The Witch-Hunt That Shamed Scotland

A remarkable thing happened in Scotland over the past year. It was, however, nothing we can be proud of. I am referring, of course, to the Rangers crisis. However, this wasn't at any stage about the beautiful game or sporting integrity. The witch-hunt against the Ibrox club was driven by a rancid cocktail of festering hatred and revenge. The EBT issue was only a smokescreen for the embittered and delusional to unload decades of simmering rage on the 'establishment club' and cunningly dress it up as a moral crusade to attract others.

Tax avoidance schemes - like EBTs - are rife in the UK where global brands, wealthy individuals, politicians, celebs - even football clubs - seek to reduce their revenue payments. Legal? Yes. Decent? No. But capitalism is an immoral beast and the law of the jungle frequently applies. Singling out Rangers was simply a device, albeit clever and highly successful, for those who despise the club to promote a nasty and divisive agenda.

Celtic's billionaire owner Dermot Desmond is widely known for paying pitifully low amounts of tax in Ireland. Indeed there was an almighty brouhaha on this in the Irish press earlier in the year. Yet there was no mention of this on Celtic blogs or anyone suggesting the Parkhead side should refuse his shilling. Nor should they. In a capitalist world you play by its rules - but let's not have double standards.

Rangers' perilous position and the contrived crisis in Scottish football were ramped up on the blogosphere where pernicious propaganda thrived. The Rangers Tax Case blog - where censorship was rife - spread its sporting integrity mantra to other club sites where a dim-witted and spiteful active minority had undue influence on their fellow fans and club officials.

In this regard, it was successful. A witch-hunt began and the spirit of Salem and McCarthyism spread like a plague throughout Scottish football.

No-one who dared to present a counter-argument was safe from the character assassination on the RTC blog. Rangers were cheats, financial dopers, had stolen every trophy they'd won in a decade and disgraced the nation. Campbell Ogilvie, Ally McCoist, Walter Smith, David Murray, John Greig, Sandy Jardine, directors and staff, players and agents were up to their ears in malfeasance. It was all a Protestant conspiracy.

One of its 'finest' moments was the demand for Rangers to apologise for their years of 'cheating' - but simply saying sorry wasn't enough. Nothing less than a Truth and Reconciliation Commission was required where the guilty would not just be publicly humiliated but also had to show true contrition. This was necessary, apparently, so their sins could be translated into a positive commitment to building a better society. The modern equivalent of Salem's burning at the stake. The level of delusion, conspiracy theories and bitterness was breathtaking.

Even more breathtaking was how people who should have known better fell under its spell. Stuart Cosgrove pompously insisted there had been an 'epistemological break' in Scottish football thanks in some part to the blog and was happy to name-check it on air.

The blog was good at this of course. Unlike some Old Firm sites where posters are barely literate, RTC had a litany of ageing wannabe John Pilgers adept at verbosely pointing out they only wanted a fair playing field for everyone. The cheats had to be exposed. It was nothing personal. Until anyone who dissented on even a minor point was branded a Rangers troll then mercilessly attacked and banned.

Only the truly troubled could depict themselves as standing up for freedom of speech in this brave new world of people journalism while imposing such self-serving censorship.

The mainstream media too were guilty as sin and running scared from the 'new media'. Some of them, said the bloggers, were also on EBTs from Rangers to keep quiet about a scandal that would be as big as Watergate.

As a former sub-editor on many of Scotland's news and sports desks - broadsheets, mid-markets, tabloids – I have been at the heart of the beast and can tell you there is no bias towards either of the Old Firm clubs. In the country's heartland, the west of Scotland, it would be commercial suicide for any title to favour one club over the other. Think about it. Despite this, football hacks have had to endure wicked taunts and worse from both sets of fans for decades.

Then there was Cosgrove's colleague at Channel four - reporter Alex Thomson - who became the pin-up boy of the Rangers-haters. He arrived with a bang in a flurry of righteous indignation - no doubt fantasising that he would become the new Pilger when he exposed the massive cover-up in Jocko-land.

Like RTC, Thomson also liked to censor comments on his C4 blog. Censorship, in fact, was a disturbing aspect of this 'new media'. Incredibly, at the height of the witch-hunt, the RTC blog won the Orwell prize. When I found out it was shortlisted I wrote to the panel judges:

Far from being a fresh and exciting site where informed comment and excellent writing can shine - which your prize rightly rewards - RTC is the opposite. Proclaiming itself to be exposing a craven media in Scotland, this blog refuses to allow anyone who fails to toe its all pervasive anti-Rangers sectarian party line from being heard. That's not free speech. That's sinister. And precisely what Eric Blair exposed so brilliantly in 1984.

The failure to preserve free speech will be this blog's lasting legacy. Along with the cult of the personality that's been nurtured by RTC to sycophantic posters hanging on his every word. Far from democratising information distribution, it does the opposite.’

There was no reply. Fearing the worst, I was not surprised when it won the award. And guess who wrote the commendation - Thomson. The great man of letters must be fuming in his grave at this bitterest of ironies. An Orwellian award for a blog that used censorship so frequently that even Big Brother would have been impressed?

Clearly, there was a cabal within the media working against Rangers. The Guardian gave RTC a platform to write a piece on the 'new media phenomenon'.

On his blog that night one of his admiring posters wrote, ‘RTC , I am blown away by your Guardian piece. This will be discussed for decades in the same breath as Archer and McIlvaney, in terms of its accuracy, relevance and sheer poetic beauty.’

Another posted, ‘I think you have just produced a seminal 'j'accuse' article. This blog would be worthy of a Pulitzer prize. I salute you...’

The scale of the delusion and sycophancy was frightening and I feared a new cult had been born.

There is no doubt though that the blog was a phenomenon thanks to the leaks of secret documents from the tax case which made it compulsive reading. If the site had been moderated properly - denying the haters and conspiracy theorists access to spout their drivel - then it would indeed have deserved an award. But the blog at heart was a hanging judge.

For anyone coming new to this it would be illuminating if you could go on the site and read it. Unfortunately, all the blogs and comments disappeared within hours of the tax tribunal finding in Rangers' favour.

Sadly though, RTC spawned a bastard child. The campaign against Rangers continues on Scottish Football Monitor - Asking the Questions the Media Won't Ask. There you will find no admission from the internet bampots - as Hugh Keevins christened them - that they were wrong. Far less an apology. Rangers got away with it because two of the tribunal members were got at, some of its posters implied.

Now the blog is regrouping to ensure Rangers' titles are stripped and a recruitment drive is on to attract fans from other clubs to their latest cause celebre. The 'pious pap of cyberspace's sanctimonious nonentities' (copyright Jim Traynor) continues. With Cosgrove on board again to lend his support.

The Channel 4 executive is a stout defender of social media and people journalism. Me too. If it's done responsibly. But sites that distance themselves from the hate-filled football forums then peddle a divisive agenda in articulate tones do more to harm this new medium's credibility than the mainstream media ever will.

But where does this vitriol come from? Why does it seem that some Celtic fans hate Rangers more than they love the Hoops? There is a significant band of them - in their later years, I suspect - who still harbour grudges and will take their bitterness to the grave. They view Rangers as having a deeply anti-Catholic history that cheats all other clubs in Scotland thanks to a network of Masonic and Orange lodges working on its behalf. That controls the ruling bodies, referees and the media. So it must die. In seeking this objective, therefore, the gloves are off and any tactic to achieve this is deemed acceptable.

I am not a Rangers fan and never dreamed I would ever be defending them. In fact, I grew up as a Celtic supporter but walked away when I realised the hatred among some fans of both clubs was unacceptable. One was as bad as the other. When I say hatred I do not mean robust rivalry, banter or sarcastic humour - which is fine - but naked hatred.

Some people, I'm afraid, cling to their heart of darkness and run a mile from forgiveness. Rangers do indeed have a troubled history. They had an anti-Catholic policy, up until the Souness era, that was wrong. But credit where it's due. They saw the error of their ways and changed. They have had players of almost every colour and creed since then, including a substantial Catholic contingent, so we should welcome that, even embrace it. And move on.

Let us also not forget that the world now is remarkably different from what it was just 30 or 40 years ago when racism, sexism and religious intolerance were rife and even accepted as normal in many 'developed' cultures; when minorities were routinely treated as second-class citizens.

But when times started changing for the better and Catholics became a major part of the Scottish establishment, many Hoops fans of a certain vintage didn't like this new power. It seemed they preferred being the downtrodden - rebels without a cause.

The internet and Rangers' woes combined to provoke these ageing keyboard warriors into venting their bitterness. Unfortunately, club chairmen, football's ruling bodies, pundits and the usual suspects were also sucked in.

Now we are left to pick up the pieces. Thanks to Craig Whyte's era at Rangers, the club is now in the bottom tier of Scottish football. His reign was indefensible and he damaged Rangers single-handedly. And let's not forget all its creditors who were treated abysmally. The club has paid for that with fines, a Euro ban, relegation, points deduction, transfer embargo and other potential sanctions.

But the blood-letting must stop now - and talk of stripping titles is absurd. If any bureaucratic rules were broken then let there be a suitable punishment - no more, no less. Do you think that any Celtic player, in the heat of an Old Firm battle, thought he was being cheated because the man marking him was on a better deal?

Medals won by Rangers players belong to them for their achievements on the field. It is preposterous to say a player cheated because of the way his employer chose to pay him. So let's have no more talk about stripping titles - and start building bridges.

That won't be easy. Rangers and their fans are hurting. But Charles Green could show a lot of class by making the first moves to herald a new era in Scottish football. There is a wonderful opportunity now for the club to take a lead in repairing broken relationships.

Celtic and Rangers must never again feed off the bigots or placate them for commercial reasons. Big clubs - really big clubs - don't need to do that. When rivalry turns to hatred, we're all losers.

We are about to enter a new year and the big resolution we should make is simple - let's all get involved in a massive effort to live in a truly inclusive country. As Barack Obama said: "If you can't make peace with your neighbours, you'll never make peace with yourself."

Alex Mooney is a freelance writer, copy editor and former journalist and publisher.

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