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“We are the Yids”: should Spurs fans be prosecuted for using the Y word?

The case against three Tottenham Hotspur fans accused of “a racially aggravated public order offence” undermines the battle against bigotry. Now that the prosecution has been discontinued, the threat to freedom of speech has been resisted – for now.

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.

Martin Cloake is a writer and editor based in London. You can follow him on Twitter at @MartinCloake.

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Is there such a thing as responsible betting?

Punters are encouraged to bet responsibly. What a laugh that is. It’s like encouraging drunks to get drunk responsibly, to crash our cars responsibly, murder each other responsibly.

I try not to watch the commercials between matches, or the studio discussions, or anything really, before or after, except for the match itself. And yet there is one person I never manage to escape properly – Ray Winstone. His cracked face, his mesmerising voice, his endlessly repeated spiel follow me across the room as I escape for the lav, the kitchen, the drinks cupboard.

I’m not sure which betting company he is shouting about, there are just so many of them, offering incredible odds and supposedly free bets. In the past six years, since the laws changed, TV betting adverts have increased by 600 per cent, all offering amazingly simple ways to lose money with just one tap on a smartphone.

The one I hate is the ad for BetVictor. The man who has been fronting it, appearing at windows or on roofs, who I assume is Victor, is just so slimy and horrible.

Betting firms are the ultimate football parasites, second in wealth only to kit manufacturers. They have perfected the capitalist’s art of using OPM (Other People’s Money). They’re not directly involved in football – say, in training or managing – yet they make millions off the back of its popularity. Many of the firms are based offshore in Gibraltar.

Football betting is not new. In the Fifties, my job every week at five o’clock was to sit beside my father’s bed, where he lay paralysed with MS, and write down the football results as they were read out on Sports Report. I had not to breathe, make silly remarks or guess the score. By the inflection in the announcer’s voice you could tell if it was an away win.

Earlier in the week I had filled in his Treble Chance on the Littlewoods pools. The “treble” part was because you had three chances: three points if the game you picked was a score draw, two for a goalless draw and one point for a home or away win. You chose eight games and had to reach 24 points, or as near as possible, then you were in the money.

“Not a damn sausage,” my father would say every week, once I’d marked and handed him back his predictions. He never did win a sausage.

Football pools began in the 1920s, the main ones being Littlewoods and Vernons, both based in Liverpool. They gave employment to thousands of bright young women who checked the results and sang in company choirs in their spare time. Each firm spent millions on advertising. In 1935, Littlewoods flew an aeroplane over London with a banner saying: Littlewoods Above All!

Postwar, they blossomed again, taking in £50m a year. The nation stopped at five on a Saturday to hear the scores, whether they were interested in football or not, hoping to get rich. BBC Sports Report began in 1948 with John Webster reading the results. James Alexander Gordon took over in 1974 – a voice soon familiar throughout the land.

These past few decades, football pools have been left behind, old-fashioned, low-tech, replaced by online betting using smartphones. The betting industry has totally rebooted itself. You can bet while the match is still on, trying to predict who will get the next goal, the next corner, the next throw-in. I made the last one up, but in theory you can bet instantly, on anything, at any time.

The soft sell is interesting. With the old football pools, we knew it was a remote flutter, hoping to make some money. Today the ads imply that betting on football somehow enhances the experience, adds to the enjoyment, involves you in the game itself, hence they show lads all together, drinking and laughing and putting on bets.

At the same time, punters are encouraged to do it responsibly. What a laugh that is. It’s like encouraging drunks to get drunk responsibly, to crash our cars responsibly, murder each other responsibly. Responsibly and respect are now two of the most meaningless words in the football language. People have been gambling, in some form, since the beginning, watching two raindrops drip down inside the cave, lying around in Roman bathhouses playing games. All they’ve done is to change the technology. You have to respect that.

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war