Ian Plenderleith reports on how the internet has led to the downfall of a British football pundit whose show can only be heard on the other side of the Atlantic
If a loudmouthed British football pundit based in California decides to broadcast a big opinion on a satellite radio show available only in the United States or by podcast, will anyone care? Well, thanks to the internet the world has become a smaller place and so the unfortunate answer for Steven Cohen, host of World Soccer Daily (nothing to do with the monthly magazine), was a resounding yes. Shortly before the 20th anniversary of the Hillsborough tragedy earlier this year, he told his audience that Liverpool fans still bore the responsibility for the 96 deaths. After a web lobbying campaign led to sponsors such as Heineken and FourFourTwo magazine pulling their support from the show, it ceased to broadcast in late August, citing harassment and deprivation of the right to freedom of speech.
“Hate wins, anti-semitism wins, rage wins...” Cohen whined on his final show, citing emails he had received, although at the time of writing he had presented no actual evidence of anti-semitism among the official campaign to boycott his broadcast. The irony of Cohen citing the victory of “rage” was also apparently lost on him. In his original broadcast, Cohen played the role of provocateur, shouting down his co-host to make the point that Liverpool fans “have taken events that they were solely responsible for, or largely responsible for, and have somehow turned the world on its head, and made themselves the victims. What is the difference between a cow and a tragedy? Liverpool fans can only milk the cow for so long.”
Unconvincing apologies followed, always with the caveat that he had only been expressing an opinion. That the apologies were insincere became clear during Cohen’s final show on August 21, when he claimed: “At the end of the day [Cohen’s favourite cliche and just one of several factors that made his show unlistenable] it was simply my opinion. At the end of the day, I think it [Hillsborough] was shared responsibility. If you don’t like my opinion, don’t listen to the show. At the end of the day you can blame Liverpool Football Club for this decision [to stop broadcasting].”
In fact Liverpool FC, while having issued a statement condemning Cohen’s demonstrably false “opinion” that 6-8,000 ticketless Liverpool supporters had been responsible for the tragedy (a stat comprehensively refuted years ago by the Taylor Report), were not the main instigators of the campaign. A number of blogs and websites that lobbied fans and sponsors to boycott World Soccer Daily had no need to resort to dirty tactics because in the words of New York-based Liverpool supporters’ group LFCNY: “To a very great extent we ran this campaign using the precise, exact words of Steven Cohen against himself.”
The website Boycott Steven Cohen pointed out that Cohen’s moaning on his final show “continues the pattern that brought him into this mess, as he blames everyone but himself”. Cohen cited the safety of his family but again without substantiating the nature of any threats made, other than that someone had contacted his step-children. It was also clear the withdrawal of sponsor money had played the greatest role given that the show had previously issued an appeal for donations. Meanwhile, his co-host Kenny Hassan observed mournfully to Cohen: “You’ve shot yourself in the foot a couple of times, but who doesn’t?” Most people, Kenny. Even those who shoot themselves in the foot once tend not to repeat the error. It’s something to do with the excruciating pain, the bleeding and the subsequent need for crutches.
In Germany it’s illegal to deny the Holocaust, and there is little or no debate about that being a free speech issue, because there is no such thing as an opinion when it comes to proven, documented historical fact. No one would ever seriously offer the opinion “Henry VIII was never the King of England”. Cohen’s claim that he had no freedom of speech is irrelevant. He spoke freely, and was pulled up for speaking not just freely, but falsely.
Cohen, who also lost his spot as a co-presenter on the Fox Network’s lamentable Fox Football Fone-In, complained that it had taken him seven years to build up an audience for World Soccer Daily. Like all podcasts and phone-ins, he flogged his shows as platforms for exchanging strong opinions about the game, because the mores of modern marketing dictate that controversy spawns viewers and fans, which in turn brings in money and sponsors. Cohen made a particular point down the years of trying to wind up Liverpool fans, no doubt with the goal of provoking debate and luring in the kind of punter determined to have their say.
In the end, controversy ate itself. Playing the faux-cockney footie geezer in America turned out to be not such a good way at bluffing a livelihood after all, and setting yourself up as Mr Opinion is not such a hoot when you profoundly offend the families and friends of people who died just because they went to a football match. Cohen’s final tactic when announcing the end of his show was to print the names and email addresses of those who had opposed him. The Boycott Steven Cohen site asked: “With no documentation of threats on his part, and this encouragement to personal contact on his, it begs the question, who precisely is fomenting hatred and creating a dangerous situation here?” Yet while the lesson is clear for broadcasters seeking to stoke discussion for discussion’s sake, the upside of the internet is illustrated by the concerted and successful campaign where fans, in BSC’s words, “instead of impotent disgust... have responded by organising a boycott”.
There was no chance of an offensive ignoramus making a moral climbdown because he realised that it was the right thing to do. The show ended because it drove off commercial backers who were worried about losing money. Ah well, whatever it takes.
From WSC 272 October 2009