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Wednesday, September 12, 2012 

Bitter vindication.

The last time David Cameron stood up in parliament to issue an apology for a past wrong, he said that he was "deeply patriotic" and that he "never want[ed] to believe anything bad about our country". It was the only dissonant note in what was a well judged statement on the Saville report into Bloody Sunday, an insight into the attitude of some of those in power that unquestionably makes it easier for cover-ups to happen in the first place.

Today, making an equally decent statement on the release of the Hillsborough Independent Panel's report (PDF), there was no such digression from Cameron. If the Saville inquiry was a repudiation of the whitewash of the Widgery report, then the work by HIP is the most savage indictment of the failure to achieve justice for the 96 Liverpool fans who died as a direct result of the incompetence of South Yorkshire Police imaginable. It doesn't just once and for all smash the myth created by SYP that the disaster was in some way the fault of Liverpool fans, drunk or otherwise, who forced their way into the ground, when it was in fact the direct decision of the officer in charge on the day, Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield, a man who hadn't worked at Hillsborough for 10 years and had only been put in charge 3 weeks prior to the match, to open Gate C, which caused the crush, as that would never have been enough. It also demolishes the inventions of the SYP and the local Tory MP that resulted in the Sun claiming "THE TRUTH" was "some fans" (PDF) had even gone so far as to urinate on the dead and dying as well as the police officers attempting to help.

The SYP are rightly though not the only organisation to be heavily criticised, although we'll return to them. There were major failings also by the South Yorkshire Metropolitan Ambulance Service, whom along with the police failed to activate their major incident procedure protocol, resulting in delays, misunderstandings and officers not being deployed until it was too late (Chapter 4 of part 2 of the report). As also with the police, despite being situated close to the pens at the Leppings Lane end of the ground, those officers at the scene failed to realise what was going on. The failures of leadership and coordination were so serious that it wasn't until 45 minutes after the pens were opened that the situation was finally brought under proper control. Despite the quick deployment of ambulances to Hillsborough, all but three stayed outside the ground, along with the equipment that was so desperately needed to save lives. While the report doesn't specifically state that more lives could have been saved had the response been better, it does find there was the potential for there to have been.

Also accepting criticism today and apologising was Sheffield Wednesday Football Club itself. Rather than leading to significant changes to the Leppings Lane end to reduce the danger, the near disastrous crush that took place at the 1981 FA Cup semi-final in fact resulted in a breakdown of the relationship between the club and the police, with the former blaming the latter (Chapter 1 of part 2). With the SYP focusing on "crowd management" and SWFC concerned mainly with cost, the changes that did take place only made things worse: further lateral fences were built which created two central pens, making the movement which had saved fans in 1981 who had moved sideways along full length of the the terrace impossible. Despite the fact that the ground did not have an up to date safety certificate, the FA again started using Hillsborough for semi-finals in 1987, and continued to do so even though the kick off was delayed that year due to crowd congestion and there was another crush resulting in injuries the following year. The bottom terrace of Leppings Lane was a death trap.

Equally found wanting are the inquests (Chapters 8 to 10 of part 2). Rather than relying on Lord Justice Taylor's interim report into the disaster that had found the police's account of Liverpool fans' behaviour was inaccurate, to say the least, the coroner, Dr Stefan Popper, allowed SYP to use the "generic hearing" that followed the "mini-inquests" into the death of each fan to dispute it. This turned the hearing into an adversarial rather than an inquisitorial one, to the extent that a judicial review at the High Court found that the inquests had been "unorthodox" and failed to comply with the coroner's rules, yet the High Court still decided these breaches hadn't resulted in "insufficiency of process". More distressing still is the new evidence the report has compiled that contradicts the then "incontrovertible" finding that all those who died on the day were beyond help by 3:15pm, the time that first of just three ambulances arrived on the pitch, leading the inquests to "severely limit examination of the rescue, evacuation and treatment of those who died". This will almost certainly result in the attorney general ordering the quashing of the inquests, and the setting up of a new one.

None of this however quite prepares you for the cynicism of the cover-up perpetuated by South Yorkshire Police almost as soon as the disaster had happened (Chapters 11 and 12 of part 2) . Over the last few years we've seen the Metropolitan police do its level best to spread similar myths about mistakes of their own making, whether through the smearing of Jean Charles de Menezes, the Kamal family or the untruths told about the circumstances of the death of Ian Tomlinson, but they're clearly amateurs by comparison. From the original lie told by Duckenfield, who claimed the fans had broken into the stadium when he was the one who had ordered the gate be opened, to the conspiracy hatched over three days involving the Whites News Agency in Sheffield, the local Conservative MP Irvine Patnick and senior police officers to slander the fans, to the altering of 116 statements by police officers to remove criticism of the force, this was and remains an unprecendented attack on those the police were meant to have been protecting. It's a scandal that frankly makes phone hacking look meagre by comparison.

The police couldn't though have launched their cover-up without the help of the media, and in the tabloid press they had an ally eager to help. It's unfair to pick only on the Sun when both the Daily Express (PDF) and Daily Star splashed on the most lurid and ridiculous claims of the SYP, but it was the Sun edited by Kelvin MacKenzie that even before "THE TRUTH" was beginning to blame the fans, an editorial on the Tuesday after the disaster (ditto) claiming that it had happened "because thousands of fans, many without tickets, tried to get into the ground just before the kick-off - either by forcing their way in or by blackmailing the police into opening the gates." Peter Chippindale and Chris Horrie in their history of the Sun relate what happened later that day when reporter Harry Arnold filed his report based around the Whites agency's story:

Seeking out MacKenzie, he confided his fears. 'We've got to be really careful with this stuff,' he said. 'These are only allegations that we're reporting, you know.

'Yeah, yeah,' MacKenzie assured him. 'I know that. It's all right, Harry. Don't worry. I'm going to put in "some fans".

MacKenzie then did an enormously uncharacteristic thing. He sat for fully half an hour thinking about the front-page layout. The story Arnold had written had been the automatic splash from the moment it came in. But, as he doodled with layouts, for once MacKenzie's flair for instant decision-making seemed to have deserted him. He was obviously torn as he weighed up two alternative headlines. The first was his most vicious slag-off phrase, 'YOU SCUM', bringing into play the vilest word in the Sun's vocabulary and putting all the Liverpool fans on the Scum of the Earth agenda. That was bad enough. But the second, and the one he finally sketched out on the layout pad with his fat green pen, was to prove even more calamitous.

As MacKenzie's layout was seen by more and more people a collective shudder ran through the office. There was an instant gut feeling that it was a terrible mistake. The trouble was that no one seemed able to do anything about it. By now MacKenzie's dominance was so total that there was nobody left in the organisation who could rein him in except Murdoch, who was not there. The whole subs desk and the backbench seemed paralysed, 'looking like rabbits in the headlights', as one hack described them, as they stared at the two huge words in front of them in horrified fascination. ... Nobody really had any comment on it -- they just took one look and went away shaking their heads in wonder at the enormity of it.

(pages 339-340 of Stick it Up Your Punter!)

MacKenzie's supposed "profuse apologies" today, blaming the news agency and those who contributed to its report are worth about as much as his previous apologies which he was forced into making and then retracted. MacKenzie it should be remembered had like every other editor at the time either seen or sifted through the thousands of images taken on the day by sports photographers, some of which ought to have documented the supposed feral behaviour "some" Liverpool fans had taken part in, and which none had. Likewise, broadcast on the night of the disaster was a harrowing edition of Match of the Day which featured extensive footage of events as they unfolded, which again showed that apart from understandable anger at the initial reaction by the police, who treated the crush as crowd trouble rather than an medical emergency, there was no evidence whatsoever that fans had stolen from the dead or urinated on and beaten up officers as they tried to help. Rather than reassess the story the following day as the other papers did, MacKenzie's Sun ran a front page editorial headlined "The truth hurts", alongside a further story alleging a pub owner who helped the fans had been robbed at the same time. The paper's thought for the day was "Nothing but the truth".

If much of the blame then can be heaped purely on the shoulders of MacKenzie, it should also be kept in mind that it took the Sun until 2004 to put out an unreserved apology, and that was only after the paper had bought up the rights to Wayne Rooney's life story, to outrage in Liverpool. Today's further apology from Dominic Mohan, and tomorrow's splash "THE REAL TRUTH", might go some way to making amends, but clearly the paper is never going to be forgiven on Merseyside.

It of course should never have taken 23 years for a report such as this to be published. While the report found there was no wider government connivance in the cover-up, suspicions will remain that the South Yorkshire police's role during the miner's strike earlier in the decade contributed to the Thatcher administration's failure to intervene, especially when a briefing prepared for the prime minister noted that "defensive – and at times close to deceitful – behaviour by the senior officers in South Yorkshire sounds depressingly familiar" (page 199). That doesn't however explain why it took until 2009 for a Labour government to order an inquiry, and while Andy Burnham deserves credit for starting the process, the families of the 96 were let down for far too long. It could have been any big club that went to Hillsborough in 89, with it only being coincidence the club that was involved in the Heysel disaster should suffer its own tragedy. That coincidence undoubtedly contributed to the attitude of some in the immediate aftermath and coloured the debate for years. Similarly, the tabloid invented reputation of Liverpool as a city had a similar effect. All the jibes aimed at the community in the city have now been exposed as what they always were: arrogant ignorance. Vindication though has surely never been as bitter.

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