Media coverage of football hooliganism
Football hooliganism can be seen as something of an easy target' for the media. With journalists present at every match across the country, the chances of a story being missed are slim. TV cameras also mean that disturbances within stadiums are caught on video. Since the 1960s, in fact, journalists have been sent to football matches to report on crowd behaviour, rather than just the game 1.
The British tabloid press in particular have an enthusiastic' approach to the reporting of soccer violence, with sensationalist headlines such as “Smash These Thugs!”, “Murder on a Soccer Train!” (Sun), “Mindless Morons” and “Savages! Animals!” (Daily Mirror) 2. Whilst open condemnation of hooligans is the norm across the media, it has been argued that this sensationalist style of reporting presents football violence as far more of a concern than it actually is, elevating it to a major social problem'. The problem of press sensationalism was recognised in the 1978 Report on Public Disorder and Sporting Events, carried out by the Sports Council and Social Science Research Council. It observed that:
“It must be considered remarkable, given the problems of contemporary Britain, that football hooliganism has received so much attention from the Press. The events are certainly dramatic, and frightening for the bystander, but the outcome in terms of people arrested and convicted, people hurt, or property destroyed is negligible compared with the number of people potentially involved.”
Furthermore, some critics argue that media coverage of hooliganism has actually contributed to the problem . More recently, the popular press has been criticised for it's pre-match reporting during the 1996 European Championships.
Press boxes were first installed at football matches in the 1890s, although the reporting of football matches goes back considerably further than this. The study by Murphy, Dunning and Williams 3 shows that disorder was a regular occurrence at football matches before the First World War, and newspaper reports of trouble were common. However, the style of reporting was a long way away from the coverage which hooliganism receives today.
Most reports before the First World War were made in a restrained fashion. Little social comment was made and the articles were small and factual, often placed under a heading such as Football Association Notes' 4.
“ ... Loughborough had much the best of matters and the Gainsborough goal survived several attacks in a remarkable manner, the end coming with the score:
The referee's decisions had caused considerable dissatisfaction, especially that disallowing a goal to Loughborough in the first half, and at the close of the game he met with a very unfavourable reception, a section of the crowd hustling him and it was stated that he was struck.” 5
It is hard to imagine a present day report of an incident such as this being written with such impartiality and lack of concern.
During the inter-war years, the style of reporting began to change. As newspapers gave more space to advertising, stories had to be considered more for their newsworthiness' than before. What is interesting to note about Murphy et al's study here is that they argue that the press facilitated (consciously or not) the view that football crowds were becoming more orderly and well behaved by underplaying, or just not reporting, incidents which did occur. At the same time, however, a small amount of concern and condemnation began to creep in to reports.
This trend continued for a decade or so after the Second World War and it is this period which is often referred to as football's hey-day: a time of large, enthusiastic, but well-behaved crowds. Murphy et al argue that this was not necessarily the case and that although incidents of disorder were on the decrease, those that did occur often went un-reported.
The roots of today's style of reporting of football violence can be traced back to the mid 1950s. At a time when there was widespread public fear over rising juvenile crime and about youth violence in general, the press began to carry more and more stories of this nature and football matches were an obvious place to find them. Although many reports still attempted to down-play the problem, the groundwork was laid as articles began to frequently refer to a hooligan minority of fans
By the mid-1960s, with the World Cup to be held in England drawing closer, the press expressed dire warnings of how the hooligans could ruin the tournament. The World Cup passed without incident but the moral panic concerning hooliganism continued to increase.
By the 1970s calls for tougher action on trouble-makers became common place in the tabloid's headlines: "Smash These Thugs" (Sun, 4 October 1976), "Thump and Be Thumped" (Daily Express, 25 November 1976), "Cage the Animals" (Daily Mirror, 21 April 1976) and "Birch em!" (Daily Mirror, 30 August 1976).
During the 1980s, many of these demands were actually met by the British authorities, in the wake of tragedies such as the Heysel deaths in 1985, "Cage The Animals" turning out to be particularly prophetic. As these measures were largely short-sighted, they did not do much to quell the hooliganism, and may have in fact made efforts worse. As such, football hooliganism continued to feature heavily in the newspapers and mass media in general and still does today.
The main bodies of work we will consider here are that of Stuart Hall in the late 1970s and that of Patrick Murphy and his colleagues at Leicester in the late 1980s.
Stuart Hall in The treatment of football hooliganism in the Press, identifies what he calls the amplification spiral' whereby exaggerated coverage of a problem can have the effect of worsening it: 6
"If the official culture or society at large comes to believe that a phenomenon is threatening, and growing, it can be led to panic about it. This often precipitates the call for tough measures of control. This increased control creates a situation of confrontation, where more people than were originally involved in the deviant behaviour are drawn into it ... Next week's confrontation' will then be bigger, more staged, so will the coverage, so will the public outcry, the pressure for yet more control..."
This spiral effect, Hall argues, has been particularly apparent in the coverage of football hooliganism since the mid 1960s. The press' technique of "editing for impact" is central to Hall's theory. The use of "graphic headlines, bold type-faces, warlike imagery and epithets..." serves to sensationalise and exaggerate the story.
This approach is supported by a later study by Patrick Murphy and his colleagues7. They argue that the particular shape which football hooliganism has taken since the 1960s, i.e. "regular confrontations between named rival groups", has arisen partly out of press coverage of incidents. In particular, the predictive style of reporting which often appeared in the tabloids such as "Scandal of Soccer's Savages – Warming up for the new season" (Daily Mirror, 20 August 1973) and "Off – To a Riot" (People, 2 August 1970).
In 1967, a Chelsea fan appearing in court charged with carrying a razor said in his defence that he had "read in a local newspaper that the West Ham lot were going to cause trouble". 8
This predictive style of reporting is most apparent when the English national side is involved in international tournaments. During the build up to the World Cup in Italy, 1990 the English Press gave out grave warnings of violence in Italy. The Sun quoted anonymous English fans as saying there was going to be "... a bloodbath – someone is going to get killed" (31 May 1990), while the Daily Mirror claimed Sardinians were arming themselves with knives for the visit of the English who were "ready to cause havoc" on the island (27 May 1990). This anticipation of trouble meant that media presence at the tournament was very substantial, and competition for a story' fierce, resulting in journalists picking up the smallest of incidents. John Williams9 also claims that journalists may have paid English fans to pose for photographs.
"By defining matchdays and football grounds as times and places in which fighting could be engaged in and aggressive forms of masculinity displayed, the media, especially the national tabloid press, played a part of some moment in stimulating and shaping the development of football hooliganism."
Furthermore, Murphy argues that the press have played a role in decisions over policy making to deal with football hooliganism, resulting in largely short-sighted measures which have in the main shifted violence from the terraces onto the streets and towns outside the football grounds.
Evidently, social explanations of football violence do not make great headlines and it is rare that a report of football violence in the popular press will include such an insight, if it does it tends to be a short remark, buried away at the end of the article. Thus, as Hall points out, "If you lift social violence out of it's social context, the only thing you are left with is – bloody heads." In fact, the explanations offered to us by the popular press usually aim to dismiss the violence as irrational, stupid and ultimately animalistic – "RIOT! United's Fans Are Animals" (Sunday People, 29 August 1975) and "SAVAGES! ANIMALS!" ( Daily Mirror, 21 April 1975).
This has serious consequences, as Melnick points out:
"The mass media in general and the national press in particular can take major credit for the public's view of the soccer hooligan as a cross between the Neanderthal Man and Conan the Barbarian".10
By labelling the actions of football hooligans like this, it is easy for the tabloid press to make calls for tougher action from the authorities. If the violence has no rationale or reason then what can be done but use force against it?
"Another idea might be to put these people in hooligan compounds' every Saturday afternoon ... They should be herded together preferably in a public place. That way they could be held up to ridicule and exposed for what they are – mindless morons with no respect for other people's property or wellbeing. We should make sure we treat them like animals – for their behaviour proves that's what they are".11
Contrasted with these calls for harsh punishments have been more blatant forms of glorification of hooliganism, most obviously in the publishing of league tables of hooligan notoriety':
"Today the Mirror reveals the end-of-term arrest' record of First Division Clubs' supporters covering every league match played by 22 teams. The unique report compiled with the help of 17 police forces reflects the behaviour of both home' and away' fans at each ground. The record speaks for itself; Manchester United were bottom of the League of Shame by more than 100 arrests." 12
League tables were published in several other newspapers, including the Daily Mail, during the mid 1970s. However, in 1984, when a report by a working group in the government's Department of the Environment, entitled Football Spectator Violence, recommended that the police should compile a league table of the country's most notorious hooligan groups to help combat the problem, many newspapers replied with disgust and outrage that this should be published (which it wasn't going to be), arguing that doing so could incite hooligan competition. Importantly, as Murphy et al assert, this shows that the press recognise that publicity can influence football hooliganism.
Criticism has also been aimed at the tabloid press for the attitude it takes in its build-up to major international matches. Two days before England's semi-final match against Germany in this year's European Championships, the Mirror carried the front page headline "Achtung! Surrender. For you Fritz ze Euro 96 Championship is over" while the editorial, also on the front page, consisted of a parody of Neville Chamberlain's 1939 announcement of the outbreak of war with Hitler: "Mirror Declares Football War on Germany". Elsewhere, the war metaphors continued: "Let's Blitz Fritz" (Sun) and "Herr We Go" (Daily Star).
Condemnation of the tabloids was widespread, but in fact they had done it before. Before England played the Federal Republic of Germany in the semi-final of the 1990 World Cup, The Sun printed the headline "We Beat Them In 45 ... Now The Battle of 90"
Following the disturbances across Britain after the match, in which a battle between English fans and police broke out in London's Trafalgar Square and a Russian student was stabbed in Brighton, mistakenly being identified as a German, some critics were keen to point the finger at the xenophobia of the tabloid press in encouraging racist and violent action. A report produced by the National Heritage Select Committee, led by Labour MP Gerald Kaufman, concluded that the tabloid press coverage "may well have had it's effect in stimulating the deplorable riots".
Even without considering whether the disturbances that night constituted deplorable riots' or not, this claim is highly debatable. What is clear, however, is that certain double standards exist within the tabloid press. On the one hand they are keen to label the actions of hooligans as moronic' and evil' whilst at the same time they encourage the jingoistic and xenophobic views so prevalent within the national hooligan scene. A study by Blain and O'Donnell, involving 3,000 newspaper reports from 10 countries covering the 1990 World Cup claimed that "There is nothing elsewhere in Europe like the aggressiveness towards foreigners of the British popular press."13.
It is not just in the international context that one finds this aggressive style of reporting but also in general football journalism. Headlines such as "C-R-U-N-C-H", "FOREST'S BLITZ", "POWELL BLAST SHOCKS STOKE", and "Doyle's Karate Gets Him Chopped" were found in the sports pages of just one edition of the Sunday People14. Stuart Hall claims that if football reporting is shrouded in violent, war metaphors and graphic imagery then one should not be surprised that this spills over on to the terraces.
"...the line between the sports reporter glorying in the battles on the pitch, and expressing his righteous moral indignation at the battle on the terraces is a very fine and wavery one indeed" 15.
The role of the media in other European countries
Studies of media reporting of football hooliganism elsewhere in Europe have been rather limited. This may be due to the more benign' reporting of fans in other countries or to the relative novelty of the football violence phenomenon in some cases. The most significant studies have been conducted in Italy and the Netherlands, with less substantial work in Denmark and Austria. Work on Scottish fans by Giulianotti, however, is also relevant in this section.
Alessandro dal Lago16 analyses the coverage of football hooliganism in the Italian media. He identifies two phases in reporting football matches by the press. Before the 1970s each match was covered at most by two articles. The attention of the reporters was more focused on the players than on the terraces, when violence occurred it was reported as a secondary event in the context of the article. The second phase comes from the mid 1970s. Now attention was focused on the ends' ( the terraces behind the goals favoured by the Italian ultras) and outside the stadium. Football incidents were given the honour' of separate articles independent from the reports of football matches.
Dal Lago recognises the amplifying role which the media plays and claims that the ultras are aware of it to the extent that banners displayed in the ends' frequently include messages to journalists. For example in June 1989, a week after a Roma supporter had died and three Milan fans arrested, a banner displayed by the Milan ultras was directed at Biscardi, a presenter of a popular sports programme Il Processo del Lunedi (The Monday Trial). It read "Biscardi sei figlio di bastardi" (Biscardi you are a son of bastards).
Dal Lago states that widespread hatred exists on the part of both groups, with expressions such as beasts' and stupid' used by the ultras to describe the media and by the media to describe the ultras.
A study by van der Brug and Meijs set out to see what the influence of the Dutch media coverage of hooliganism is on the hooligans themselves. A survey was conducted in which there were 53 respondents from different sides' (groups of fans so called after the section of the ground in which they are usually located) in Holland. Put to them were a series of statements to see whether they agreed / disagreed etc. Statements which featured the strongest levels of agreement among the respondents were "It is fun when the side is mentioned in the newspaper or on television", "Side supporters think it is important that newspapers write about their side" and "When I read in the newspaper that there will be extra police, it makes the coming match more interesting". 17
The authors conclude that:
"There is no doubt whatsoever that the media have some effect on football hooliganism."
We have seen earlier that the media has played a large part in the shaping of the present day view of football hooligans in England. It is interesting, therefore, to consider the example of Scottish fans and their transformation, in the public's eyes, from British hooligans' to Scottish fans'. Since 1981 the Scottish Tartan Army' has consciously sought to acquire an international reputation for boisterous friendliness to the host nation and opposing fans through carnivalesque' behaviour 18. The media has played a very important role in this. By organising themselves into very large groups at matches abroad, the Scottish fans attract a great deal of media attention, but by displaying themselves as nothing more than friendly, albeit drunken, fans their press coverage is predominantly positive. The Scottish media has been behind this transformation, namely by representing English fans as hooligans and by underplaying any trouble which has occurred involving Scottish fans.
A similar story exists in Denmark where the Roligans' (see section 4) have an impeccable reputation as the antithesis of the English hooligan'. Peitersen and Skov19 identified the role that the media played in forming this reputation:
"The Danish popular press were an active force in support of the Danish roligans and the fantastic reputation that they have achieved in the international press ... the Danish popular press came to have a similar role to that played by the English popular press for the hooligans, but with reversed polarity. While the Danish press supported recognisable positive trends encompassing companionship, fantasy, humour and pride, the English press helped to intensify and refine violence among English spectators by consciously focusing on and exaggerating the violence and the shame."
Roman Horak20 also claims that a spate of de-amplification of football violence in the Austrian press occured in the mid to late 1980s As a result hooligans lost the coverage which they had previously thrived upon, and the number of incidents decreased.
It is evident that the media plays a very significant role in the public's view of football hooliganism. By far the biggest problem lies in the sensationalist reporting of the British tabloid press. We have seen how the press has helped form the modern phenomenon of football hooliganism, how it has shaped public opinion of the problem, and how it may directly influence the actions of fans themselves.
There is considerable evidence to support the claim that football hooligans enjoy press coverage and positively attempt to obtain coverage of themselves and their group. In fact, a hooligan group's notoriety and reputation stems largely from reports in the media. The following conversation between two Milwall supporters talking to each other in 1982, is somewhat revealing :
"C – keeps a scrapbook of press cuttings and everything, you should see it, got this great picture from when Milwall went to Chelsea. Great, this Chelsea fan photographed being led away from the shed, with blood pouring out of his white tee shirt. He's clutching his guts like this (illustrates), got stabbed real bad."
"You see that thing in the Sun on Violent Britain'? No? Well I was in it. Well not directly like. I had this Tottenham geezer see. Sliced up his face with my blade – right mess." 21
In Football hooliganism: The Wider Context, Roger Ingham recommended that the media should reduce their tendencies to:
" ... sensationalise, inflate, exaggerate and amplify their stories", advocating "more accurate reporting of events, more careful choice of descriptive terminology, greater efforts to place the events themselves in appropriate contexts".
Ingham also called for the press to think before printing anticipations of disturbances, going so far as to recommend that the Press Council "play a more active role in attempting to ensure accurate and responsible reporting".
However, 18 years on from Ingham's writings we are still faced with the same situation and it is one which looks unlikely to go away. As Melnick 22 points out " ... in the newspaper business, bad news is good news'". A glimmer of hope perhaps stems from the Scottish example talked about earlier, demonstrating that football fans can produce good' stories in the press, although it may be fair to say that many of the stories have only been deemed newsworthy' because of the emphasis on the contrast with English fans.
Horak's claim is also encouraging, indicating that media de-amplification (i.e. playing down stories of football hooliganism) can lead to reductions in levels of violence. In this sense, therefore, Euro 96 could prove to be a turning point in press coverage of football.
Apart from the disturbances in London following the England – Germany match, the European Championships provided almost nothing in the way of hooliganism stories for the press and, as such, stories concentrated on the English team, rather than the fans.
The role of the media was raised in a recent report to the European Parliament on football hooliganism by the Committee on Civil Liberties and Internal Affairs. In this the committee recognises that:
"The media act as magnifiers – they magnify acts of violence and provoke further acts of violence. The media show social problems – the violence in and around football, xenophobia and the racism which is its expression – as if under a magnifying glass. What is nasty becomes nastier because it seems to appear anonymously."
It then goes on to recommend that the media:
" ... participate in the promotion of respect for fair play in sport, to help promote positive sporting values, to combat aggressive and chauvinistic behaviour and to avoid any sensationalism in treating information on violence at sporting events."
Short of outright censorship, however, it is hard to imagine how legislation can reduce sensationalism and exaggeration in the media.