Thursday, 13 September 2012

Hillsborough: it was the Sun wot done it

There is poignancy in the publication of the Report of the Hillsborough Independent Panel after a summer of feelgood sport was topped-out by Andy Murray's victory in New York. It has taken 23 years, almost Murray's entire lifetime, to confirm what was common knowledge, particularly among football fans, shortly after the disaster (see this editorial from When Saturday Comes in June 1989): Sheffield Wednesday FC and Sheffield City Council were culpable for an unsafe ground, the FA didn't care about spectator safety, the police saw fans only as a public order challenge and made fatal mistakes on the day, the ambulance service was inept, and politicians and the media eagerly assumed that fans were to blame.

What the latest report now confirms is that there was an organised conspiracy after the event to shift primary blame from the police onto the fans, leading to the infamous Sun front-page that claimed they were drunk and violent, urinating on police officers and stealing from the dead. Following Cameron's formal and fulsome apology on behalf of the current government (to whom no blame can attach), we can expect some of those involved in the campaign of denigration (though probably not all) to make further public admissions of error and regret. Kelvin MacKenzie and Boris Johnson have got off the mark early with mealy-mouthed claims that they acted in "good faith" or were "sloppy" in repeating the lies of others. A right pair of Jeremys.

The passage of time means that some have dodged the verdict of the panel, notably the then South Yorkshire Chief Constable, Peter Wright, who died last year. Others may well face prosecution for perverting the course of justice, though those guilty of mere incompetence or poor judgement, such as the coroner, Stefan Popper, and Graham Kelly of the FA, have probably now avoided any damage to their professional careers. The Jeremys.

The political context of the time was a government that had consistently displayed a contemptuous attitude towards football fans, culminating in the barking-mad plan for supporter ID cards, which was only aborted in the aftermath of Hillsborough. This stupidity was shared by the administrators of the game and many club owners (Ken Bates's plans for electric fences and his equivalence of fans with cattle was a standout). Ultimately, it was the ready willingness of the government to accept the lies of the police (relayed in part by the Tory MP Irvine Patnick) that led to the initial miscarriage of justice and the subsequent official inertia. The police told the politicians what they expected to hear. The politicians' prejudices reinforced the cover-up (see this telling anecdote about the then Home Secretary, David Waddington. The utter Jeremy).

One comment in the report, a quote from a briefing given to Margaret Thatcher, that the deception and unreliability of the South Yorkshire Police was "depressingly familiar", gives a clue to the wider historical context. The was the same police force that distinguished themselves at the "Battle of Orgreave" five years earlier. The similarities in their aggressive behaviour on the day, and their subsequent fabrication of evidence (the prosecution of 95 miners for riot collapsed as a result), are obvious. The force's established reputation as a bunch of lying thugs was a major factor in the widespread scepticism among football fans that greeted the Sun exclusive and (let's not forget) the equally unsympathetic TV reports. In the papers released to the inquiry, Thatcher responded to the preliminary Taylor report by writing: "The broad thrust is devastating criticism of the police. Is that for us to welcome?" The possibility that the deaths of 96 fans might trump concerns over the police force's reputation does not appear to have entered her head. It is hard to imagine a modern politician being so tone-deaf as to describe strikers or football fans as "the enemy within", whatever the provocation, though Boris Johnson might try if he thought he could excuse it afterwards as a joke. The Thatcher years were vicious.

Why did it take so long for the state to admit what was widely known at the time? One theory is that this was a cynical strategy of delay. The Thatcher, Major and Blair governments all knew enough to have justified reopening the inquest, but it was only in the last days of the Brown administration that Andy Burnham and Maria Eagle got the green light for the independent review to inspect papers held secret under the 30-year rule. I'd like to think this reflected Brown's and Alan Johnson (the Home Secretary's) empathy as football fans, but Blair's oft-touted affinity with the Magpies bore nothing, so perhaps it was just a metaphorical clock running down. The rationale for delay would be to allow the systemic failures to be addressed in an orderly fashion behind closed doors (we are assured that it's a "different police force today"), allowing any eventual opprobrium to be heaped on long-retired individuals. Of course, without real independent oversight, it's difficult to say whether the rotten barrel has been replaced by a sound one. To judge by the recent performance of the Met police in relation to phone-hacking and Ian Tomlinson, you don't get the impression that the police's traditional culture of contempt for the less powerful members of society has been wholly extirpated the length and breadth of the land.

Mention of phone-hacking should shift the spotlight back to the media. The real crime of the Sun was not their peddling of the police's lies, or the systematic collusion between the two, but their role in creating the climate of contempt towards football fans, and other "enemies", throughout the course of the 1980s. Without this, it is unlikely that the flimsy police claims would have been given credence at the time. As someone who regularly attended matches both home and away in those years, the gulf between the "hooligan hell" of the media and the reality (rucks happened, but infrequently) was accepted as just one of those things. A reflection of the stupidity and remoteness of power. It is only with time that you appreciate how much this was a concerted campaign to instill fear among non-fans, to drum up support for draconian laws, rather than an unthinking expression of anti-plebian prejudice.

Today, football fans are seen as cuddly consumers, decked out in club shirts and felt hats rather than DMs and Harrington jackets (I'm strictly old school). The archetypal TV or photo shot is the contrast between delirious joy and tears as relegation is avoided or confirmed, rather than running street battles or pitch invasions. A trope of the Premier League era is the takeover by middle-class fans, particularly at grounds such as The Emirates, supposedly displacing working-class males and thus the hooligan element. This is over-stated. Many of those middle-class fans were there in the 80s, they just didn't fit the stereotype so they were ignored. The above-inflation increases in ticket costs will have squeezed out some fans, but the bigger impact on demographics at the leading clubs has been the move to all-seater stadia, the increased share of season tickets, and the advent of cheap flights bringing footy tourists to the UK. Football has become a less casual pastime, focusing more on die-hard regulars and high-spending groups and families on an outing.

The reason why the campaign for justice for the Hillsborough 96 has finally succeeded is, in part, because so many of the affected were middle class or articulate working class. While the political isolation of the miners in 1984 was effective because they were a separate and clannish community, the miscalculation in 1989 was that football fans could be as easily segregated and made an object of popular hatred. The clue that this wouldn't work was the solidarity shown by the city-wide boycott of the Sun in Liverpool. What's depressing is that the tactics of the press remain fundamentally the same. The enemy within have evolved from the three-headed monster of miners, IRA and football fans into the hydra of public sector workers, Islamic terrorists and benefit cheats. The regular stories about the feckless and workshy robbing the public purse are no more the product of fearless investigative journalism than the ironically titled "The Truth" from 1989. But don't hold your breath in expectation of a News of the World-style self-immolation. The Sun's contrition will last for just the one issue.

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