The Dismal Art of Whataboutery

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

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.

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About SFM
The Scottish Football Monitor is following the lead of RangersTaxCase in an attempt to hold the Scottish mainstream media to account and to question. If they do not ask the difficult questions, we will.

796 Responses to The Dismal Art of Whataboutery

  1. Regarding Charles Green’s latest contradictory statement, where he counters the assertion that certain spl clubs will be starved of Ibrox cash by gallantly suggesting DU “give us all the tickets”, he may be shifting ground towards accepting an official allocation, now that the share sale show-boating season is ended.

    As for iceman63’s suggestion that clubs call an emergency general meeting, which I TU’d, in my opinion too many clubs/club officials have a vested interest in a resurgence of a Govan side that they are prepared to take a risk on Green’s strategy…..which may also spell disaster for the newest side in the league. But, and this is why there is no official outcry, many smaller teams presently are making, for them, small fortunes, while others hope for a favourable cup draw.

  2. auchinstarry says:

    I have a comment stuck in moderation since last Thu/Fri. Assume it is for misuse of the Abjab word.
    My point was the continuation of the MSM under Jack/Traynors guidance to supply the necessary propaganda for Sir Charles and Sevco to continue on their merry (irony) way.
    Under the pen name Gary Ralston, Jack/ Mr Traynor had four full pages of gratuitous guff published in Thursdays DR. Total and utter garbage, aimed at Sevco supporters, informing them (once again) of just how magnificent Lord Charles is. I realise the only real way to confront this issue is to cease buying this rag.
    I well remember the caller to Real Radio about 18 months ago who stated on air “We run Scottish football”…….Guess who he supported.
    Finally a Well done to Dundee Utd, for their dignified handling of the Scottish cup ticket boycott by Sevco.

  3. jimlarkin says:

    http://www.dothebouncy.com/home/content.php?290

    http://www.dothebouncy.com/home/content.php?289

    . . . Irony

    in these articles –

    the sevconians REFUSE to use the SEVCO name

    is it a case of

    THE TRUTH HURTS ?

    it is a new club owned and operated by 2 newco’s
    RIFC and TRFC

  4. yakutsuki says:

    RE green’s latest outburst. Is this just a case of CG ‘retaliating first?’

    He seems to have brewed the perfect riot and is finger pointing before it even starts!

    Who will it be this time? Chelsea fans again??

    He says he’s worried that some folk may dress in red, white and blue and pretend to be
    Rangers fans! My first reaction was disbelief that anyone in their right mind would act that way, then I realised that tens of thousands are doing just that every other week. They’re going to Ibrox dressed in red, white and blue pretending to be Rangers fans!!!

  5. jimlarkin says:

    auchinstarry says:

    Sunday, December 23, 2012 at 10:50

    I have a comment stuck in moderation since last Thu/Fri. Assume it is for misuse of the Abjab word.
    My point was the continuation of the MSM under Jack/Traynors guidance to supply the necessary propaganda for Sir Charles and Sevco to continue on their merry (irony) way.
    Under the pen name Gary Ralston, Jack/ Mr Traynor had four full pages of gratuitous guff published in Thursdays DR. Total and utter garbage, aimed at Sevco supporters, informing them (once again) of just how magnificent Lord Charles is. I realise the only real way to confront this issue is to cease buying this rag.
    I well remember the caller to Real Radio about 18 months ago who stated on air “We run Scottish football”…….Guess who he supported.
    Finally a Well done to Dundee Utd, for their dignified handling of the Scottish cup ticket boycott by Sevco

    ————————————————————————————————–

    good post.

    someone posted earlier that he thought it would have been a good idea for dundee utd to give away the tickets to schoolkids to fill the ground.

    i think that is a good way to tackle “the problem”.
    that way, sevco are not getting a cut as the tickets would be free and maybe the kids would have a pie and a drink whilst at the game?

  6. ohhappydayz says:

    riddrie says:
    Sunday, December 23, 2012 at 00:01
    8 3 Rate This
    jean7brodie says:
    Saturday, December 22, 2012 at 21:12

    Anybody have a link to Your Call tonight?
    ==================================

    Here you go Jean…

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/series/scotfoot#playepiso

    ____________________________________________________________________________

    I still cannot get access to Stuart Cosgrove and your call on 22 Dec from this link. Any help would be appreciated.

  7. pau1mart1n says:

    if that statement doesnt bring a disrepute charge on monday, then we’ll know campbell’s in hampden at his desk administrating away, even on xmas eve.
    bet he stays late too.

  8. Captain Haddock says:

    Sorry to ask, but have TRFC paid their debt to DUFC yet?

  9. pau1mart1n says:

    i would guess that chuck expects it to be deducted from the gate money, hence he can say what he wants and its a freebie.

  10. yakutsuki says:

    This latest nonsense from Green would be absolute comedy gold if it weren’t so dangerous.

    It’s alright for you Chic, you’re not going to be anywhere near any violence.

    It’s surely time for the boys in charge to come down hard on this irresponsible buffoon.

    If he gets any worse, the cops may have to step in first.

    Green can plead innocence, but there’s definitely a sinister element to all his manipulation of the fan’s mood.

    Green… Shut the feck up!

  11. rab says:

    Why would any other fan dress up as a Trfc supporter to attend a game at tannadice and fight with D Utd fans. We all have our rivalries but im not aware of any instances of real crowd trouble at Scottish grounds, maybe an odd missile thrower or a street battle between a few drunken bams, but not the kind of grievance that would encourage fans to team together, attend tannadice, dressed in blue and ransack Dundee or fight with any Trfc fans loitering nearby. I don’t know about anyone else, but i would never wear any Trfc colours. Ever.

  12. bailemeanach says:

    Did anyone else miss that watershed moment for Scottish football back in 2009? Clearly we failed to deal with an incident which has been festering away for 3 years and has now come to an ugly head.

    Never mind the lengthy queue of unpaid creditors, including the public purse. It seems that some half price entry tariff for fans of a club that is now awaiting termination, some 3 years ago, is the only show in town

  13. Senior says:

    ‘The game’s very existence is now incredibly fragile’

    My very point ICEMAN, but the whistling pass the graveyard continues. My biggest fear is, when we wake up to the fact that the good-ship Scottish Football is sinking it will be to late.

    Another point. This scenario with Dundee Utd V Sevco is playing out a certain way. I can see the game being postponed due to the unpredictability of the situation. The police will have no option.
    What a pretty pass this has come to and Rome/SFA fiddles (pun intended) while the game goes down the sink. The forty two clubs in the SFA have a lot to answer for.

  14. Captain Haddock says:

    …and have any of the MSM asked if TRFC have paid DUFC yet?

  15. jimlarkin says:

    ohhappydayz

    heres the link to stuart cosgrove (and tom “sit on the fence” english)

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01px4f0

  16. timtim says:

    I’m sure we are all aquainted with the 3 wise men from the East, Gaspar Melchior and
    Balthasar bearing gifts of gold frankincense and myrrh for the new born saviour in a stable on the outskirts of Bethlehem
    In Scotland however we have our own version of history ,rewritten for modern times.
    3 clowns from the west Grasper Murkier and Bashier bringing goals frankenstein and myrth
    to the un-stable near Bedlam. No need to follow a star to get them there, they just follow followed the Scottish Sun . The saviour wasnt born here of course , he was born 140 years earlier ,no Lazarus nonsense either just a simple birthday celebration for the old born king.
    This isnt the Magi from the East this is the Magic of the West
    The old story is accompanied with peace and goodwill and it was free
    In the new story the goodwill cost £1, and the peace ,well thats gone missing
    Merry Christmas

  17. rab says:

    As you are sorting out your christmas tips for the paperboy, milkman or local companionship provider 😉 don’t forget your friendly blog moderators who work by candlelight, in freezing conditions with only stale bread and puddle water for sustenance to bring to you in your centrally heated homes and overstocked larders, a refreshing alternative to the succulent lamb fed ramblings of jacks minions.

    In the spirit of the season should ole scrooge green change the sevco mantra to rangers past, rangers present, rangers future like the other ghosts.

    Merry Christmas everyone.

  18. ClashCityRockers says:

    This is where the MSM and the SFA have let themselves down. The MSM are very happy to provide the platform for the likes of Charles Green to be divisive and antagonistic with out questioning him or his motives, in any depth. They then deliberately create sensationalist headlines in order to reach their sales targets. We all know that the MSM will be flocking up to Tannadice, as I type this, in an attempt to create even more tension by asking DUFC every leading question they can. Yet again giving them the opportunity for more sensational headlines. But, if this fixture in Dundee does turn violent, the MSM will point blank refuse to take any blame or responsibility for their misjudged and irresponsible reporting. The MSM should be trying to alleviate the tensions that are building up here. The MSM should be reminding their readers and listeners that this all started with elements of the Ibrox support calling for a boycott very shortly after the fixture was announced, then Charles Green jumping on the bandwagon and cranking up the tension. The SFA have proved to be spineless when DUFC asked for advice. The obsequiousness shown by the SFA towards Ibrox is now fully exposed. The SFA should be in control in trying to calm the situation down. The top level of management at the SFA have failed to protect Scottish Football. If things do turn nasty in and around Tannadice I know who I am going to blame.

    Think I will chill out and listen to The Stranglers track “Something Better Change” extremely loudly.

  19. campsiejoe says:

    New post up by Auldheid

  20. thornlyboy says:

    The blog seems to be building up a head of steam again. But, focus, focus. CG and the Green Rainjurs attitude to DUFC is deplorable, but there will be no sanction. (Rely on it.) The SFA’s compliance officer for Neil lennon and Kenny Shiels (Mr VL – a spineless creature) will not act.

    On the wider front, forget boycotts, but remember why TRFC were dumped from the SPL and Div 1. If there is any hint of a fourth-tier club being ‘promoted’ above its station, get the fans’ groups on board, threaten not to renew STs and embarrass chairpeople into shunning them. CG and the Gang of 3(4?) can only fume at the sidelines and it might just precipitate the removal of said gang. But all that’s for later in the year.

    In the meantime, keep your eye on the money and worry away at that. Merry Christmas!

  21. whullie says:

    iceman63 says:
    Sunday, December 23, 2012 at 10:07

    Reading this inspired a mad thought. So mad that I am almost embarrassed to submit it. I am laughing to myself as I type. It IS another possible explanation for the behavior of the ‘high heid yins’ at Hampden but is extremely left-field. I only comment on it really,to have it had it aired, read, laughed at, TD’d and dismissed from the investigation.

    Most of us are so aghast at the level of “nothing to see here” emanating from Hampden. It has truly reached epidemic proportions.

    Could the SFA/Vincent Lunny be compiling evidence against CG and others involved at TRFC? Are they giving them the rope to hang themselves? To us the case against is overwhelming but no charges. as yet, are brought to bear(pun intended).

    IF TRFC were to be dealt with properly and purged from football at this juncture, it would wreck the league. Maybe they are waiting until the logical time to expunge them which is the end of the season. They are compiling a list of wrong-doings and Charles is walking into their cunningly laid trap.

    They wouldn’t.

    Would they?

    Naw!

    But……….

    Stop it Whullie and just hit the send button.

    There! I’ve done it!

    Maybe I should go and have a wee lie doon. 😀

    TD’s and laughing expected. Replies welcomed.

    NOTE; No cooking sherry was consumed prior to the thought processes involved in the writing and submission of this comment.

  22. bill1903 says:

    A critical article on Charlie by super slurper Hugh Keevins in the Sunday Mail today

    Nearly choked on my toast

  23. stmungo69 says:

    At this time of the year in Scotland, there are traditionally only two roads that can be taken to reach your destination … reading today’s thoughts from Chairman Green, he has once again chosen to keep his feet firmly marching along the ‘low road’ to ambitions end.
    His goodwill message at Christmas – is the possibility of rioting at Tannadice, in the event that Scottish Cup tickets are sold directly to the Bears.
    This is a self-harming belligerence, that even the most obtuse of TRFC fans must now realise will cause even more damage to the club’s already declining reputational assets. For as sure as follow, follows follow in the Gers lexicon, Mr Green will depart from the south side of Glasgow, leaving Ibrox marginalised by associate clubs and owners – and eternally reviled by opposing fans.

  24. christyboy says:

    Last one,honest. If all the previous members of The The decided to form a band running concurrently with Mr Johnson’s, would they be The The The ? Also if it’s in the rules that The rangers are due a split of the gate money, well in the spirit of things gone past, can we not just change the rules or organise a secret six-way agreement whereby all other multi-way agreements are dismantled. On a more serious note, can anyone tell me whether The Skylanders action figures would be suitable for a 5 year old ?

  25. ohhappydayz says:

    :jimlarkin says
    Sunday, December 23, 2012 at 12:13
    1 0 Rate This
    ohhappydayz

    heres the link to stuart cosgrove (and tom “sit on the fence” english)

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01px4f0

    —————————————————————————————————————–

    Thanks

  26. shield2012 says:

    vforvernacular says:
    Friday, December 21, 2012 at 15:59
    2 0 Rate This
    TW (@tartanwulver) says:
    Friday, December 21, 2012 at 15:54

    vforvernacular says:
    Friday, December 21, 2012 at 15:44

    And so the trolling nonsense derails the debate…….
    —————————————-
    Then again v, the current topic is ‘the Dismal Art of Whataboutery’, so it’s actually ON topic!

    ========================

    Ironic to see isn’t it?

    ———————————————

    You don’t like/approve of what I’m saying……….so it’s ‘trolling nonsense’??

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