First Published May 4th 2016 on richardopenshaw.org.uk
Last week, the truth – the actual truth – of the Hillsborough tragedy was finally established after 27 years. With it came some kind of justice for the 96 football supporters who lost their lives that day. Sadly this became much more than the tragedy of people not coming home from a football match. Added to that was the travesty of an invented version of events, the continued failure of the establishment to recognise or rectify this and the discovery – not for the first time – that some of our press are beyond contempt.
In the days after April 15th 1989, I wrote the numbers 1 to 95 on an A4 piece of paper and stuck it on the wall next to my bed. Each night, I paused for a minute before going to sleep, thinking about those who had died. I crossed off the numbers as I did so. I held a final silence for the 96th victim four years later. I don’t remember feeling anything other than utter horror at the helpess situation of those who died, and a desire to do something. I couldn’t do anything practical, so I did something symbolic. I was 13 years old at the time – 32 of the victims were within 5 years of that age – and I was a football fan. I guess I could imagine myself in that situation. I can’t recall any particular thoughts on the argument that was already raging about the causes of the tragedy.
I certainly don’t remember ever, over the last 27 years, believing that it was the fault of fans. And yet that was the prevailing narrative from the establishment for so many years and it seems that was all too easy to achieve. South Yorkshire Police made several mistakes – as a force and some individuals – from handing the management of the match to an inexperienced commander to opening an exit gate and failing to implement the previously standard ‘Freeman tactic’; a long-standing method of ensuring that the central pens were not overfilled. While mistakes by a force tasked specifically with the safety of spectators that result in loss of life can never be accepted, had the force faced up to these errors with some contrition, families and survivors would have at least been spared some of the harrowing subsequent quarter of a century.
In 1989 the default position of police forces, and many individual officers would be that policing a football match was about dealing with trouble. Of course, that was completely wrong; even during dark days of ’70’s and ’80’s hooliganism, those intent on disorder were in the minority. When a police force approaches a football match – or protest, or picket line – expecting disorder then it is very difficult to get out of that mindset. At Hillsborough they failed to get out of that mindset with the worst possible consequences. This default view of football fans as trouble also held sway in the media and government of the day and so, as well as creating an environment in which the tragedy could happen, it made the subsequent cover up very easy indeed. The establishment was quite adept at dehumanising football fans. If rumours were put around of drunken fans misbehaving, very few people of power and influence would challenge it as it played into their preconceived ideas of football supporters in general and Liverpool fans in particular. I heard the suggestion recently that had this happened to a hundred west end theatregoers, the story would have played out very differently. It’s difficult to argue with that.
One newspaper in particular, of course, was only too happy to oblige not just in accepting the police lies but in aggressively promoting them as fact. Kelvin Mackenzie has this week been defending himself by claiming that he simply reported what he had been told and that others did so too. He’s right, other outlets repeated these claims but none in such a sensationalist manner or with such apparent pleasure. A phrase I like to borrow from Pete Seeger states that “everybody has the right to be wrong”. Kelvin Mackenzie, however, abuses that right. By using the headline ‘THE TRUTH’, The Sun – and Mackenzie personally – implied in the strongest possible terms that this version of events was unquestionable. The equally strong implication was also that those who did challenge it were, in fact, lying. Kelvin Mackenzie and his excuse for a newspaper were morally bankrupt then, and remain so today with their refusal to mention the inquest verdicts on their front page and continued defence of simply repeating what they were told. Is it normal for journalists to print as fact allegations that they have clearly not checked themselves? Mackenzie has expressed regret this week – since the jury effectively forced his hand – but in 2006 he maintained “I wasn’t sorry then and I’m not sorry now” as he claimed that an earlier apology was made purely to placate Rupert Murdoch. Like Kelvin Mackenzie, David Cameron appears to have changed his position a little in light of the verdict. “I would like to pay tribute” he said, “to the extraordinary courage of the Hillsborough campaigners in their long search for the truth.” I’m sure we all would, I certainly do. However, in 2011 the Prime Minister likened that search to “a blind man, in a dark room, looking for a black cat that isn’t there”.
Several opportunities were passed up to put the record straight. The Taylor Report, published less than a year after the tragedy, found that “although there were other causes, the main reason for the disaster was the failure of police control” and yet all of its recommendations concerned the fabric of stadiums and the sale of alcohol. The initial inquest reached a verdict of accidental death, controversially deciding that its remit should end at 3.15pm, thus eliminating any consideration of the police response, which was to treat fans desperately trying to escape the crush as hooligans. The Ambulance Service was similarly slow to respond, while supporters themselves sought to administer first aid and used advertising hoardings as makeshift stretchers. Incredibly, when Lord Justice Stuart-Smith reviewed this inquest in 1998, he concluded that evidence of South Yorkshire Police statements being amended by senior officers did not warrant further inquiry. So, two Lords Justices and a coroner failed the victims of the disaster and their families. It took a jury to finally conclude what many could see, and campaigners insisted, all along.
Finally, the FA must take a long, hard look at themselves. Why was Hillsborough still being used? There had been similar, though much smaller, crushing incidents in previous years, including both the 1981 and 1988 FA Cup semi-finals. The stadium was clearly not fit for such a big game, which is certainly something that the Taylor Inquiry concluded almost at the beginning of this process. To date, the FA, along with South Yorkshire Police have faced no consequences for their failures which resulted in the deaths of 96 innocent football supporters. All of the consequences have been faced, with dignity, by the Hillsborough families. The time has surely come to redress the balance.
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