Last week, the Crown Prosecution Service announced it would “discontinue” the prosecution of three Tottenham Hotspur fans for a racially aggravated public order offence. The story of how the case was brought, and how the accused fans have been treated, is shameful. And it throws up some challenging questions.
It is the story of how three ordinary football fans were arrested, accused publicly of being racist, subject to months of psychological pressure, had presumptions of innocence cast aside and their characters called into question. All on the basis of what the Crown Prosecution Service eventually conceded, after spending a large sum of public money, was “insufficient evidence”.
Some background is necessary for those unfamiliar with the nuances of football’s subculture. Tottenham Hotspur have, for many years, been identified as a club with a large Jewish support. This is partly because of the club’s location in north London, although neighbours Arsenal also have a large Jewish following. During the 1970s and early 1980s, though, Tottenham Hotspur’s perceived Jewish connections led to the club’s fans being subjected to anti-Semitic abuse at games. In response, Spurs fans began to use the term “Yids” to identify themselves. The chant “Yid Army” is heard frequently at Spurs games, and popular players are regaled with chants of “Yiddo” – most famously in the case of former striker Jermain Defoe, who was regularly serenaded with the chant “Jermain Defoe, he’s a Yiddo”.
While some were uncomfortable with a word that had been used by Mosley’s fascists as a term of abuse being bandied about so freely, it was generally accepted that Spurs fans’ use of the word “Yid” in a footballing context was a positive thing. And, as those familiar with Jewish history and culture pointed out, Yid was also used as a term of endearment and identification by Jewish people before Mosley’s fascists attempted to appropriate it. The word’s use at the football was a genuine, robust, street-level response to anti-Semitic abuse – not the kind of response those who discuss such issues at polite dinner parties may have constructed, but a genuine one nonetheless.
Then, in 2011, the anti-racist campaign Kick it Out released a film made by Jewish football fan David Baddiel and his brother Ivor. It was called “The Y Word” and it sought to place use of the word “Yids” on a par with terms of racial abuse such as “nigger” and “Paki”. The Baddiels said they started the campaign after being at a Chelsea game against Spurs in which a Chelsea fan they were sitting with – the brothers are Chelsea supporters – repeatedly shouted “Fuck the Yids” and “Fuck the Jews” at the Spurs fans in the away end. Leading footballers Frank Lampard, Ledley King and Gary Lineker were enlisted to tell viewers that “the Y-word is a race hate word”.
To many Spurs fans, the campaign seemed to blame them for the abuse that was directed at them. Having endured years of hearing songs about Auschwitz, Adolf Hitler and having hissing noises meant to replicate the sound of gas directed at them, they were now being told that their use of the word Yid made people hurl abuse at them. “They made me do it” is, of course, the well-worn response of bigots through the ages.
The campaign succeeded in cementing the use of “Yids” among Spurs fans as a badge of pride. And so the calls to prosecute were raised. Having failed to win the argument that in excess of 36,000 active anti-Semites turned out for a public display of bigotry at White Hart Lane every couple of weeks by racially abusing the team they followed, the anti “Y-word” campaign began to argue that prosecution should be brought on grounds of “causing offence”, thereby taking the issue onto dangerous new ground.
The Metropolitan Police had advised Spurs fans that chants such as “Yid Army” would not lead to prosecution, due to the fact that there was no “deliberate intention to cause offence”. Then, last September, the Football Association decided that use of the word “Yid” was “inappropriate in a football setting” and “could amount to a criminal offence”. Within less than a month a Spurs fan was arrested for using the word and charged. The arrest came at a game against West Ham where songs about Hitler, Nazi salutes and chants about gas chambers were seen and heard in the away end. The only arrest made was of the Spurs fan. A month later, two more Spurs fans were arrested and charged with racially aggravated public order offences.
Unusually for cases such as this, the names of the fans were released immediately by the police. As was the information that one of them had a wrap of cocaine on him. Publicly labelled as racists, the fans had bail conditions imposed which included not being allowed with 2,500 yards of any stadium where Spurs were playing from four hours before until four hours after a game. Tottenham Hotspur, which had issued statements saying it did not believe its fans intended to cause offence when using the word “Yids”, interpreted the bail conditions as meaning it had to ban the fans from the ground by withdrawing season tickets and memberships. The presumption of innocence until guilt is proven was cast aside.
In the article “Everyone is equal in the eyes of the law – unless you are a football fan” that I wrote with solicitor Darren White on this site a few weeks ago, the effect of “subjecting someone of previous good character to the full rigor of the legal process” was quoted. What happened to the three fans in what became known as “The Y-Word case” – a description that itself embraced the prosecution’s assertion as fact – illustrates that point starkly. All three were bailed three times. Each time they did not know what would be happening to them, increasing the mental stress they faced. Each hearing involved time off work and travel costs. One of the dates they were given, and which was subsequently postponed, was Christmas Eve.
Finally, after being charged and having been put through hell for months, the three were told last Thursday that the case was to be discontinued and the charges dropped. The CPS said there was “insufficient evidence to provide a realistic prospect of conviction”. Tottenham Hotspur immediately rescinded the bans and refunded money for the games the fans had missed. The Tottenham Hotspur Supporters Trust (which I should point out I am on the board of), which had backed the fans throughout, welcomed the decision and carried a strongly-worded statement from the defence team it had worked with on its website. The defence team criticised a “misguided and over-zealous approach by the Crown Prosecution Service and the Metropolitan Police”. The statement is worth reading in full, for its criticisms of the legal process, its understanding of cultural history and its refusal to concede the term “Yid” to the fascists and bigots, and for this statement:
Any organisation or individual that sets out to brand Spurs fans’ use of the word ‘Yid’ as being racist runs a high risk of being perceived as pursuing other self-serving agendas. We urge them to focus their attention on those who are clearly using threatening or abusive words or behaviour towards others based on hostility or hate towards others race or religion.
The treatment of the Tottenham Three is further evidence of what Darren White and I argued in that “Everyone is equal” blog. Football fans are subjected to a different framework of justice. But this case raises other questions that need answering.
What made the FA suddenly change its stance last September? And what made the Metropolitan Police, the only police force in the country to prosecute on these grounds, change its mind? Does the fact that both organisations have suffered criticism for their stances on racism have any bearing on the change of attitude?
If there is insufficient evidence to secure a conviction now, could there have been sufficient evidence when the decision to prosecute was taken? No new evidence that could have undermined any of the previous evidence has come to light since the original decision. As the CPS is a publicly-funded organisation, we have a right to question the quality of its decision-making.
Will the people who pointed the finger at Spurs fans, and who used their public platforms and connections to vilify, ridicule and shout down any who dared challenge them, now dedicate equal vigour to pursuing the real anti-Semites? It cannot be beyond the wit of these intelligent people to identify the difference between a Spurs fan chanting “We are the Yids” and, for example, a Chelsea fan directing a chant of “Spurs are on their way to Auschwitz” at Spurs fans.
Football does not exist in a vacuum. Misguided actions such as the prosecution of the Tottenham Three ultimately undermine the battle against bigotry, allowing the “It’s political correctness gone mad” brigade to dismiss every attempt to challenge prejudice. Attempts to introduce a legal principle of “offence” also raise worrying threats to freedom of speech and expression, something that the people of Scotland are finding to their cost, as journalist Kevin McKenna argues in a fine article in the Guardian. A piece by freelance writer Kirk Leech on the Huffington Post also does a fine job in setting out the dangers posed by the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Bill.
For now, the threat to freedom of speech in England and Wales has been resisted. And the disgraceful treatment of three innocent football fans has been countered. But to ensure that cases such as this never happen again, the questions this one raises must be answered.