History and Hillsborough: The Cohen Controversy

Steven Cohen, host of America’s most popular soccer radio show World Soccer Daily, is learning a lesson Kelvin McKenzie could have taught him: don’t play fast and loose with the facts when you’re dealing with the Hillsborough disaster.

Steven Cohen

Steven Cohen

Cohen has, for quite some time, been beating the drum that ticketless Liverpool fans “shared responsibility” for causing the Hillsborough disaster, despite Lord Taylor’s official report concluding otherwise.

On his radio show last month around the twentieth anniversary of the disaster, Cohen stated that:

“People showing up without tickets, hell bent in getting into somewhere where they shouldn’t be going because they don’t have tickets, is the root cause of [the Hillsborough Disaster].”

“I’m yet to read anybody write in this weekend’s Sunday papers in England, where they’re all doing big commemorations about the 96, and why we should never forget and how it’s changed the game, nobody discusses the 6-8,000 who showed up without tickets and my argument has always been, if those people don’t show up, this never happens.”

“[Hillsborough] is a stadium that week-in week-out, Sheffield Wednesday used without incident.”

Cohen’s disinformation was deconstructed by US-based soccer blogger and podcaster Christopher Harris on EPL Talk,  which at length rebutted Cohen’s claims with substantial evidence from  Lord Taylor’s official report into the tragedy. Harris then concluded that:

Cohen was absolutely wrong on his April 13th show regarding the statements he made about the Hillsborough Tragedy. There were not, as he claimed, 6,000-8,000 ticketless fans. Cohen was emphatically wrong when he claimed that Sheffield Wednesday’s Hillsborough Stadium was used week-in week-out without incident. And the reason none of the English newspapers last Sunday discussed the “6-8,000 who showed up without tickets” is because they didn’t exist. The vast majority of English journalists and pundits know better because they’ve taken time to study the facts rather than to believe the lies told by The Sun and the South Yorkshire Police.

Sure, there were a very small minority of ticketless fans at the ground. And sure, some of the supporters were drunken (as at any football game or sporting event), but the fact of the matter is that Cohen is living in the 80s with the inaccurate statements he’s spewing out.

The Liverpool supporters were a victim of a combination of mistakes by the South Yorkshire Police (for failing to notice that the central pen was overcrowded while the pens to the left and right had room for more spectators, as well as not directing the Liverpool fans who came through the turnstiles away from the central pen), Sheffield Wednesday Football Club (Leppings Lane was ill-suited to admit the 10,100 fans, had too few turnstiles and the club failed to fix those and other issues between 1981-1989 even though they were well aware of them) and the Football Association (for deciding to play the semi-final match at Hillsborough despite previous crushing incidents).

The level of the furore can be seen in the 414 comments already found on this follow-up EPL Talk post on Cohen’s refusal to apologise.

Following a campaign by the Liverpool Supporters Club in the U.S. that has resulted in sponsors pulling the plug on support for Cohen’s shows, Cohen did eventually apologise to “any and all people who’s feelings have been hurt and people who have had awful memories and scars re-opened.” Yet his apology did not retract any of his false statements.  It was about as heartful and sincere as a Drogba dive.

Indeed, as this BNet report notes, Cohen only further fanned the flames by telling the LA Times this:

“I’ve seen the Taliban less defensive,” Cohen said. “If this was being done in Afghanistan or Pakistan, we’d call these people terrorists. A lot of them are little cowards hiding behind their computers.

“I feel my life and my livelihood is at stake.”

Needless to say, describing Liverpool fans as “the Taliban” or “terrorists” has made things worse, not better. BNET understands that Cohen has been replying personally and unapologetically to the more than 3,500 emails he has received on the topic. Cohen claims he has received death threats, among other unpleasant protests, from fans.

There is, of course, no doubt that Cohen could well feel threatened and that any Liverpool fans sending death threats are doing more harm to the cause than good. Cohen does have the right to express this opinion on his show, however malicious and moronic, without having his life threatened.

He just doesn’t have the right to expect it to go unchallenged, as Harris has fairly done using evidence from the Taylor Report. And Liverpool fans are perfectly within the bounds of a reasonable response by contacting sponsors of Cohen’s show expressing their disgust at his comments. Their form letter to sponsors does not exactly come off as the work of Mullah Omar:

To whom it may concern,

You advertise on either or both of Steve Cohen’s shows on Fox and Sirius. Steve Cohen has, and not for the first time, told lies about the deaths the 96 fans at Hillsborough, claiming that Liverpool fans were responsible for killing their own, amongst other lies. Is this the type of person you want representing your company? Steve Cohen has done this before, apologising when the outrage grew too large. Clearly, he will not stop, so our objective is to see him being put off air permanently.

I urge you to reconsider your purchasing of advertising.

I will be boycotting all your products and services until your support for Steve Cohen and his lies ends.

Unfortunately, the apparent more extreme reaction of a few has allowed Cohen to paint himself as the victim, and many members of the mainstream media are now focusing on this angle while still allowing Cohen to continue to spread his disinformation without presenting its context.

Notably, Cohen has readily admitted that he is refusing to talk to the media in England, but has managed to obtain sympathetic coverage from the New York Times, Los Angeles Daily News and National Public Radio.

Perhaps the most one-sided piece has come from Jack Bell of the New York Times soccer blog, Goal.

Bell covered the story from the angle of the reaction by a minority of Liverpool fans who have, we can all agree, crossed the line by allegedly sending death threats to Cohen. Yet in condemning this, Bell allowed Cohen to have his say and repeat his unsubstantiated allegations and his conflation of Hillsborough and Heysel without offering any counterpoint or criticism of Cohen’s inaccurate opinion.

Cohen’s transgression? During a call on April 13 from a Liverpool fan discussing the club’s past success, Cohen (a Chelsea supporter from north London who has been in the United States for nearly 30 years) said “what about the other side of your history,” and went on to discuss the club’s and its fans’ involvement in two of the worst stadium incidents in soccer history: Heysel in Brussels on May, 29 1985, and the Hillsborough disaster in Sheffield, England, on April 15, 1989.

Of course, as the above quotes show, Cohen’s transgression was more substantial than the few words quoted by Bell.

Bell even posted a youtube video of Heysel above the video of Hillsborough, as if to emphasise Cohen’s continual attempt to link the two events and use the former as justification for blaming Liverpool fans for the latter. The intervening paragraph between the two videos simply reads:

The 20th anniversary of the Hillsbrough disaster last month brought forth an outpouring of sympathy for the 96 people who died from a combination of a failure of police control, an archaic stadium, and, according to Cohen, a crush of fans who forced their way into the stadium without having purchased tickets to the F.A. Cup semifinal match between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest.

Bell did not bother to question Cohen’s interpretation that it was ticketless fans to blame and even went on to quote him on this later on the piece, without providing any of the easily available contrary evidence in response. Bell quotes Cohen as saying “But how do 9,000 to 10,000 fans go to a game and have 96 tragically perish and it be everybody else’s fault? It’s just part of the culture, bunking into games.”

Bell does not provide any links or quotes from anyone questioning Cohen’s claims, and lets him have the final words of the post: “I was only expressing an opinion. I’m a talk-show host. That’s what we do. Astounding.”

The issue is not one of free speech — Cohen is clearly entitled to express his opinion.  Harris was quite right to counter his claims.  Liverpool fans were within bounds expressing their disapproval to sponsors of Cohen’s outlet with their emails to sponsors.  For Cohen to claim he is astounded by this is astonishing in itself, as he would have been well aware of the sensitivity of the issue over the past two decades. His radio show is downloaded by 300,000 people daily and his opinions carry weight in a country with little coverage of soccer: it’s important that his version of the history of Hillsborough is not the one that passes into popular consciousness in the soccer community here.

Freedom of speech is not freedom to speak without consequences: members of the media should expect this, and it’s a shame Cohen’s unsubstantiated views continue to be spread without their proper historical context.

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