Bloody Sunday and never wanting to believe anything bad about our country.
The Saville inquiry had become a media by-word for the extravagance of New Labour's conscience when it came to things which it had no responsibility for, while it found it so terribly difficult to investigate, let alone apologise for almost anything post-May 1997. We now know why it took 12 years - this is almost certainly the most extensive documentation of the events of just a few hours outside of the 9/11 commission's report, and that was the work of a panel of politicians rather than one judge with the help of two other panel members. The very nature of its length and depth gives extra weight to its findings, which otherwise might have been questioned and attacked far more than they have been. Saville's repudiation of the Widgery report is total: the word unjustifiable runs through his findings, a hammer blow against those who continued for years afterwards to perform apologia for the actions of 1 Para on that day, and for the families who conversely campaigned for their relatives and loved ones to be proved completely innocent, the sweetest and most liberating of terms.
Faced with the staunchness of Saville's conclusions, David Cameron had no option other than to deliver the well judged address to the Commons, complete with an apology which was cheered and welcomed in Derry itself. The government is however only one part of the establishment; how the country's media responds and reacts to a new orthodoxy is worthy of equal analysis. And on any reasonably impartial one, especially one predicated on the reaction of the "popular" press, it's one that's equally revealing of the importance, or in this case lack of importance of the recognition that a nation's own armed forces committed a massacre of its own people. We should accept there are some justifications for not dwelling on Bloody Sunday: admittedly, some of the tabloid press is catering for an audience which can't remember what happened yesterday, less care about what happened 38 years ago, and it's also true that Northern Ireland itself has been so transformed from those days that some of those growing up there now are almost oblivious or don't want to learn about their shared past.
Regardless, that a newspaper with the history of the Daily Mirror couldn't find a single patch of space on its front page to report on the Saville report ought to be a source of shame to its current owners and journalists. We expect such from the Daily Star, which instead devoted its front page to the riveting news that vuvuzelas will be coming to this country, but not from the paper of Hugh Cudlipp. Inside it had two pages and a leader comment, more than the Sun's one page and editorial, but at least the Sun found space on the front to mention it, even if some women in orange dresses at the World Cup were considered more important for the main story. The Express had a box referring to the inquiry on its front page, whereas the two faces of the Daily Mail were on full display. A crude piece of moral relativism from Max Hastings, something it usually fulminates against, with Blair and Saville "betraying their responsibilities almost as grievously as those who fired the fatal shots", along with the "true face" of our soldiers, those who sacrificed their lives in Afghanistan having previously served in Ulster. Changing the subject, stressing the difference, hand-wringing over a tiny minority wholly unrepresentative of their comrades, all the signs of complete denial. Not that you would have thought so had you picked up a copy of the Irish version of the paper, as that dispenses with Hastings altogether, and has a front page with the legend "Finally, an apology for Bloody Sunday...but is it enough?"
It's hardly worth arguing with a newspaper which headlines its editorial, at least online, with "No excuses ..." and then goes onto to quibble with how Saville could be so certain that it was the soldiers who fired the first shots, as well as how reliable evidence given to an inquiry which started over a quarter of a century after an event could be, something which not even the Sun does, accepting in full Cameron's own formulation that "nothing can justify the unjustifiable". It should be just left to get on with disagreeing with something that it was always going to reject purely on the basis of its political prejudices.
We should though be alive to the mindset which allows such abuses of state power to happen in the first place. Again, David Cameron articulated it in his statement:
I am deeply patriotic; I never want to believe anything bad about our country; I never want to call into question the behaviour of our soldiers and our Army, which I believe to be the finest in the world.
It's this refusal to accept on an almost atavistic level that anything bad could have been done by those you identify yourself with which is so potentially dangerous. This not wanting to believe anything bad, and never wanting to call into question easily translates when such things do happen, as they always will, into the wilful acceptance of excuses, into cover up and bogus justifications, the finding of scapegoats, the defending of the indefensible that Cameron refused to do only when the full impact of the actualité was impossible to deny.
And let's not pretend that the army is this completely reformed entity, incapable of committing similar mistakes today: in so many ways, the death of Baha Mousa in British custody in Basra is chillingly familiar. Soldiers, acting out of the belief that those they had arrested were responsible for the death of a comrade, without proper instruction from senior officers, using techniques which were outlawed decades ago, inflicted 93 injuries on Mousa within 36 hours. At the initial court martial the words "I don't remember" were used over 600 times, and it concluded with only Corporal Donald Payne convicted, after he had the decency to admit to his role in beating the detainees, which he was recording doing, beating them in turn, with the screams from the men referred to as "the choir". The judge blamed a complete closing of ranks for the failure to find anyone else responsible, which the army completely ignored, with Colonel David Black demanding that soldiers needed to be able to operate "without looking over their shoulders inhibited by the fear of such actions by over-zealous and remote officialdom”. The tabloid press meanwhile either ignored the case, or in the Sun, referred to the death of Mousa and beatings which the other men arrested with him suffered as "so-called crimes" and described the court martial as a "show trial". It was only later that the government paid out £3 million in compensation for these "so-called crimes", forced at the same time to hold an independent inquiry into what happened, which is still on-going. It remains to be seen whether the establishment is capable of holding itself to account after just 7 years, or whether it requires almost two generations to pass before it can finally admit to and accept the truth.