December 6 2017

This week’s blog is by Rangers fan Rick Roberts who offers his view from the stands on sectarianism in Scotland, how it is reported in the media and the importance of trust in the ongoing public debate…

Not Impressed by the Press…

“…somewhere between an altruistic desire to improve and move my country forward and a bloody-minded refusal to be dictated to by people I can’t trust”.

That could probably sum up where I currently stand on what I consider to somewhat circular debate on Scottish football and sectarianism. I dare say it could also cover a lot of issues for a lot of people. Tribalism tends to do that – as does unbalanced treatment or even just the perception of it. Unfortunately the latter perception will need some serious reconciliation before the former altruism can dictate things for me again.

It wasn’t always like this. Despite joining in with the battle tunes I wasn’t opposed or closed when the issue of “sectarian” singing was raised in the press back in the 90s. Certain songs, or certain words in certain songs, were probably unnecessary and with Rangers playing near the top of European football there was an argument that some sanitizing could help the club take the next steps (or at least not hinder it). The journalists who raised the issue seemed righteous enough, spoke-well and had the platform of respected broadsheets and broadcasters to project from. However, as time went on something jarred with me. The subject wasn’t quite being given the completeness and honesty I’d expected. Rangers fans were being hammered left, right and centre, narratives were being set, but what I’d consider to be sectarian (and certainly offensive) behaviour elsewhere was being pretty much ignored. Rather naively I’d expected absolutes to be applied across the board. What’s wrong is wrong, right? We’d chip away and fix this thing together? Apparently not.

One complication with the whole mess is that context cannot be removed. It’s one of the world’s fiercest rivalries and we take pride it that when it suits and as many have joked it’s possibly the only selling point to Scottish football at the moment. You have one side ramping up the offensiveness and in return it gets volleyed back. Evolve that over decades and the result is bound to be pretty grisly.

Take an analogy of a boxing match – you have two wiling competitors both throwing punches and both fully committed. However, if you take the actions of one in isolation it doesn’t represent what’s actually happening. You could frame it as one deranged madman throwing punches and demonise him for such actions but it wouldn’t be the whole picture or the truth.

Yet this is how I consider Rangers fans to have been treated in this charade. We were told what a word meant when we used it, even when it didn’t. We were told the support was a seething, angry mass of lawlessness and bigotry even though a look around Ibrox showed the opposite – everyday people just taking in the match no different to any other ground. Yet context was removed and absolutes were applied. In this environment even pretty benign subjects can be sensationalised. And annoyingly/amazingly others were still being ignored, or worse still given tacit approval by having their chants gleefully dismissed or re-categorised by the press cheerleaders.

It then sunk in that this was just a game, a bit of a laugh and some individual’s made considerable mileage out of it whilst as a happy coincidence Rangers took the brunt of the flak. Over the years many of the prime movers and commentators have been proven to be partisan. Yet worryingly for years they have been allowed to drive the narrative and decide what was right or wrong. Like all things they got traction because there is a degree of truth in the original subject which was then dragged out of context and dissected. They failed time and time again to apply the same logic and reasoning to others. They failed to take any momentum and give real shape or purpose to the discussions and where they consistently fell way short – to search for solutions. A cynic would say they don’t want a solution and are quite happy with the status quo.

Another negative, it could be argued that the actions of the main commentators has actually made the situation worse. Banter has been driving out of Scottish football and a perma-offended, tell-tale culture encouraged. Views polarized and sides entrenched as the press seemed to float away in a bubble where Rangers baiting and Rangers bashing was seen as fair game – even within publicly sponsored broadcasters. The baiting continued and Rangers fans were being dehumanised by compromised commentators, to the extent outright lies have been told in the national press. My observation is that agendas have been acted out by fans of sporting and cultural rivals under the false banners of virtue or social responsibility. Other Rangers’ fans have seen this and many have turned their back on aspects of mainstream media and frankly do not trust the anti-sectarianism industry. That’s a large section of the population to be disengaged.

A commonly seen phrase is that “Rangers deserve it” – that it’s a form of karmic punishment being dished out. That some have misbehaved in the past or through the use of inappropriate or ill-advised words which makes it fair game to label and demonise the whole group. Doesn’t that labelling make those commentators just as bad? For me sectarianism isn’t just about a bad word here or there, it’s about actions. How you act day to day and how you treat people. These are universals and accepting no-one is perfect, improving can be an aim. Equally, no entire support is better than any other and it just cannot be portrayed as being the case. Using a professional position or platform to act out cultural or sporting prejudices or to extract damage or advantage from them is poor form – and in many ways worse than a throwaway football chant as it’s abusing a position of trust. In my opinion, others in positions of responsibility have been guilty of failing to recognise this or call this out. That’s their job, their role in the whole thing and their silence is probably received as acceptance or even encouragement.

Rangers’ fans aren’t perfect but then we never claimed to be whilst others have. There’s a basic hierarchy of behaviour and decency and most people know how to behave. A fierce rivalry probably increases the dimensions of that envelope, rightly or wrongly. There’s a case for introspection for all supporters and clubs on that point and self-awareness and self-policing on many issues. When someone genuinely over-steps the line there should be consequences, we all agree on that. That said it’s slightly concerning that we are at a place where a spoken word can get you more jail time than actual physical assault.

Scotland’s sporting rivalries have plenty of history, baggage and bad habits. After 20 years or so of this I’ve yet to see any of the messy stuff (across the board) being discussed freely and openly at government level, in the sport’s governing bodies or in the press. From what i’ve seen no real solutions have been suggested or common vision proposed. NBM and others may do good work, may have great ideas – if so these simply haven’t received the airing required or have been drowned out by the noise to sell newspapers or act out agendas. My opinion is that plenty of the baggage could be dropped and many of the bad habits left behind by all sides. Sadly that is not going to happen when there’s agendas in play and where trust is found lacking.

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