As you get older and perhaps (or not) wiser you start to realise what politics is all about. Essentially people will do and say almost anything to further their cause and ultimately score points. In the world of social media virtue signalling is something of a recent twist on old tricks and serves to highlight that no link is too tenuous when there are points to be scored. Of course we in Scotland get our dose of signalling through our media, often from politicians, and usually related to bigotry (or what we’re told is bigotry) and with clock-work guarantee after Old Firm games.
A lazy way to define bigotry would be someone using bigoted language. Of course, that is a bit simplistic because context is also important in that equation. It also misses out the wider issue, where it’s the everyday actions and intent which make up the bulk of any real problem and these serve to carry enmity forward.
Now here’s a point: football rivalry is binary. You want your team to win, you want the rival to lose. That’s how it works. During the game there is no squaring that circle and there’s no need to either. It’s entertainment. It’s a release for the general population; effectively, it’s a civilised tribal proxy for battle. In an ideal world the game finishes, there’s a bit of banter and its back to normal life until the next time.
Now here’s the problem: certain characters are taking the binary essence of the battle and transposing their politics onto it. That way a rivalry can be made to take any form and cover any topic. It can be made to look bad, or intolerant, or race and religion-based. It’s a pretty simple and effective technique but it’s ultimately a distortion of sport.
In the wake of the Old Firm game we saw some politicians signalling their sides’ virtues against the fabricated bogeymen. Groups of young lads vocally supporting their team whilst denouncing the opposition in the immediate environs of the stadium whilst surrounded by police is hardly against the spirit of the rivalry or pushing social acceptability to any extreme. Yet the politicians saw fit to project other aspects of culture onto this canvas. These actions benefit the politicians in question from both sides of the same coin; namely, to gain political mileage for their cause (into which they’re very keen to add the polarized world of football rivalry) and equally to demonise the opposition support (i.e. Rangers). For reference purposes the MSPs actively involved this time were (but not limited to) the SNP's Julie McKenzie and Peter Grant and the SNP's Green party stooge Patrick Harvie. Additionally we have reporters (Martin Hannan of the National, the political newspaper) using platforms like BBC Scotland and a discussion on Jamie Carragher's abhorrent behaviour to crowbar Rangers into the narrative. It’s nauseating.
Social media will provide us with ample evidence that similar actions were carried out by both Rangers and Celtic fans over the weekend, as they are at every match. If it's out of order then condemn it, absolutely. Yet these elected and well-paid politicians choose to highlight one and ignore the other. This is sowing further divisions into a world they claim is already toxic and divided, a world they’ll claim they want to heal, whilst in reality the opposite is true.
It won’t be a surprise to know that the most vocal politicians are no friends of Rangers and have a history denouncing the club and attempting to drag it into their divisive politics - as above, bigoted actions are often further-reaching and longer lasting than ill-chosen words. And so much for winning people over.
The media are reverting to a similar template as well. The clear message is that Rangers are bad, where stories are selected and given exposure, where the converse is ignored and sectarian or unacceptable behaviour by Celtic fans (abuse aimed at Rangers players) is knowingly ignored. The unacceptable abuse of Celtic player Scott Sinclair (1) was rushed to the front page of the Daily Record, whilst it took considerable time for video footage of Russell Martin being subjected to overt sectarian abuse and intimidation (2) to be added to the same paper's website, and only then after apparently been widely highlighted to them by Rangers fans on social media. The Scotsman had managed to interview and report on an ex-Celtic player's view about the Sinclair incident but at time of writing they were obviously not too bothered about certifiable abuse going the other way. On top of a trend of similar episodes this suggests to me bias and agendas are being played out in the general press as well i.e. something other than the news is driving the news.
This isn’t to say the odd story doesn’t get exposed, some incidents are too bad to be ignored even if carried out by Celtic fans; however, in sheer numbers there is simply a lack of balance which doesn’t reflect reality. It can be argued what the cause of this is (agenda, politics, what sells papers or Rangers simply being an easy target with a club that often doesn't fight its corner) but it seems fairly obvious to me its happening.
Of course, the media also love politicians weighing as it gives the story some gravitas and a sheen of respectability (where, as mentioned above, we know in most cases that not remotely deserved). The other common hook used is to quote Nil By Mouth - a well-funded government charity.
I don’t always agree with NBM nor think that all of their work is pragmatic or realistic but credit where it’s due, they have a fairly sound message and apply it consistently. Their recent initiative (3) was a welcome break from pompous journalists pushing for jail-terms and closed stands under the banner of doing society a favour whilst their tribal peers fight and riot in between running a recruitment drive for proscribed terrorist organisations. Maybe if a similar approach had been adopted 20 years ago then we’d all be in a better place? Now here is my issue, if the media are using NBM's comments and applying them unevenly, or maliciously, then isn’t that an issue in itself? I would consider this to be a point for NBM to recognise and definitely something to comment on and discourage.
I have asked NBM to comment on media and political responsibilities several times and while they have many well-formed and well-meaning views they stop short of conceding an imbalance or acknowledging the game is too often being used for political mileage. I have an admittedly polarised view on football matters, I do get a lot of my news through a blue coloured filter, but I don’t consider myself too entrenched to recognise a bigger picture. Maybe if press and politicians held themselves to better standards then the average man in the street would have a better example to follow. Or alternatively, despite knowing what’s right and wrong, if people who should know better can’t act without prejudice then why should your average football fan? Unfortunately, like most of episodes it boils down to basic fairness and hypocrisy.
The Old Firm rivalry can be a fantastic spectacle, it's loud, raucous and usually politically incorrect but should be enjoyed as that. I don’t think it’s either possible or necessary to completely sanitise it. Better to be open and honest about things and just reinforce the message that outside the cauldron then people have a duty to behave with respect. In my opinion, walls of division exist across Scotland outwith the fixture and these are what should be worked on. Some of these involve the physical separation of communities and some of them are virtual walls thrown up by politicians, leaders and the media to serve their agenda. The division inherit in a football rivalry cannot be removed during the contest but it should be recognised as trivial in the larger scheme of things. But one thing is for certain, it should not be used as a truck for some to throw their political baggage on.
(1) Celtic star Scott Sinclair's airport abusers off hook as no police action taken
(2) Rangers player Russell Martin suffers vile sectarian abuse in supermarket
(3) Old Firm fans urged to ‘sing something else’ by anti-sectarian charity
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