Bouncers. Doormen. “Security”. Whatever term you use, your interactions with them will often make or break a night out. 13 years ago, Donal MacIntyre, that now infamous and not-so-undercover investigative journalist, began his television career on the groundbreaking documentary series World In Action. After 11 months working as a bouncer in Nottingham clubs, he exposed a seedy criminal underworld of drugs rings and organized crime amongst the so-called ‘security’ firms of our city’s nightclubs. Over a decade later, almost every student has their own sob story about the injustices of being turned away from this or that club, or being roughly treated by overzealous doorstaff, but how far are these just the normal scuffles that come with the territory? Are they the inevitable outcome of alcohol-fuelled, testosterone-charged university rugby lads’ ‘banter’ mixing badly with muscle-bound authority figures? Or do the security staff of some nightclubs actually pose more of a risk to our safety than some of the riled-up students they eject onto the pavements every night of the week?
Since MacIntyre’s exposé, the world of bouncing has cleaned up its image no end: no longer a law unto themselves, every bouncer or doorman now has to have a CRB check for violent or drugs-related convictions and go through training before being registered with the Security Industry Authority (SIA), in accordance with the Private Security Industry Act of 2001. The introduction of national standards has done much to tackle the negative image surrounding the profession, as Jackie Munn of the SIA recognises. “I personally knew of door supervisors who had convictions for murder,” she said. “We couldn’t continue as we were.” Perhaps we should count ourselves lucky: before these regulations came in, the generation of student clubbers preceding us could have faced convicted murderers with a job description that amounted to a licence to beat people up on the doors of our most popular clubs, at a time when most of us were more worried about who had a shiny Snorlax Pokémon card. Nonetheless, some unlicensed bouncers do slip through the net. On the 6th February this year the SIA conducted a routine check in Nottingham city centre. Of 119 staff working at 29 venues, only 3 individuals were unlicensed. These statistics are good, as over 97% were working within the law, but 3 individuals in that position still have a lot of potential to do damage. In a city with well over 350 licensed venues, the real figure of unlicensed bouncers working the doors could well be much higher; and stories of bar staff at some establishments being roped in as doormen on occasion are not unheard of. The scariest figures show that on a Friday or Saturday night, private security staff outnumber police on duty by a ratio of ten to one, and to a great degree are a law-unto-themselves.
So under the new laws, with clean records and training in ‘conflict avoidance’, do Nottingham bouncers deserve the bad rep that still clings to them? Student stories are mixed to say the least. At one underground club on the outskirts of Lenton, shady connections and drug dealing seems to be an open secret. One student, who prefers not to be named, describes his experience at this establishment: “I saw a guy standing in the corner of the club blazing a joint, at a night which my friends and I run. To be honest I wasn’t bothered it was a joint, just that he was so openly smoking inside. I went up to him and asked if he could take it outside; he just stared at me and retorted, ‘what you talkin’ about? I work here.’ Next thing I know he walks off and chats to the bouncer, the bouncer comes over and gives me a little talking to along the lines of, ‘just let me police what goes inside the club, and you keep out of it.’ When I talked to my friends about what happened, they told me that I had really picked the wrong guy to tell off, as he was the resident drug dealer.”
Another story from the same club involves one clubber having cannabis confiscated from her at the door – fairly standard, you may think, and in normal circumstances her situation is indefensible. However, rather than refusing entry or reporting the incident to the police, this particular bouncer preferred to roll joints with the confiscated material and torment the owner by smoking them in front of her! The problem is, these are hardly the sort of incidents that are going to get reported to the police or the SIA, as the people who have witnessed bouncers engaging in such criminal activities are wrapped up in those activities themselves. As a result, many dodgy bouncers are remaining under the radar, and no amount of CRB checks will uncover criminal offences that have gone unreported.
The link between bouncers and drugs is one thing, and of little concern to students who don’t participate in that scene. Those that do will perhaps have to accept that such issues are part of the deal if recreational drugs are your vice of choice. But there are other students who suffer real injustices, who haven’t broken the law, who aren’t even drunk never mind disorderly when they suffer the fickleness of doormen’s right to refuse entry. Girls are often the lucky ones when it comes to gaining entry to clubs; if the (predominantly male) doorstaff take a liking to an attractive girl, she often finds herself at the front of the queue, allowed in when a group of lads are told the club is full, or mysteriously on a guestlist she never put her name down for. Few complain about this kind of sexism when it is to their advantage. However, for every hot girl given superior treatment, there are those who incur the scathing indictments of some apparently very specific door policies. At Oceana and Snug, female students have found themselves verbally abused about their looks, one girl being referred to as an “ugly ginger” and subsequently not allowed in. Frustratingly, bouncers can refuse entry without an obligation to provide a reason; perhaps in this case the doorman in question would have done better to be a little more vague in disclosing his rationale for turning her away.
Sexism and playground-style bullying aside, the most shocking instances of unreasonable entry policies have occurred most recently at Gatecrasher, and seem to amount to little more than outright racism. Since the beginning of the spring semester, groups of Asian clubbers have been finding themselves turned away from the club with a trite “not tonight, boys”, standing aside only to look on as other groups of white students are let in without a second glance. One student, enquiring why he wasn’t being allowed in, was told he wasn’t dressed smartly enough. This was on a student night and he was wearing trousers and shoes. Whilst he turned to leave, others were allowed in, their jeans and trainers being considered smart enough apparently because the people dressed in them had paler skin.
When we enquired about these incidents, a representative from Gatecrasher explained that their security is supplied by an external company, and admitted that they don’t vet or interview the bouncers themselves and are in the process of reviewing the contract with the security providers they currently employ. However, they refused to comment directly on the allegations of racism, so we are left to speculate as to whether the potential switch in security companies is connected to bouncers abusing their positions or not. This hasn’t stopped theories circulating the student community regarding the origins of this controversial policy; considering one of the head bouncers is himself Asian, many suspect it is not simply a case of vulgar racism. Rather, rumour abounds that promoters of another Thursday night ‘urban music’ event at Halo are seeking to tap into the Asian student market, and have been paying off bouncers to refuse entry and encourage them to go elsewhere. If there is any truth to this theory, the fact that the usual Thursday night crowd is now partying at Halo whilst Gatecrasher is closed due to fire damage means someone achieved their aim even if purely by coincidence!
So there are plenty of bad bouncers, that’s a given. But what about the good bouncers? And, wait for it…what about badly behaved students? ISIS is one club which, being an AU night, experiences all the consequences of the ‘lash and banter’ this entails. Despite being dropped as an officially sponsored Students’ Union night some years back, partly because of complaints regarding the level of aggression used by the security staff, ISIS have overcome these issues and is back with a vengeance as one of the most popular nights of the week. A spokesperson for ISIS described how they dealt with problems last October surrounding the behaviour of some of the harder partying sports teams: “We worked closely with Paul Lloyd, the AU officer, to get the message out that bad behaviour would not be tolerated. Paul did an excellent job and the situation improved. The situations that arise are the usual: drunken students being turned away and then refusing to go home, the odd fight on the dancefloor, and so on.” Such liaising shows how student nights can be run well, by using communication rather than the short-term solution of a headlock or ending up thrown out onto the pavement in a bloody heap.
The truth is, most student/bouncer fracas are caused by drunk students lashing out when being removed from a club; rarely do you hear of anyone being ‘started on’ by security staff unprovoked. ISIS were keen to reiterate their policy of handing over any person involved in a violent incident to the police, explaining that “over the years there have been a couple of students who have been prosecuted and have now got criminal records. I always explain whenever given the opportunity to anyone involved in any incident that it will not look good on their PWC or KPMG application form to have to tick the box ‘Do you have a criminal record?’”
Harsh as it may seem, this is true. One drunken mistake and what was you simply fighting for your right to party can all too often end up in a fight to clear your name, as one student discovered in his first year during a particularly messy night at ISIS. “Being pretty drunk, I took offence at another student chanting anti-semitic football songs, which I wouldn’t normally…Anyway, I stared him out, then turned away. Next thing I knew he had grabbed my arm and I ended up headbutting him in the face.” It was hardly a fight to rival the Yid Army v. Millwall Bushwackers, but the student in question ended up with a night in a cell, a police caution and narrowly missed out on a criminal record. Despite drunkenness and clearly an aggressive mood, he had no complaints about the way the bouncers handled the situation.
For the most part, bouncers do provide the security they are employed to, and there are a few students who owe certain doormen a debt of gratitude: the girl who was about to step into an unlicensed cab until a bouncer notice and sent the driver on his way, and various individuals on the losing side of a dancefloor fight who’ve had their aggressors removed. And yet, for every few good stories about bouncers fulfilling their duties, there seems to be a story of a bouncer being unreasonable, aggressive or just downright criminal that sticks in the mind that little bit more. Yes, the situation has improved immeasurably since Donal MacIntyre first investigated, but the fact remains bouncers deal with aggression night after night: if you rile them up, they’ll be having none of it. At best, you’ll be going home before you’ve got in, and at worst you’ll have a few bruises to remember the night by. Violence from bouncers is probably the easiest problem to avoid. Most complaints regard the use of unnecessary force, but the best thing is not to give them a reason to use any force in the first place. Unfortunately, the same does not apply to incidents of racism, sexism or simple assault perpetrated by security personnel. Bouncers may outnumber the police on a night out in the city center, but the bouncers’ rule does not outweigh the law of the land.
By Libby Galvin