Truth at last

The Hillsborough Justice Campaign has taken another step towards closure, but certain attitudes remain, writes Rob Hughes

Monday October 17 was an historic day for the families of the Hillsborough victims. An emotional debate in the House of Commons resulted in Home Secretary Theresa May declaring that all government papers will finally be handed over to an independent panel led by the Bishop of Liverpool. It was a victory of sorts, albeit a bittersweet one, for the relatives of the 96 people who died.

The campaign had been driven by the Hillsborough Family Support Group, who had lobbied MPs with a petition demanding full disclosure of all related documents. In a highly moving statement to the House, Steve Rotheram, the MP for Liverpool Walton, himself a Liverpool fan in attendance at Hillsborough, read aloud the names of all those who lost their lives. The verdict should help uncover the truth of just what happened on April 15, 1989, bring to account those responsible for the tragedy and edge nearer to some degree of closure.

The overall tone was one of guarded optimism. For Rotheram, “it remains to be seen if it is a victory for families”. He was keen to address the very public smears of the time – led by the Sun’s execrable front-page editorial stating that violent, drunken Liverpool fans were to blame for the deaths – and an “establishment cover-up” from politicians, media and police that continues to taint opinion to this day. He cited as an example Bernard Ingram, Margaret Thatcher’s spokesman at the time, who claimed the whole thing was caused by “tanked up” Liverpool fans.

Of course, we live in more enlightened times now, don’t we? Football has shaken off the hooligan culture that so stigmatised its reputation throughout the 1980s. All-seat stadiums, the most visible product of the Taylor Report that resulted from Hillsborough, have made the game a safer, more sedentary spectator sport for all. Even politicians are at pains to pledge publicly their allegiance to their chosen team.

Then along came Sir Oliver Popplewell. The retired judge, who chaired the inquiry into the 1985 Bradford City fire disaster that left 56 dead, took it upon himself to write to the Times after the Commons motion. Both his words and his timing were scarcely believable: “The citizens of Bradford behaved with quiet dignity and great courage. They did not harbour conspiracy theories. They did not seek endless further inquiries. They buried their dead, comforted the bereaved and succoured the injured. They organised a sensible compensation scheme and moved on. Is there, perhaps, a lesson there for the Hillsborough campaigners?”

You could, at a pinch, dismiss all this as the dotty delusions of some pasture-dwelling old beak. But his comments serve to highlight a deeper facet of the entire Hillsborough debate. Rather than being eradicated, have those same attitudes merely laid dormant since 1989? Has anything changed at all?

Many were quick to jump on Popplewell’s statement. An incredulous Rotheram said it showed “how people right at the top of the establishment still harbour prejudice and ignorance”. Kenny Dalglish was equally dismissive. “I don’t think he should be interfering,” he offered, adding: “The Hillsborough families have been hugely complimented on their dignity and how they have gone about what they want to achieve.”

Yet there remains a disconcerting impression that Popplewell is not alone in his sentiments. Hillsborough still tends to be viewed as merely a football tragedy, rather than a human one. In April 2009, the London-born US radio host Steven Cohen, presenter of World Soccer Daily, claimed on air that rampaging Liverpool fans were still to blame for what happened. The furore that followed led to a very public apology and Cohen’s decision to quit the show but, more tellingly, no retraction of his statement.

Perhaps the most pertinent sign of entrenched behaviour comes from the authorities themselves. The refusal of South Yorkshire Police to be held culpable for the events that day, despite overwhelming evidence against certain individuals, including first-hand testimonies from their own officers, still smacks of institutionalised conceit.

The same them-and-us mentality that led to so many crucial errors of judgement at Hillsborough – the idea that large gatherings of people are there to be combated and controlled rather than simply accommodated – was echoed with an eerie sense of timing. On the same day as the Commons debate, PC Simon Harwood pleaded not guilty to the manslaughter of Ian Tomlinson in 2009. The entire affair, as with Hillsborough, was ripe with tales of how the police’s systemic instinct was to close ranks, accuse others of being the aggressors and deny all blame. This stance only began to wobble once outside organisations attempted to unpeel the truth. Some behaviour, it seems, is impervious to change.

From WSC 298 December 2011