Monday, 24 October 2011

The new elitism, surveillance and the harm principle

More from Stuart Waiton on the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications Bill, this time writing for The Free Society. He describes how social attitudes to football fans among the chattering classes has changed:
Today we no longer have overt elitism. It is unlikely, for example, that the Times will talk about football as a ‘slum sport played in slum stadiums watched by slum people’ as they did in the 1980s. Like the modernisation of the stadiums, today’s elitism is new and shiny, and as with modern prejudices, they are not seen as such. Football fans are now racist, sectarian, homophobic and so on, and the new elite, trained in 1980s radicalism, uses the power of the state to enforce their political correctness.
We are no longer physically caged into grounds, but our mouths are increasingly being clamped shut. Authoritarianism is growing in Scotland in particular, with more fans every week being locked up for singing songs or writing offensive words online. The latest case has seen one fan, Stephen Birrell, sentenced to eight months in prison for mouthing off on the Ban Neil Lennon Facebook page about ‘fenian scum’. 
Again it appears football fans are being used as guinea pigs for policing. In the 80s CCTV was developed as a ‘response’ to fans’ behaviour, and ID cards were proposed as a way to monitor this perceived mob. Today CCTV cameras are everywhere and ID cards for everybody are on the political agenda. Joining the extensive and growing use of cameras at grounds we now have listening equipment, because modern authoritarianism is less about controlling what we do than what we say – as Stephen Birrell and others are finding to their cost.
The presence of listening equipment on the grounds is certainly an interesting phenomenon, suggesting that perceived insults are more serious than actual violence. As Dr Waiton pointed out when giving evidence to the Justice Committee, perpetrators of violence can't excuse their actions by blaming chanting by the other side.

What may have started as a legitimate excuse for concern – people's abusive behaviour to one another  – becomes an excuse for excessive social control and ultimately legislation, whether at a football match or in the wider community. During the evidence session convenor Christine Grahame MSP suggests that football matches are the 'last port for sectarianism' in Scotland (39.05 mins). By contrast, Dr Waiton suggests (extract above) that the surveillance begins at football matches and extends to the wider community.  What the drafter of the offensive football bill and the Scottish Government see as necessary legislation to sort out verbally abusive footballers, Dr Waiton sees as a testing ground for wider society, and an abandonment of the harm principle, which he explains in the evidence session.

Dr Waiton also suggests that if this is indeed the 'last port' of Scottish sectarianism and there is limited evidence of real sectarian divisions in Scottish society, then the 'problem' is simply the way footballers behave to each other everywhere. The arguments between those who 'simply want to make things better for everyone', by banning expressions of sectarianism, smoking or whatever the mood of the moment suggests, and those who oppose puritanical cleaning up efforts will probably always be with us.  Personally I prefer policies that don't  make criminals out of people pursuing everyday activities.

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