When Greater Manchester Police seized 1,600 copies of Red Issue prior to Manchester United’s fixture with Liverpool earlier this month not only did the service spectacularly fail to understand a tasteless joke, but it engaged in dangerous restriction on freedom of speech. That much has now been recognised, with the Crown Prosecution Service confirming on Saturday that no criminal charges will be made against Red Issue’s editors or the fanzine’s distributors in respect of the seizure.
For those unfamiliar, Red Issue’s February back cover depicted a cut-out-and-keep Klu Kluz Klan hood, with the words “LFC” and “Suarez Is Innocent” emblazoned in red; an image apparently designed to mock the perceived failings in Liverpool fans’ attitude towards racism after the Luis Suárez affair.
The joke was crude, simplistic and, in leveraging an organisation that murdered hundreds of black men, women and children, most likely offensive to those who genuinely suffered at the KKK’s hands. This, however, was never the issue at hand. Whether readers found the fanzine’s joke funny or offensive is irrelevant; whether it was legal was the only pertinent question.
Yet, the GMP didn’t see it that way, seizing more than a thousand copies prior to United’s Premier League fixture with Liverpool at Old Trafford on the pretext that both racial hatred and potential violence may ensure if copies were allowed to be distributed to match going fans.
“Shortly before kick-off we were made aware that a Manchester United supporters’ fanzine being sold outside Old Trafford featured a potentially offensive image,” proclaimed a GMP statement on 11 February.
“Officers are now seizing the fanzines and in consultation with the Crown Prosecution Service we will take appropriate action against anyone either found selling this particular fanzine or provocatively displaying the image in public.”
The force’s action proved to be a red herring though, with the CPS – the body that decides whether criminal charges are to be filed in any case – rejecting the opportunity to prosecute despite GMP’s crass pre-judgement.
“I have decided that no further action will be taken in relation to allegations surrounding the publication and distribution of the Red Issue fanzine at Old Trafford football ground on February 11 2012,” said Nazir Afzal, Chief Crown Prosecutor for the North West on Saturday.
“During the investigation into the matter by Greater Manchester Police, the issue of potential incitement to racial hatred was raised. As a result, I consulted the CPS’s Special Crime and Counter Terrorism Division, who are responsible for advising on suspected cases of incitement.
“Following this consultation, I have received advice from a senior lawyer in that division that, although the fanzine distributed may have been offensive to some people, there was insufficient evidence to prove that the content was intended to stir up racial hatred, or that it was or likely to do so.
“I have therefore concluded there is insufficient evidence to provide a realistic prospect of conviction for incitement to racial hatred against any person. It is not a crime to possess material that is threatening, abusive or insulting, or hold views which others may find unpleasant and obnoxious. It is a crime to distribute this sort of material to the public, if it is intended to stir up racial hatred, or in circumstances where it is likely to have that effect.”
Larger questions of whether GMP had the legal, let alone moral, right to silence Red Issue will now be asked. The CPS statement is a clear indicator that there was never enough, or in fact any, evidence that Red Issues’ joke intended to incite racial hatred, despite GMP’s position.
It is now relevant to ask how and why the decision to seize thousands of fanzines was ever made. After all, there is no confirmation that any complaint was made to police, and – apparently – no arrests were actually made on the day. Moreover, the service appears to have badly misjudged both the tone of Red Issues’ back page and its intended target.
Could a joke that aimed to ridicule the racist attitude of others ever, in turn, incite racial hatred itself?
GMP’s decision to seize fanzines appears to have been made without consultation, unilaterally, and largely on the instruction of a single superintendent. It was, surely, crude censorship of the most blatant kind, and has proven to be a dreadful own goal, with widespread condemnation of the service’s actions.
There is no word yet what, if any, action Red Issue will take now that the threat of prosecution is removed. The fanzine and its editors are legally clear, but the knock-on commercial effect to the publication and its suppliers may well be lasting.
Reprints of the fanzine were made prior to United’s fixture with Ajax last Thursday night, and a widespread internet campaign was launched by supporters on social networks. But questions will surely now be asked whether police interference in a private operation was justifiable.
Indeed, whether fans enjoy reading the magazine or not – found the joke at hand funny or not – condemnation of unilateral censorship is surely the only appropriate response. After all, Red Issues’ joke probably offended many – least of all the Liverpool supporters it was aimed at. That, surely, is the beauty of free speech; the freedom to offend liberally, without fear of state reprisal.
In that the GMP significantly overstepped the mark – the CPS’ decision not to prosecute underlines the mistake made by Manchester’s men in blue. Uniforms, not kits, that is.