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.

19 thoughts on “History and Hillsborough: The Cohen Controversy

  1. Fredorrarci

    Good post. Cohen has come out with an apology of sorts, which seems to have been born out of expedience more than anything. He’s still banging the freedom-of-speech drum while attacking those who have exercised that freedom to criticise him.

  2. Tom Dunmore Post author

    Agreed, it’s a curious stance to continually complain about people criticising (without distinguishing between valid and malicious criticism) while banging that drum.

  3. shane

    Nice one!

    All this bullshit media coverage of the sensationalism and Cohen’s supposed victimhood is only the result of a PR firm being hired by Cohen/WSD.

    I could handle Cohen’s occasional anti-Scouser rants dripping with classism but I gave up on his shows when he adopted the naseating approach of some super patriotism. He has draped himself in the USA flag and Freedom Of Speech most likely at the advice of his PR firm to appeal to his almost exclusively American auddience. He labels those who confront his incindiary rants as terrorists and called the UK media pussies because he knows they wouldn’t tolerate his lies.

  4. Liam Hetherington

    One of the reasons that Liverpool fans want a public inquiry is not only to gain justice – important though that is, but to finally nail the lies peddled by the Sun and the South Yorkshire police. Until there is an honest review, there will always be scope people like Cohen to give voice to their lies.

    It is of course sad that a apparent football fan who no doubt experienced the treatment of fans by the police in the 80s and saw the appalling state of the stadium could respond in such a way especially given that but for the grace of god it could have been his family and his friends.

  5. Kopite

    I think Mr Cohen has bitten off a little more than he can chew here. He should accept right now that he and his show will be hounded for years to come by Liverpool supporters. When I say hounded I mean his sponsors will be contacted and boycotted, his show will be blanked and his opinions will be shot down in flames. He is a horrible horrible human being who uses missinformation to promote his own needs, and he will reap what he has sown. If he’s in any doubt, just ask the Sun newspaper how much money they’ve lost tinse thier lies (we’re talking hundereds of millions of pounds).

  6. Daniel

    This is all some kind of witty football banter to Cohen. The man’s a sociopath.

    There’s the BBC TV coverage both inside the stadium and out, as well as CCTV and thousands photographs. There was no hint of hooliganism or ticketless fans being responsible for this disaster.
    The best estimate for the number of supporters who made it into the stadium is well under the number of tickets allocated.

    The crush that occurred outside the Leppings Lane end at Hillsborough was a direct result of police crown mismanagement. Gone were the police checkpoints and queue forming from the previous year, supporters were instead corralled toward turnstiles to few to cope.

  7. Jim Sharman

    Excellent rebuttal by the author, Tom Dunmore – and a very representative account of events so far in this saga. The fact that Cohen has been so outrageously condescending in the manner of his so-called apology is merely adding fuel to the fire. The author of the recent publication, “The Hillsborough Football Disaster: Context & Consequences” (or HFD for short) summed it up perfectly in my eyes –

    “A ‘heartfelt’ apology twice in 3 years for the same allegations without stating why his original opinions were wrong makes me think they are not quite so heartfelt but wallet-felt.”

    Amen to that.

    Cohen seems to forget that his almost identical 2006 fiasco was recorded and logged, as will this one be – and should he survive on the air long enough to fail to resist making the same stupid, ill-informed claims in a year or two, all the evidence will be placed back to him and whichever sponsors have remained with him or joined since.

    Incidentally the author mentions that Cohen is replying to the emails he has received. Neither I nor the author of HFD have received any acknowledgement from Cohen – and I don’t think Professor Phil Scraton has either. Seems that Cohen picks his battles where he feels he can win them – isn’t that tha tactic of a bully, or a coward?

    Until he explains WHY he is “sorry” and until he corrects the misinformation he has put out, or until he cites his sources and provides evidential justification for his views, then it’s open season. In a non-violent, non-threatening manner of course. Hit him where it hurts. His pocket.

    There is a very good reason why the book was called “Context & Consequences” – if people take Hillsborough out of context, there are now consequences to pay, because the families and survivors have had to suffer lies for over twenty years. No more; the line is drawn.

  8. Socrates

    I hadn’t heard about this, sounds like the WSD podcast got interesting just as I unsubscribed. He has a definite problem with Liverpool FC and their fans. I unsubscribed on itunes because his hubcap jokes were getting so tired, and I’m a Manchester United fan.

  9. Elliott

    As a member of the American public, I think that he has a right to state his conclusions.

    However, so do Liverpool fans. You can’t stoke the flames and then complain about getting burned. Individuals have a right to contact sponsors of media programs and inform them of boycotts – for example, I have several friends who do not eat at Domino’s pizza because of its generous support of pro life organizations.

    This has not changed Domino’s policy or their delicious thin crust, but ultimately all media outlets must have respect for their audience’s intelligence and critical thinking. The Limbaugh liars can yell as loud as they want, but volume is no substitute for fact-checking.

  10. Michal

    Elliott, you are right, but only to some extent. I’m not a member of the American public, but I think that all civilised countries should have one thing in common.

    Everyone has the right to state his conclusions, but these were at the same time accusasions and simply lies. This was a stereotype, a cliche of some ignorant European media who still claim that fans killed fans.

    It’s not just a conclusion, this guy was talking of a trauma that changed footballing history and made hundreds if not thousands of lives nightmares. And now, from what I read, this moron is quite fond of what’s going on to keep heating up the situation. This is complete disrespect for human lives in the name of what – publicity?

    Would you be willing to call it “conclusions” if he said something similar about, let’s say, American soldiers in Iraq? Accusing them of killing their own just becuase they didn’t know they’re going into a deathtrap. It’s not the same, but not that different as well. Just a matter of empathy.

  11. Robert

    What is happening here is the symptom of a larger problem, especially in the United States. As an American I am seeing more and more of it — attempts to silence based on the opinions expressed.

    Personally, I don’t believe a word of what Cohen is saying. The Hillsborough tragedy has been exhaustively detailed. Yet Cohen’s inaccuracy is still Constitutionally protected speech. He has the same freedom to speak as we all have on this blog to call him an idiot.

    The larger issue here is the conduct of people who would have him silenced because of unpopular opinion. We are seeing it in America with the discussion of the so-called “Fairness Doctrine”, which is really an attempt to silence talk radio.

    Elliott, thanks for the information on Domino’s. I wasn’t aware of that. Now I know where I’m buying my pizza, until someone from my ‘tolerant’ government tries to close it down.

  12. Tom Dunmore Post author

    Robert, Cohen has the right to say what he thinks, and those that want to point out his lies have the equal right (within the bounds of the law) to make themselves heard in responding to his lies. What Cohen seems to want based on his reaction is freedom to speak without criticism in return.

    Cohen is paid to speak on the radio. If those who support him no longer wish to associate themselves with him based on his comments, that’s their choice in a free market, and he will have to find another outlet. Being part of the media comes with certain ethical responsibilities and accepting consequences as part of a larger civil society.

    It’s not a matter of his right to free speech; he has that, but he doesn’t have a right to expect silence from those who wish to point out the truth (such as EPL Talk) or for responsible companies to pay for him to spread disinformation deliberately.

  13. Nick D

    I honestly don’t know how anyone can listen to his show in the first place. Not only does he make completely misinformed comments such as those noted here, but his comments on players and coaches are often lacking any basis in reality. Even when intelligent football journalists are on the show, Cohen finds ways of asking useless questions that horribly fail to tap into their knowledge.

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  15. Micah

    Score one for death threats and anti-semitism! World Soccer Daily is off the air!

    I hope karma is working in full effect and Liverpool will have a dismal season.

  16. Ralph

    I think one very salient point that is rarely brought up is that a near disaster happened at the same ground in a previous semi (involving Spurs) a few years earlier.

    On that occasion disaster was only averted by opening the very same gates the police refused to open and was the direct cause of the many avoidable deaths.