Why the Reading Chronicle demonisation of football fans affects more than football

Some of you may have seen my strongly worded tweets last week when the Reading Chronicle published it’s inflammatory, factually incorrect and misleading article suggesting that Reading FC fans (or at least a large contingent of them) are football hooligans and it is only due to the hard work of the police and the Reading FC management that it was all being kept under control. This was complimented by a staged photo of a person wearing a Reading FC shirt, a scarf wrapped around their face, carrying a piece of wood and looking ‘thuggish’.

Not only was the article poorly written and the journalist clearly hadn’t done his research as he seemed to be unaware of the Hillsborough developments over the past year, but it was also potentially very damaging to football fans.

Many of the inaccuracies in the article (and there are too many to mention) have already been addressed by other fans and journalists see Reading FC fan Jon Keen’s response http://thetilehurstend.sbnation.com/2014/3/20/5529246/tawdry-and-offensive-journalism-at-its-best and the Liverpool Echo’s article http://www.liverpoolecho.co.uk/news/liverpool-news/reading-chronicle-issues-unreserved-apology-6861586

The suggestion that the reason there is no trouble at Reading FC is solely due to the police and Reading FC, is rubbish. It is suggested that the police have worked so well with the Club that police have not been required to police at many Reading matches. This shows a complete lack of awareness of football policing. The main thrust of football policing is identifying and managing risk supporters. The police charge a football club for all policing required inside the Ground and also on what is called ‘The Footprint’, the area surrounding the Ground where police identify that they need to be in attendance before, during and after the game.  In the case of Reading, the Footprint is not very large due to the location of the Madejski Stadium being away from the town and major transport hubs. if there is any suggestion that there will be risk supporters in attendance at a match the police will insist on having officers inside the ground and on The Footprint. The Footprint can be a bone of contention with Clubs as they often have to pay heavily for the policing outside of the ground even when the Club considers there is no need. Leeds United FC challenged this footprint charging by West Yorks Police a few years ago in the High Court http://www.theguardian.com/football/2012/jul/24/leeds-united-win-police-costs  I have spoken to Club Chairmen and Directors who often complain that effectively the Footprint is being used as an excuse to fund police overtime, and policing of the leisure parks and towns at a weekend.

The Reading Chronicle and Thames Valley Police have acknowledged that many of the Games were unpoliced (although I assume that the football intelligence officers and football spotters would have been in attendance still as they usually still attend a non-policed match). The significance of this is that the police football intelligence must have indicated that there would be no risk supporters at these matches and that all other fans are recognised as law abiding, and well behaved. Not the thugs and hooligans the Reading Chronicle would like them to be.

So why is the Reading Chronicle article likely to harm football fans if they are all law abiding?

Let’s face it much of the media and the general public have a dim view of football fans. The fact that an MP felt it appropriate to call football fans on a night out in Covent Garden, ‘Scum’ without checking his facts, shows the disrespect football fans face. The Met Police who were in attendance had no complaint about fan behaviour, and the trash that had been left behind by the fans was because the Borough removed most of the bins as part of its cost cutting measures.

The problem with the Reading Chronicle articles is that it can create ‘guilt by association’.  Employers in the local area may check the social media of potential employees, and a fan who writes a tweet or a Facebook post about their trip to Reading FC on Saturday may be seen by the potential employer as a bit of a risk, they may be a hooligan.  Cafés and bars in town may decide that they don’t want to serve a Latte to a fan incase they cause trouble. And so on…

If you think I am being sensationalist, consider this. I had a call a few weeks ago about a fan who had been arrested for drink driving.  He pleaded guilty, and when the Crown Prosecution Service explained the facts,  the first thing the court was told was that the driver was a football fan and a season ticket was found on him when he was arrested.  In actual fact he was not driving from a match, but had gone home after the match, not having had a drink at the match, had gone out that evening to a friend’s house where he had drunk alcohol and caught a taxi home. He was arrested the next day as he drove to work and unknown to him he was slightly over the legal alcohol limit. The first question the Magistrates asked was whether they could make a football banning order on him. The case was even adjourned off so that the Crown Prosecution Service could enquire with the police about making a football banning application. What should have been a simple drink driving sentencing matter of a fine and disqualification from driving turned into a complete fiasco and a waste of a great deal of tax payers money due to the fact the driver was a football fan. Fortunately, in that case the solicitor for the driver and the football intelligence officer both agreed that it was nonsense for the court to consider a football banning order , but it is evidence of the attitude towards football fans.

My non football fan friends could not understand why I was so upset by the Reading Chronicle article…hopefully this now explains why.

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About gurdena

Social Justice Barrister, interested in all things contentious & anything criminal justice related including prisoners and complaints against the police. Specialising in criminal law - mainly sex, violence, and football fans (not necessarily all 3 at the same time!). Represents people facing death penalty in the USA. Associate Member at Drystone Chambers Gurdena@btinternet.com Alison.gurden@drystone.com

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