A leaked document on a football scandal shows how the elites see the people

Football's latest example of an out-of-touch establishment.

In 1966, Harold Wilson spoke of “a tightly-knit group of politically-motivated men” at the heart of the seafarers' strike. The demands of the strikers appear modest now, higher wages in a notoriously poorly-paid and insecure industry, and a reduction of the working week from 56 to 40 hours. Even the most cursory examination of history will reveal that, as on this occasion, the establishment’s response to demands that go on to be seen as entirely reasonable is to seek to paint them as the demands of a radical "other", not just a threat to the established order, but to order itself. Let’s not forget, for example, how the suffragettes were labeled mentally unstable for demanding votes for women.

A document that has recently come to light on Merseyside shows that little has changed (PDF). And those familiar with the workings of modern football in Britain will not be surprised that it provides the latest example of an out-of-touch establishment attempting to demonise and marginalise opposition. In 2010, at the height of the bitter battle between supporters of Liverpool FC and then owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett, an internal document was drawn up profiling the opposition under the heading "What do these people want?" It said that at the heart of opposition to the Hicks and Gillett regime were “a very small, yet highly-motivated group of agitators” who had “an underlying socio-political aspect to everything they do” and were “the sporting equivalent of the Khmer Rouge”.

The document named a number of senior football journalists, including The Times’ football editor Tony Evans, Hillsborough justice campaigner and former frontman of The Farm Peter Hooton, and a number of established Liverpool writers and fan site editors including Paul Tomkins of the highly-regarded Tomkins Times. The document focused on members of the Spirit of Shankly (SOS) Liverpool supporters union, alleging some were “very active within the Militant movement within Liverpool in the 1980s” and saying “they failed in the past to take on the establishment… when Liverpool almost tried to declare UDI on the rest of the country and form a Trotskyist independent people’s republic”.

It’s classic Red Scare stuff and, SOS’s James McKenna told the Liverpool Echo, it “confirms what we suspected, that there were briefings and dossiers and blacklists”. Liverpool FC say that “no one from the club’s current management was involved with or had any knowledge of this document”. The initials at the bottom of the leaked paper are PT, believed to stand for Paul Tyrrell, who was Liverpool’s head of press in 2010. Tyrrell has issued a firm “no comment” to the local press when questioned about whether he wrote the paper, but a comment in the paper about how SOS “regard people such as me (with my family political background) as traitors” is believed to be a reference to the fact that Tyrrell’s father was once a Labour mayor of Halton.

Tyrrell no longer works for Liverpool. He went on to be head of communications across Stanley Park at Everton FC, although it was announced on 6 June that he would be leaving after having given his notice early in May. The move is not thought to be linked with the controversy – instead it is being reported that Tyrrell is to focus on the PR consultancy he set up before taking the Anfield job. Everton likes to style itself as The People’s Club, but many of the people who make up the support don’t see it as such. Instead they see an organisation that maintains its distance from the people who support it, especially those who are independently-minded. The club’s decision to change its badge recently prompted widespread opposition. Everton has apologised for not consulting fans, but the new version will stay in place for the coming season.

Liverpool’s SOS and Everton’s Blue Union are two of the most organised and independent fan organisations in Britain. Which is probably why they are attracting the attention they do. The football establishment likes to say it works with the fans, but the fans it likes to work with are the ones it grants permission to organise to. More independent alternatives have to be marginalised.

But the aims of fan groups would not seem that radical to most people. SOS’s stated aims are to “represent the best interests of the supporters of Liverpool FC” and to “hold whoever owns the football club to account”. The Blue Union believes in “the integration of fans into a real People’s Club” and sets itself against a situation in which “the fans’ opinion, the fans’ voice, the fans’ ideas are increasingly deferred in favour of those of the club’s owners, the Premier League and the media organisations who inject billions into the game”. Most fan groups’ objectives do not even go that far, but the belief that fans should have more of a voice in the game’s structures is growing.

Even this is seen as a demand too far. In the leaked Liverpool document, one description of the views of a prominent critic is telling. The document’s author says the critic “confessed he would not be happy if the club was sold to a Sheikh Mansour figure! He said the best solution is for LFC to be owned: "by the supporters, for the supporters".” Outrageous stuff indeed.

Dave Boyle, the former chief executive of Supporters Direct and a leading advocate of mutuality, wrote a very illuminating blog post entitled 10 Things I Know About Football from a Decade at Supporters’ Direct. He makes a similar point to the one I opened with, going back as far as the debates on the 1832 Reform Act to find evidence of the establishment being “genuinely terrified that the masses might have a vote”.

Football is not that important in the grand scheme of things in a country where food banks cannot cope with demand and disabled people are killing themselves because their benefits are reduced or removed. But the story of how elites see the people, and how important it is for the people to develop strong and independent voices to challenge the elite view of what is reasonable, runs throughout.

Photograph: Getty Images

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

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What’s it like to be a human rights activist in post-Pussy Riot Russia?

It is five years since the feminist punk collective crashed Moscow’s Cathedral in a performance that got some of them jailed.

On 21 February 2012, five brightly-dressed members of Russian feminist punk collective Pussy Riot took to the alter of Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour to protest links between the Russian Orthodox Church and its “chief saint” Russian President Vladimir Putin. “Virgin birth-giver of God, drive away Putin!” they shouted from beneath now-iconic balaclavas.

The “Punk Prayer” was both a political statement and a powerful feminist message. Six months later, a judge sentenced three of the girls to two years in prison (one was rapidly released) on a conspicuously apolitical conviction of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”.

These past five years, Russia’s involvement in crises in Syria and Ukraine has cast a dark shadow over relations with an increasingly cleaved-off West. The year 2015 saw opposition politician Boris Nemtsov murdered some 500 metres from the Kremlin walls.

Domestically, society has constricted people challenging the political status quo. However, low-key initiatives retain traction.

“Artists are simply silent,” says Russian curator and gallerist Marat Guelman, who left for Montenegro in early 2015. “It is better not to say anything about politics, it is better to bypass these issues.”

This is a major difference from five years ago. “Despite persecution against Pussy Riot, people were not afraid to defend them,” he says. “It was a better time.”

There are three topics artists and curators now avoid, says artist and feminist activist Mikaela. One is “homosexuality . . . especially if it involves adolescents”, she says, citing a 2015 exhibit about LGBT teens called “Be Yourself”. Authorities closed it and interrogated the galley owner. “Then the war in Ukraine,” she says. “Russian Orthodoxy is the third topic you cannot tackle.”

Marianna Muravyeva, a law professor at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, says that aside from the government completely discarding human rights rhetoric, the most significant legal change is the “gay propaganda” law and “legislation against those who insult the feelings of believers”.

The latter came into force in July 2013. Since then, the Orthodox Church has made deeper societal incursions. Muravyeva says that the secular nature of the Soviet Union led to residual feelings of guilt towards the Church – and now it uses that “capital”.

Mikaela observes a “cultural expansion”, citing a new TV channel, radio station and three new churches in her neighbourhood alone.

Orthodox activist attacks on exhibits have increased. In August 2015, they targeted an exhibit at one of Moscow’s most prominent art galleries. Its perpetrators were found guilty of “petty hooliganism” and handed a 1,000 rouble fine (£14 by today’s rates).

“Any word written in Old Slavonic lettering is spirituality,” says Guelman. “Any work of art by a modern artist . . . depravity, sin, the impact of the West.”

Similar groups are active across Russia, and galleries err on the side of caution. Perpetrators, while self-organised, believe their actions to be state-sanctioned, says Muravyeva. They are influenced by “the kinds of messages” conveyed by the government. 

Nowadays, self-organisation is integral to artistic expression. Mikaela witnessed educational institutions and foreign foundations telling artists “we are with you”, “we know you are smart” but they cannot host political works for fear of closure. Not knowing where the “invisible line” lies foments uncertainty. “It’s self-censorship,” she says.

Dissident artist Petr Pavlensky, notorious for nailing his scrotum to the Red Square in late 2013 (“Fixation”) and setting fire to the doors of the FSB in 2015, advocates personal agency.

“Fixation” was about a sense of helplessness in Russia that must be overcome; he tried to convey the amount of power the castrated have. “Pavlensky says, ‘Look, I have even less than you’,” says Guelman. The artist and his partner Oksana Shalygina are now in France intending to seek asylum after sexual assault accusations.

Some rise to the opportunity, such as Daria Serenko. She rides the Moscow Metro carrying political posters as part of Tikhy Piket or “Silent Protest”. Her 12 February sign depicted a girl with her head in her arms inundated by the comments received if a women alleges rape (“she was probably drunk”, “what was she wearing?”).

However, as a lone individual in a public space, she experienced hostility. “Men, as always, laughed,” she posted on Facebook afterwards. Earlier this month an anonymous group pasted painted plants accompanied by anti-domestic violence messages around Omsk, southwestern Siberia.

Their appearance corresponded with Putin signing legislation on 7 February decriminalising domestic abuse that causes “minor harm”. While it doesn’t specifically mention women, Muravyeva says that the message “women can manage on their own” is a “disaster”.

On 27 January, after Russia’s parliament passed the final draft, pro-Kremlin tabloid Life released a video (“He Beats You Because He Loves You”) showing how to inflict pain without leaving a mark.

Heightened social awareness is aided by online networks. Since “Punk Prayer”, the proportion of people using the internet in Russia has exploded. In 2011, it was 33 per cent, while in 2016 it was 73 per cent, according annual Freedom House reports. Authorities have concurrently exerted stronger controls over it, eg. targeting individual social media users through broadly-worded laws against “extremism”.

Last July, the hashtag #ЯНеБоюсьСказать (“#IamNotAfraidtoSay”) went viral. Women documented experiences of sexual violence. Russian organisation Сёстры (“Sisters”), which helps survivors receive psychological support, receives “250-350” crisis calls annually.

“Over the past year, the number of applications increased,” because of the hashtag, it says. New media platforms Meduza and Wonderzine also emerged as more “socially aware” outlets. Previously “all we had was LiveJournal communities,” Mikaela says.

Bottom-up challenges are partially due to a generational shift. “Nobody bothered before,” says Muravyeva. “Those children who were born after ‘95 . . . they were already born in a very free society – they don’t know what it is to be afraid, they don’t know what it is to be self-censoring, what it is to be really scared of the state.”

Aliide Naylor is a British journalist and former Arts and Ideas Editor of The Moscow Times.

> Now read Anoosh Chakelian’s interview with Nadya Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot