Handling the truth
Establishment mea culpas over Hillsborough have shocked many - but there are more skeletons in the closet, writes Paul Demarty
Last week saw more references to ‘the truth’ than an X-files marathon - the occasion being the publication of the Hillsborough Independent Panel’s report.
Twenty-three years after the disaster, which saw 96 Liverpool fans die at Sheffield Wednesday’s Hillsborough stadium, a serious and thorough examination of what actually happened has been published - and it proved to be sensational. The official imprimatur was put on an account already widely believed: on April 15 1989, a staggering display of police incompetence resulted in horrific loss of life; and by April 16, a cynical and malicious cover-up was already set in train.
The most infamous result was The Sun front page, which saw it all but banished from Merseyside in the following years, and gave us last week’s catchphrase: “The truth”, ran the headline, above a bulleted list of outright lies, planted by police. The Sun was symbolic - the more disturbing side of the story was the systematic doctoring of witness statements in order to show the police in a more favourable light: 164 statements from individual officers were altered; 116 of the alterations directly covered up police incompetence. Re-examination of the medical evidence suggested that nearly half of the deaths could have been prevented, had the police not been obstructive and the ambulance service indifferent.
The air was filled with apologies. The Sun issued another front page - “The real truth” - which explicitly repudiated its previous one. Editor Dominic Mohan and then-editor Kelvin MacKenzie were fulsome in their apologies, as were various brass from South Yorkshire police. David Cameron, reporting the findings to parliament, did so unsparingly - to theatrical gasps of shock from the benches.
When such a cross-section of the great, the good and The Sun line up to prostrate themselves, one cannot suppress a twinge of suspicion as to their motives. In the case of The Sun, the hypocrisy displayed last week is astounding. Its particular account of events in that notorious issue has been proven, again and again, to be false over the last two decades. Indeed, even at the time, no other paper ran with it (apart, in a diluted form, from the Daily Express - which did not even carry the recent report on its front page, yet another scare story about thieving migrants being deemed too important).
Yet The Sun has only retracted parts of its story as and when the cynical imperatives of business have supervened. When the Scouse striker Wayne Rooney was secured to serialise his autobiography, some kind of public contrition was politically necessary, and so was mysteriously forthcoming in an editorial. Such is the value system of the tabloid press: Rooney matters - Liverpool does not.
MacKenzie, in particular, has an odious record on this point. He apologised in 1993, blaming Irvine Patnick, then Tory MP for Sheffield Hallam, for misleading him. In 2006, he repudiated the apology, claiming Rupert Murdoch had ordered him to make it. Now that it is his word against the prime minister, the courts and the greatest share of public opinion, the line has changed once again - and again the blame is offloaded onto Patnick and the police, who misled the poor, naive MacKenzie into running the story. Pull the other one, Kelvin.
The police, likewise, have waited until they are caught bang to rights to start apologising. Now that the possibility of denying culpability for the calamity has utterly evaporated, certain reputations are in tatters - but if you have nothing to lose, words are cheap. Some heads will probably roll - given all that has come out, the original inquest verdict of accidental death is simply unsustainable, and at some point will have to be revised. That in turn will demand prosecutions.
It is this fact which puts the real nature of these people on display. Scratch the surface of a penitent Yorkshire chief constable, and watch him blame his lawyers for the appalling cover-up. Watch the lawyers blame the police. It is like the headiest days of the phone-hacking scandal all over again - this time, however, it is not unscrupulous journalism, but an appalling and avoidable human tragedy at the centre of it.
More generally, it has to be said that police incompetence did not end with the disaster itself. This was a botched cover-up from the very beginning. By the time hundreds of witness statements are being tampered with, the thing is already out of control. The police have been nailed on Hillsborough under the same conditions that obtain when they are nailed on anything: they could not possibly have been allowed to get away with it. No carpet is large enough for 96 corpses and 164 perversions of the course of justice to be brushed under it.
Compare Ian Tomlinson, the unlucky passer-by shoved to what proved to be his death by PC Simon Harwood at G20 protests in 2009. Harwood has been given the sack (he gets to keep his pension). Never mind that any plausible interpretation of the word ‘manslaughter’ has to include what he did; never mind, more importantly, that it was senior Met officers who chose to police the protests in such a way that, one day or another, a fatal accident was inevitable.
For that matter, compare Jean Charles de Menezes, shot dead by armed police in Stockwell tube station, and the torrent of abject lies about his ‘suspicious’ behaviour that followed the incident (his crime - looking a bit Asian). Or Mohammed Abdul Kahar, infamously shot during a police raid in 2006 on bogus anti-terrorism ‘evidence’ (after which he was smeared as a paedophile by The Sun).
Hillsborough is remarkable mainly because it gives us an insight into the sort of cynical back-covering exercises that the police routinely get away with, with the direct collusion of the press. No doubt some of the techniques of deception are more sophisticated today than in 1989; apart from that, the idea (floating around widely) that Hillsborough happened in a very different past is utterly risible.
Cameron and the Tories might be seen to get out of all this clean. It is worth noting, however, that, according to the report, the Thatcher government was more interested in marshalling Hillsborough as supporting evidence for its plans in relation to football than probing too deeply into the events themselves.
Some background is necessary here: as the 1980s drew on, concerns grew in the establishment about the culture surrounding football. Violence among fans gained an increased media profile; fans started to be viewed as a semi-lumpen mob, to whom the correct attitude was one of deep suspicion. It was this attitude that put the steel cages around terraces, against which the Hillsborough victims were crushed; and also that formed the approach of the police on the fateful day. (Inasmuch as violence among working class fans was a real phenomenon, it surely stems from the devastating class offensive against them in that decade, which left many communities in ruins.)
The slandering of Liverpool fans as drunken, thieving yobs in The Sun was the logical outcome; but so was the progressive reshaping of football as a cultural institution that has taken place in the last 20 years. The terraces have been supplanted by all-seater stadia; the First Division gave way to the Premiership, and working class fans find themselves more and more unable to afford the absurd ticket prices in the top flight.
Football has been gentrified; and the residual mass plebeian culture attached to it is a source of embarrassment to its authorities. Now that the middle classes (Roy Keane’s prawn sandwich brigade) and the moneyed elite turn up in significant enough numbers, stadia have been made safe for human use; but what goes on inside them is ever more micro-managed.
A sane society would never have allowed football grounds to become so decrepit; or herded fans like cattle into cages, and obstructed their exit when things started to go wrong; or expected a riot rather than a desperate attempt to save lives on the part of fans. Equally, a sane society would not be so ready to believe the repugnant fabrications of South Yorkshire police and The Sun, that working class people were more concerned to rob than defend each other; or - today - see in boisterous and sometimes tasteless terrace banter a bubbling cauldron of violent hatred.
David Cameron, however, stands in defence of an insane society, in which those below necessarily appear as a threat - real or potential - to be managed, bullied and (in this case) left to die in mangled heaps. The icon for all today’s Tories, Margaret Thatcher, vigorously pursued the destruction of working class communities, the context for the disaster. An inheritor to Thatcherism as slick as Cameron has no more right to voice the outrage of the Hillsborough families than Kelvin MacKenzie.