by Stuart Cosgrove for the Scottish Football Monitor
In the early years of the new millennium, ‘The Battle of the Saints’ was a First Division encounter. Both St Mirren and St Johnstone had been relegated and were among the favourites to return to the spiritually suffocating SPL. Winning the First Division title was a mixed blessing. It provided a football moment that old firm fans could only dream of – an open-top bus round. But victory meant you were back in the SPL, a league that had been shaped for the benefit of the two big clubs.
Television revenues were skewed, there were no play-offs, only one team could be relegated and the voting structures would bring shame to a tin-pot dictatorship. It was a league you could never realistically win and so never fully enjoy. I remember being in the ‘Wee Barrel’ a traditional football boozer near St Mirren’s old Love Street stadium. It was soon after the St Johnstone drug scandal. On 5th January 2001, George O’Boyle and his teammate Kevin Thomas had been sacked following allegations that they had used illegal recreational drugs. They had allegedly been caught taking an “unidentified white powder” at the club’s injured players Christmas Party at That Bar in Perth. The drugs scandal undermined St Johnstone’s much peddled identity as a local family club. A bitter industrial dispute unfolded and widespread dressing-room unrest. The team’s form catastrophically dipped. Inevitably, St Mirren fans were delighted to play host to such a “scandalised” and “drug-addled” club. Football fans relish the misfortune of others with almost satanic glee. So the Buddies cheered sarcastically when any Perth fans went into the Wee Barrel’s less than salubrious pub toilet. They made pantomime sniffing noises interjected with animal impersonations and at times it sounded like a famer’s convention had turned into a massive cocaine bender. I vividly remember that one St Johnstone fan became so enraged that he blurted out the unforgettable phrase ‘Aye but what about Barry Lavety?’ Further back in 1995 the St Mirren striker Lavety had been arrested for using the then ‘designer drug’ ecstasy making him the first footballer of the acid-house generation. In this short, pithy response outside a toilet door in the Wee Barrel, all the gut instincts of football spectatorship came to the surface and all the components of what was later to become known as ‘whataboutery’ were laid bare.
Whataboutery pre-dates the internet but it has been kindled by it. The web has transformed the way we talk and think about football. Suddenly and profoundly new forums for discussing the game quickly followed. Facebook was launched two years later in 2004, Twitter joined the social media firmament in 2006 and by 2012 and Scottish football’s summer of discontent the micro-blogging platform had 500 million active users. The rise of social media invoked an ‘epistemological break’ with previous eras of spectatorship and with other forms of media and communication. For the first time ever, fans had a way of instantly communicating, of answering back and disagreeing with each other in real-time. Whataboutery is a dismal art that can be defined by three often sub-conscious characteristics – a refusal to engage with the question at hand; an attempt to deflect the discussion on to others and a failure to engage with the morality of the subject.
Go on any web forum today and you will find many debates are pock-marked with whataboutery. The financial meltdown of Rangers is the most recent and most virulent example. What about Hearts they owe the taxman? What about Dundee they’ve gone bust twice? What about Leeds, Middlesbrough and Portsmouth? Sadly, the misdemeanours of others is an unstable platform on which to mount a moral defence and celebrating victory in a tax tribunal about complex offshore loan-trusts does not magically airbrush away tax-debt involving VAT and PAYE. Nor does whatboutery explain why already rich footballers should enjoy the moral right to hide behind complex off shore tax schemes, irrespective of their legality. Every football fan at some time in their life has felt a deep primal urge to defend their club. We are emotionally instinctive creatures and quick to play the martyr. But however passionate you are about football – and I would count myself as ‘combustible’ – being loyal to your club does not permit disloyalty or contempt for the institutions of a fair society.
Not surprisingly, the origins of the term whatboutery can be traced back to the sectarian divisions in Northern Ireland. Last year I met the journalist and blogger, Mick Fealty who is one of the driving forces behind the blog forum Slugger O’Toole, a site that has bravely tried to provide a platform for localism and for non-sectarian political discourse in Northern Ireland. It is often cited as the place where the term whataboutery was invented. Taking its lead from Slugger, the online dictionary wikitionary defines whataboutery as “responding to criticism by accusing one’s opponent of similar or worse faults.” Recently, at the height of rioting in Belfast in the aftermath of Belfast city council’s policy shift on flying the union flag, a major local newspaper the Belfast Telegraph said in a trenchant editorial – “For everyone who cares about democracy; who wants an end to sectarian posing and mind games; an end to mindless thuggery; an end to immature reactions to complicated issues; an end to whataboutery ….” An end to sectarian posing and mind games – how refreshing would that be? The recent case of Anthony Stokes is a case in point. Most fans would concede that Stokes is a fool to have associated himself with the Real IRA and criminal elements within the Dublin republican scene. But some fans – believing they were supporting their club and its Irish origins – are hard-wired to romanticism and a re-hashed history. Nothing that Stokes has done is either romantic or historic – it is grubby and pathetic. Nor is deflection acceptable either. Yes of course Andy Goram has associated with some fairly disagreeable characters but that does not absolve Stokes of responsibility. Celtic manager Neil Lennon has been unambiguous about that. Stokes is on a final warning and rightly so. Whataboutery is the glue of entrenched opinion. It cultivates extremes rather than subtleties, and favours glib comment over deeper dialogue. That is why TSFM should always be vigilant about the forum slipping into whatabouterty.
It seems almost banal to say it, but you can be a supporter without being a supplicant. You can be Rangers daft without endorsing morally bereft tax loopholes, you can want Neil Lennon to enjoy a life free from intimidation without defending complicated film investment schemes; you can relish a goal by Garry O’ Connor without admiring his self-defeating lifestyle, you can be a big Jambo but still expect staff to be paid on time, you can be a Red Ultra without having to urinate on videos of Gazza and you can soak up the atmosphere in the Dundee Derry, without cushioning its sectarian associations. And, yes I do know that there was once a dairy behind the goal at the Derry End – but when fights erupted in the 1970s, it wasn’t lactic pasteurisation they were fighting about.
Football fans can be emotionally passionate yet hold on to moral values. We can be vocal without being vacuous. We can be diehard fans without being robotic ideologues for our club. Many of us have found ourselves tied in knots trying to defend our clubs and in some cases defend the indefensible. The roll-call of whatboutery in Scottish football would shame a mature society. There’s defective flat-screen televisions in Manchester; hearses at Celtic Park; programme notes at Montrose; unidentified white powder; porn peddlers in the 1980s, Joanna Lumley’s love-life, urinal-videos in Aberdeen; Leigh Griffith’s unique contribution to fatherhood; Hugh Dallas’s emails; Maurice Edu’s car and Lee Wallace’s air-rifle. They are surreal and seemingly endless.
As new technologies surround us daily, whataboutery has gone digital and online disputes are now frequently backed up by a stream of phone-footage, rogue tweets, photo-shopped imagery and spectacularly desperate analogies. We live in the white-heat of social media where whataboutery goes on ad nauseum and in perpetuity. It is the dismal art of the web and a habit we have to overcome if Scottish football is ever to find a settled democracy. The financial collapse of Rangers has brought us to a cross roads. Unless there is some kind of rapprochement and an ‘appliance of compliance’, then whataboutery will last for many more decades to come. Whataboutery is a defence mechanism which allows fans and the clubs they support to avoid moral responsibility. But it need not be like that. In February 2007, Scottish football was given a simple lesson in how the game could be run if we could look forward. It was a cold and wet night at Fir Park during a midweek Scottish cup tie. St Johnstone’s Jason Scotland was unexpectedly targeted by a small band of racist Motherwell fans. By most reasonable accounts of the events, a gang of right-wing casuals taunted the player with monkey chants. Season tickets were not valid and many fans were not in their regular seats. But within a few minutes, groups of decent Motherwell fans turned on the racists, shouted them down and alerted the police.
Online there was a brief and half-hearted flurry of whataboutery. Some denied it had happened, others said that Jason Scotland was “playing the race card” and a small vocal minority argued it was Airdrie fans. This is an unfamiliar twist on an age old deflection. Blaming phantom support from elsewhere is quite common in Scottish football, although it is usually the demonology of Chelsea, Millwall or England fans that are cast as the mysterious villains.
Whatever the motives of those that posted their defence of Motherwell, the whataboutery was short-lived and brought to a shuddering halt by a simple, prompt and unambiguous apology. In an official club statement, Chairman John Boyle said: “These people should never show their faces at Fir Park again and they have no place in football,” adding “We are utterly appalled by this behaviour by a small group of people who have tarnished the name of our club. We are writing to Jason Scotland and St Johnstone today to apologise for this disgusting behaviour which is totally alien to all of us.”
Motherwell had scripted a blue-print for change. Rather than deflect attention elsewhere or dispute the minutiae of events, clubs, fans and officials have to become “better at being wrong.” When there is a clear injustice, evidence of wrong-doing or powerful proof that mistakes have been made, then it is no longer acceptable to hide from the moral consequences. Apologise and pay the price. That applies equally to all of us and there is no hierarchy of importance. No special cases. The SPL may have a history of gifting privileges but common decency does not.
Stuart Cosgrove is a St Johnstone fan. He was previously Media Editor of the NME and is now Director of Creative Diversity at Channel 4, where he recently managed coverage of the Paralympics, London 2012. At the weekend he presents the BBC Scotland football show ‘Off the Ball’ with Tam Cowan. This is the second of a trilogy of blogs he has agreed to write for TSFM. The first was about the era of Armageddon. He writes here in a personal capacity.