Tom English: Blogged down by its own hubris

'The blog had crossed the line between reporting and spiteful goading'
'The blog had crossed the line between reporting and spiteful goading'
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THE rangerstaxcase blog began as a beacon of truth but ended up losing sight of its principles.

At its peak, the rangerstaxcase blog was, by its own estimation, generating traffic of up to 100,000 hits a day, each dispatch from the front line of the First-Tier Tribunal (FTT) drawing, in some cases, thousands of responses, mostly from people who saw the mystery person behind the blog – a Celtic fan – as not just as an investigator or crusader but some kind of deity delivered from on high to report on the destruction of their rivals.

To call it a blog would have been an understatement, it was more of a phenomenon fuelled by the unwavering certainty of Rangers’ guilt as well as its condemnation of the Scottish football press in failing, as the blog saw it, to cover one of the “biggest sporting scandals in history”. It quickly built a Twitter following of nearly 23,000. It won the prestigious Orwell Prize for the material it produced on the Big Tax Case and was at the forefront of most discussions about the problems that Rangers faced with HMRC.

If you wanted to know the latest news on their tax travails, rangerstaxcase was a place you went because, unlike newspapers or radio stations, rangerstaxcase was connected to the heart of the FTT and everybody knew it.

It had documents and detail that were beyond dispute. When illustrating one point it was making it would summon up information that could only have come from somebody within, or very close to, the tribunal. Once, it wrote of Gavin Rae, the former Rangers player. Rae, said the blogger, signed a three-and-a-half-year contract with the club on 1 January 2004, his official contract lodged with the SFA and the SPL showing an annual wage of £260,000. The blogger pointed out that on the same day, 1 January, Rangers provided Rae with a letter that said that money, totalling £336,000, would be deposited in a sub-trust of the Murray Group Remuneration Trust on his behalf. Rae would also receive £1,000 as an appearance for every first-team game he played. It reported that between February 2004 and July 2007, Rae received five payments totalling £336,000 plus appearance fees of £11,000 for season 2003-4, £8,000 for 2005-6 and £20,000 for 2006-7.

These numbers weren’t plucked from the sky. They were taken from documents it was given by its source, or sources, close to the Tribunal. On this story, rangerstaxcase was leading the media a merry dance, revealing a steady stream of sensitive and confidential information.

In the past few months you could tell that it was building to a crescendo, the moment of glory when the FTT report was published, confirming everything that the blog had been saying. Convinced that the endgame was going to play out exactly as it had forecasted, rangerstaxcase became ever more emboldened. It tweeted matter-of-factly about Rangers’ “reign of destruction” and the “inevitable disaster” that awaited them when they would be found guilty of a “giant scam” and “premeditated financial doping”. Anybody raising the slightest doubt about its interpretation of the tribunal’s as-yet unknown findings were rubbished. The findings, it said, would reveal the industrial-scale cheating and the lying that went on at Ibrox in the illegal implementation of the EBT scheme and anybody who thought otherwise was a gullible idiot.

On 20 October, the blogger that led the way tweeted that the FTT will conclude that Rangers underpaid their tax to the tune of £18-20 million with another £18m-£20m on top in interests and penalties. The decision is coming, it said, and it was going to represent devastation for what it called “the deadco”. That was a word it used a lot, a derogatory word that suggested the blog had long since crossed the line between, on the one hand, reporting and analysing and, on the other, spiteful goading.

Tuesday was the most instructive day in the short and remarkable life of rangerstaxcase. Having built a reputation on the back of analysing documents that few would ever see, the reputation was lost when failing to analyse properly a document that everybody could see. Its bombastic declaration of victory on Twitter was revealing. On judgment day, rangerstaxcase saw only what it wanted to see. It was only later that it realised that it had read the conclusions incorrectly. It hurriedly deleted some triumphant tweets, removed all the blogs from the website that won the Orwell Prize – and disappeared.

The final message was plaintive and pitiful. “This blog brought light to a matter of public interest,” it read. “This blog has been accurate on all of the major points of the case except the one that matters most to date – the FTT outcome.”

What is happening now is that the hunter has become the hunted. Rangers fans have an e-petition on the go to try and out the source of his information, which they believe, possibly erroneously, came from within HMRC. They want rangerstaxcase outed as well. They believe criminal activity might have taken place in the leaking of documents. Whatever the truth of that, the fact is that rangerstaxcase, seeker of truth, has run away.

Its rise and fall is a story of our times, a story with many lessons for fans and bloggers and media alike. It surfaced first in March 2011 with a mission statement. “I have information on Rangers’ tax case, and I will use this blog to provide the details of what Rangers FC have done, why it was illegal, and what the implications are for one of the largest football clubs in Britain.”

In the beginning, it was a fount of information. It produced – and continued to produce – fascinating detail about the workings of the EBT scheme and why there was a potential for disaster for Rangers. It attacked the football media in Scotland for what it called its historic sycophancy for all things Ibrox and there was no doubt but that it had a point. Many football writers agreed with the point. Some media in Scotland have been cheerleaders for Rangers over the years and everybody knows it, but the cheerleading is isolated, not pervasive. It was a ludicrous and ignorant assumption to bracket the “mainstream media” together and find it collectively guilty of subservience.

But this is what happens when a movement of people all think the same way with no room for an alternative opinion. As the masses flooded on to the blog, the blog slowly metamorphosed into a nasty anti-Rangers, anti-media rally. It became extraordinarily pompous, accepting its Orwell Prize and comparing the bravery of its own work with the courage of the great author. Later, it opined: “One of the best aspects of this blog is the way in which articulate and reasonable fans from both sides (and even a few others) can have an online discussion that does not degenerate into sectarian bile-hurling.” But it was nonsense. The blog became poisonous. It was as if rangerstaxcase and all who worshipped it were the chosen ones and everybody else was either stupid or corrupt or both. There were no shades of grey, no room for doubt. Rangers were guilty of cheating and the mainstream media –mostly hesitant in categorically pre-judging Rangers’ guilt in “premeditated financial doping” – were complicit and cowardly. That was the way of it.

When the hordes began to revere the blogger and tell him that everything he did was the one and only truth, that was the point it started to go wrong, the line in the sand when proper analysis of the detail he was being given went out of the window. Posturing soon took hold.

We should remember something, though. Before the unsavoury side of its personality was unveiled, rangerstaxcase made many pertinent points. Rangers fans derided it as bullshit. Craig Whyte said the revelations on the blog were “99 per cent crap.” They weren’t. Far from it. If you read the FTT report and turn to the pages where Dr Heidi Poon outlines her thoughts as the one dissenting voice, you come to understand that the information rangerstaxcase revealed took us to the heart of the Tribunal, it just wasn’t the majority view. The information was straight. It was the analysis that was twisted.

David Murray might be pursuing rangerstaxcase now, but the irony is that in one respect they have something in common. Hubris hurt them both. The difference is that Murray is visible and whatever you think of him, he has always fought his corner. The blogger, on the other hand, has fled.