Post-Hillsborough disaster editorial
From WSC 28, June 1989
12 September ~ An independent report into previously unseen documents relating to the Hillsborough disaster of 1989 has been released. Our editorial in the first edition after the tragedy reflected on the events
Like you, we have read a hell of a lot about Hillsborough over the last couple of weeks. We quickly reached saturation point, partly because there are a limited number of ways in which the same points can be made without becoming repetitious and partly because so many stupid things have been said.
One thing deserves to be reiterated, however. The deaths of 90 people (*) at a football ground in Sheffield were not just another tragic accident. Instead, they were a predictable consequence of the fact that the people who run English football have stumbled from one crisis to another without evolving a coherent, consistent policy to deal with any specific problem.
The rise to public prominence of the FSA and the spread of the independent magazines has encouraged the belief that supporters might finally get the opportunity to wield some influence on the way football is administered in this country. An incident such as this demonstrates both the urgent need for such a development and the amount of work that still needs to be done.
Slow progress is being made but nothing has really changed. The individuals who run football clubs with, in many cases, breathtaking incompetence, continue to manifest total disdain for football fans. Periodically, the cast-list is shaken up — new additions to the familiar clutch of pompous businessmen seeking personal aggrandisement — but the attitudes are as entrenched as ever. The same policemen adopt the same aggressive attitude to football, insisting that it should be treated as a public order problem rather than a form of entertainment. The same prejudice is attached to all football fans, deemed to be passive accomplices to the sociopathic minority.
The police see us as a mass entity, fuelled by drink and a single-minded resolve to wreak havoc by destroying property and attacking one another with murderous intent. Containment and damage limitation is at the core of the police strategy. Fans are treated with the utmost disrespect. We are herded, cajoled, pushed, and corralled into cramped spaces, and expected to submit passively to every new indignity.
The implication is that “normal” people need to be protected from the football fan. But we are normal people. “The Football Fan” is not an easily defined social stereotype, whatever the tabloid cartoonists may choose to believe. All manner of people go to football matches. A few of them are intent on unleashing aggressive instincts which are also manifested in wine bars on a Saturday night or in tourist hotels on the Costa Del Sol. Thuggish behaviour is rarely reported in any detail when it can't be directly linked to a football match.
Football is being made the scapegoat for a society brutalised over the last decade. Yet, a proportion of law officers are afflicted with the same oafish sensibility that is exhibited by a minority of fans. Since this magazine first appeared, we have regularly received letters complaining about specific police actions. The correspondence has come from a broad spectrum of our readership and builds up into a weighty indictment of general policing policy at football matches over the last three years. A large proportion of the Liverpool supporters who angrily spoke out against the police tactics at Hillsborough will have had previous bad experiences which served to further fuel their sense of grievance. Fans and the police have developed a prejudiced view of one another that has served only to create barriers that are of as much significance as the perimeter fencing.
Then there are the administrators. Their attitude is one of utter incomprehension and cowardice. They don't stick up for football supporters because they basically neither understand nor like them. The FA have abdicated any responsibility for the events of Hillsborough in typical fashion. Faced with crisis and degeneration, they have failed to take positive steps to resuscitate the game. They have obstructed change where it was proposed by the powerless (the fans) but prostrated themselves before a political establishment that would be quite happy to see the game destroyed.
Complaints about safety and comfort were ignored because they were being made by supporters. Official action will be taken now, because the same points previously raised by fans are now being made by the government and the media. Their stupidity and cowardice over a long period of time allowed Hillsborough to happen.
Symptomatic of their paralysis is the frequency with which a certain phrase crops up in their public pronouncements. We are informed, with wearying regularity, that football needs to "put its house in order'". This is, of course, a laughably imprecise phrase, intended to imply a commitment to resolute action. Needless to say, it means absolutely nothing.
Clubs have to accept a proportion of the blame. They own the fences and turnstiles that helped to cause the disaster. Sheffield Wednesday officials seemed to believe that, in an emergency, it would be possible to evacuate a large number of people thorough a tiny gate in the perimeter fencing. They and their colleagues at other League grounds across the country insult loyal, put-upon customers with the pathetic standard of amenities on offer. They have failed to develop long-term strategies that rely on anything beyond glib slogans about families and the importance of sponsors. The executive box holders get central heating and smoked glass but the huddled majority don't deserve even an unobstructed view and a roof.
There is very little common sense applied to football. In no other area of life is the victim treated with as much disrespect as the perpetrator, nor the majority held to be guilty of the crimes perpetrated by a minority.
But, ultimately, what happens to us doesn't matter. It is our own fault for being football fans. That is why MPs always ignored pleas from supporters' organisations seeking to prevent the sort of disaster that has become a reality. Whatever they may say, few politicians gave any indication that they cared about football fans before Hillsborough happened. Suddenly everyone knows the answer. A fortnight ago, they didn't even hear the question.
It didn't take very long for Hillsborough to become our fault. Indeed, initial reports pinned blame on supporters who were believed to have broken down a gate. Later, as the analysts set to work, blame was heaped upon the large number of fans who arrived without tickets. Then the police's press department piped up, revealing that many were drunk and generally doing all the things that fans are famous for. Had the television cameras not been present to record the disaster as it unfolded, many people would have unquestioningly accepted the garbage that has been pumped out by some of the tabloid hacks.
Fans have been both the prophesiers and the victims of Hillsborough, but who believes that they will be invited to play an active part in solving the problems that it highlighted? We will be obliged to meekly accept the remedy offered. Standing has been proved to be bad for us, so we must sit. Stadiums in urban areas are, without exception. unsafe places for large numbers of people to congregate, so, for the common good, all teams will eventually be required set up home on industrial estates in the middle of nowhere. Better still, we are to pay for the changes that are required, despite the huge burdens already endured and the fact that the government takes vast sums of money from the game.
By the time this issue appears, the deaths of those Liverpool fans will have become just another "great story" disgorged by a media which revelled in one of the few disasters that happened live in front of the world's press. After a couple of weeks, there isn't much mileage to be derived from sombre proclamations that "It must never be allowed to happen again".
Of course, it will be allowed to happen again. The ID Cards bill with provisions that almost guarantee that such a tragedy will be repeated is to be pushed through nonetheless. No surprise there. Even after the Zeebrugge sinking, dangerous ferries are sailing the Channel, and on the London Underground, safety of passengers takes primacy only over ensuring that the chocolate machines are functioning adequately.
Some football officials smugly assert that such a disaster couldn't happen at their clubs. What they really mean is that now it has happened to someone else, odds are that it won't recur for a little while. It is less the Safety of Sports Grounds, but, rather, the Law of Averages that they see as adequate protection for their customers.
Disasters are happening so regularly now that we have developed a meaningless set of pseudo-religious rituals to acknowledge them. As has been clear for a long time, no disaster is worthy of the name until leading religious and political figures are officially informed and have given suitably trite quotes to the press. This immediate reaction is followed by The Visit. The seniority of the visitor is determined by media interest and death toll, and is, of course, performed primarily for the benefit of those clicking cameras. Survivors' stories are served up in tandem with chilling reminders of how easily death can take any of us.
All such rituals, crassly inappropriate in the main because they are so formularised, are supposed to make us feel that a mixture of fate and circumstance was ultimately to blame.
The key ritual of this organised disinformation is an inquiry. “Experts” are called forth (in this instance, few people other than football fans have any relevant expertise to offer). After accusations are made and refuted, a report is produced and the cheapest and most politically expedient bits form part of a new law. The rest is made voluntary. Identification of the real culprits is lost amid desperate, scurrying attempts to avoid blame.
The same people who indignantly call for the fences to be torn down now are the same ones who demanded that they should be put up in the first place. Thanks were duly said for there not having been any perimeter fences at Bradford, but no long-term lessons were learned from that fire. Superficial responses were the order of the day.
This is why it isn't all that surprising that the government wants to continue with the dangerous ID cards. It has weathered a sufficient number of crises to know that concern passes very quickly. They obviously reason that all will run smoothly if they can only hang on until something else is on the front pages. However, the ham-fisted attempts to bolster prejudices against football fans through the front pages of the Sun has rather backfired this time.
Once more, everyone is offering opinions on the game and its followers. Can it ever be the same again? Should it continue at all? A number of journalists have trotted out their "I'll never go again" line, much as they did after Heysel. It seems that any measure is justifiable in the wake of Hillsborough and some sort of punishment seems to be the accepted solution. The prime minister has no expertise to offer in this situation. She is blindly determined to act, and to be seen to act in accordance with her public image. She has nothing to say and yet remains shrilly determined to emphasise the fact.
Most of what we have outlined here has been said before. Some of it is repetitious, because football fans have gone on at considerable length in the past about most of these issues. To no avail. No one listens. Perhaps they won't listen now, because after all, we are only supporters. We derive no pleasure from saying any of this. We would much rather crawl into a corner and forget about football for a few weeks, but that isn't possible.
(*) This was the death toll at the time of writing
On the subject...