group said.

Ultra groups have often taken off at English lower league clubs too, York City’s Jorvik Reds have been particularly active and groups have sprung up at clubs elsewhere, including Accrington Stanley, Barrow and Burton Albion. At Newcastle United, Middlesbrough and Swindon, ultra groups have made their prescence felt, and the mass adoption of “the Poznan” by Manchester City fans is perhaps the most straightforward example of the embrace of a European Ultra-style activity.

But the use of the word “Ultra” makes many uncomfortable because of its association with violence. At Palace, HF played down the Ultras connection for years, and at Spurs, the name Tottenham Ultras was dropped in favour of 1882 – the year of the club’s formation. While some of the online Ultra sites don’t help themselves by blurring the line between tifosi groups and some of football’s more traditional hooligan firms, it’s also possible to identify efforts by sections of the football establishment, whether that be in the media or the administration of the game itself, to blur the lines too in order to undermine any potential challenge from a new, grass roots movement. And it is here that the front line of football’s culture wars is being fought.

With the new, autonomous groups beginning to make common cause with the more established supporter opposition over issues such as ticket prices, policing and standing in stadiums, and with discontent being recognised within the game as an issue that might affect the commercial value of the product, the battle has entered a new phase. For years, the game told us things were better than they had ever been. As fans, we knew there was truth in this, but we also harboured doubts. As journalist and Leeds United fan Nick Varley said in his 1999 book Parklife – still one of the most astutely-observed state-of-the-game books in the rich literature of English football – “No one who can remember the dilapidation and the fighting, the injuries and the death, could possibly suggest that today is not an improvement on yesterday. But I suspect many of us who were there will also remember yesterday so much more fondly.” Yet our vague sense of discontent constituted no threat, and those who ran the game could content themselves with keeping the minority of organised supporter activists at bay with the occasional concession.

Now, fan activism is spiralling in many directions. More fans are taking direct action, refusing to sit down in particular sections of the stadium, generally preserving a raucous, independent, anti-establishment tradition of British mass culture. A new wave of football fanzines and websites is spreading the message and articulating complaints about ticket prices, the lack of young fans in stadiums, the dominance of the TV companies over fixture lists. And the established supporter opposition is there to advise and direct when needed, drawing on its own experiences while never seeking control.

Just as the game had belatedly discovered the benefits of engagement – the new buzzword among progressive football administrators – the fans were questioning its value. As one said: “We don’t want to vote on the colour of the club shirt, we want to vote for the people who decide the colour of the club shirt.”

A fear of the masses

It would be wrong to say that a new, dare we call it more revolutionary, fan movement is emerging. But the game’s authorities are worried by what they see – a worry that taps into a fear of the mass that runs through English history, and the history of football in England.

In 1314, English King Edward II banned an early incarnation of football in which large groups of men from neighbouring villages rampaged across fields and through streets attempting to kick, throw or carry a ball. A proclamation stated: “For as much as there is great noise in the city, caused by hustling over large balls from which many evils might arise which God forbid, we command and forbid, on behalf of the king, on pain of imprisonment, such game to be used in the city in the future.” Football was banned during the Hundred Years War because it was thought to distract the king’s subjects from practising archery; banned in Manchester in the early 1600s because of the frequency with which stray passes shattered windows, banned on Sundays by the Puritan Oliver Cromwell.

Football’s popularity among the great mass of people has always fuelled the suspicions of those in power, as has the collective action of the mass. The word “mob” (short for mobile vulgus – the excitable crowd) was first used in 1688 at the time of the Glorious Revolution and great political upheaval. The satirist Henry Fielding went so far as to dub the London mob “the fourth estate” long before the press claimed the title.

It is in this context that deliberate attempts by the football authorities to blur the line between focussed protest and random violence must be seen. These days it’s more complex than simply dismissing organised groups of fans as thugs. In recent months, for example, the Premier League , backed by the UK government, has launched a major campaign against the use of flares at matches. Cathy Long, head of supporter services at the Premier League, described the use of flares as “the biggest concern we’ve got among fans at the moment”. The BBC ran a story headlined “Fears someone will die due to rising use of flares in stadiums” and led on the claim that “Children as young as eight are being used as ‘mules’ to smuggle flares and smoke bombs into Premier League matches.”

Reading the story did reveal a sharp rise in the use of flares, but only because the number of incidents had previously been so low. The story claimed “a third of supporters have been directly affected by pyrotechnics” but the detail revealed that “more than half” of a survey of just 1,635 specially-selected fans had “witnessed” pyrotechnics. And as for the hordes of eight-year-old flare mules, the story could only report “claims” that one eight-year-old had been spotted passing pyro from his rucksack to adults inside a stadium.

Sensationalist nonsense it might have been, but the story did its job. Some supporter groups announced they would “crack down” on the use of pyro – without explaining how this fan group vigilantism would work – while the more militant elements reiterated the “No pyro, no party” stance. For them, use of pyro is a key part of rejecting modern football. That is still a minority attitude, but it’s a useful device with which to divide supporters and it raises the question faced by grass roots movements when they begin to have influence. When does acceptance turn into co-option?

I spoke to Phil Thornton, whose book Casuals, first published in 2003, remains one of the most authentic accounts of British working class terrace culture, about current developments, and asked him what he thought about English and Scottish fans drawing on European Ultra traditions. “It’s all play acting, really,” he said. “I'm not a fan of these massive flags and mosaics myself. I think they smack of the circus. ‘Safe standing’ and ‘singing areas’ seem almost laughable terms to those of us brought up in the rough and tumble of the 1970s and 1980s but the culture must change unless we want these soulless, sterile stadiums to continue pushing away vocal fans.”

Incompetents and corrupt egotists in the FA, UEFA, and FIFA

I asked if Thornton felt terrace culture had to be anti-establishment to be real. He said: “The Stand AMF movement has gone global or pan-European at least and there's definitely a growing resistance movement brewing as more and more fans become disillusioned with how the game is run but we're still dealing with the likes of the FA, UEFA and FIFA. These are administrative monoliths filled with incompetents and corrupt egotists.

“As a trade union activist for 20 years, I've seen how the bosses co-opt 'militants' by a combination of flattery and bribery. I was always against the likes of Man United's Shareholders United campaign as it fed into this myth that you could play the club and the big shareholders at their own game. You can't, it's a rigged game. There's too much money in the industry – and it is an industry not a game or a sport – for anyone to rock the boat. Now the Russians are involved and Gazprom sponsor the Champions League, the circle from old industrialists in 19th century England starting clubs through to spivs controlling the game in the post war years to the oligarchs running the show is complete. It's a gangster's game and always has been.”

It’s an uncompromising view, and one that Steve Redhead, professor of sports media at Charles Sturt University in New South Wales, Australia, recognises. He reckons what is happening now “fits into a new era of political hard times and that football fan culture is now entering into a new phase with all the radical uncertainty that brings. My concept of accelerated culture was meant to draw attention to how speeded up our culture has become and how difficult then it is to ‘create the space’ (to borrow from John Barnes and New Order) for new developments outside the mainstream media gaze. It just becomes harder to do it, but we can learn from the history of the past few decades what is useful to push things forward and what isn't.”

He sees evidence of a more European style of fan activity on Australian grounds too, citing the Red and Black Bloc at Western Sydney Wanderers as a prominent example, but also referencing Sydney FC’s Del Piero-influenced Italian style and Perth Glory fans’ move away from a ‘British’ style to something more European.

But Redhead does not see matters improving in the next 10 years, at least not in England. He thinks there will be “less space for independent fan culture making a difference, but the reproletarianisation of football culture – where a middle class lifestyle including season tickets, high ticket prices, travel etc becomes more and more difficult for most people to achieve – really taking effect. There’s a danger that the historical working class football culture will be gone forever, and only obvious in exhibits at the National Football Museum in Manchester, England.”

Tony Evans, the football editor of The Times, wrote recently: “Following a team is a labour of love, an assertion of culture. It is not a consumer choice. It is emotional attachment that only withstands the scrutiny of logic if the connection between club and community is considered.” That encapsulates why football means so much, and why the football business is so successful. A variety of fan currents are attempting to preserve the game’s meaning, to continue to assert a culture that has grown organically, created bottom-up by people doing something they love.

Looking to preserve grass-roots culture presents its own challenges. Terrace culture may have been about passion and community and belonging, about codes of behaviour and styles of dress – those factors that run deep through English working class youth culture. But there was also an edge to it. The establishment may have an interest in blurring the line between organised fans and violent fans, but the anti-modern football tendency can sometimes appear at best ambivalent about the violence that went along with the culture. This is partly because those who know football know the old line about the hooligans ‘not being real fans’ was always nonsense – those who literally fought for their colours were as knowledgeable and passionate about the game as everyone else.

A new community 

In Thornton’s book Casuals, one of the fans he interviews, Gareth Veck, says: “What you’ve got to remember about this casual culture is an entire sub-culture said ‘We’ll go about mob-handed and we can do whatever we fucking like: jib the trains, jib inside the ground,’ and eventually it went pear-shaped. Casual culture sounds great, the nice trainers and all that, but it had this very dark side to it that people want to forget about now.” Thornton sees attempts to commodify this in current developments. “There WAS violence, a lot of violence associated with casuals or their forebears in the 60s and 70s because that was absolutely central to working class male culture, especially in England which is tribal and concentrated in many towns and cities within a close proximity. But this became fetishised, it became almost a pos. You wear a Mille Miglia and a pair of Adidas Stockholms and an Aquascutum scarf wrapped round your face and you BECOME a hooly. You buy the t-shirt and try to live a lifestyle that was never like that in the first place. It wasn't nice, it was brutal and often terrifying going to games in those days and kids need to recognise that.”

Roots-up culture is messy, illogical, and wired to resist efforts to direct and control it. That’s why it’s feared by some and valued by others. If being against modern football becomes merely an attempt to recreate the past in a more palatable form, it is doomed to crumble under the weight of its own contradictions. There are already tensions emerging. Some see club-approved banners and tifo displays as totally synthetic, the antithesis of what genuine fan culture is about – just another attempt to paper over the cracks.

Football came from community, it symbolised community. But the modern football business, in the way capitalism does, seeks to replace community with commodity. It attempts to reduce community to a museum piece – itself another commodity, another attempt to sell the thing we created back to us. For many, the battle is already lost. For others, the fact that the discussion is happening means the fight is still on.

Simply wishing to regain some mythical golden days is doomed to failure. What comes next will be different to what went before. Power will continue to resist challenge, and then to convince us that any change we achieve would have happened anyway – all the while looking to co-opt us as the acceptable face of opposition. It’s how things work, not just in football but in wider life. Our challenge is to articulate what kind of different we want, to recognise it when it takes shape, and to resist efforts to control it. Community is key, and the current struggles of fans in football’s culture wars are creating a new community.

This is an extract from Martin Cloake's ebook Taking Our Ball Back: English Football's Culture Wars, available from http://www.martincloake.com/Bookstore.html. Martin's latest book, written with Alan Fisher, is A People's History of Tottenham Hotspur Football Club, available from http://www.pitchpublishing.co.uk/shop/peoples-history-tottenham-hotspur-football-club.