On Monday, the House of Commons staged its first ever debate into the Hillsborough Disaster. The moment that Steve Rotheram, Labour MP for Walton, got to his feet to deliver one the of the most powerful parliamentary speeches of modern times was a major step forward for the campaign groups and families of those who died, who have been seeking justice since the disaster took place 22 years ago. He ended his speech by reading out the names of the 96 young men and women who had the life squeezed out of them on a balmy spring afternoon in Sheffield.
For the people of Liverpool mainly, but also the fans of Liverpool Football Club across the globe, the spectre of Hillsborough looms large. It is awful enough that so many people died doing something so quotidian as going to watch a football match. It is awful enough to know the reason they died was entirely down to police incompetence and could easily have been avoided. But the pain is exacerbated by two things: firstly, the fact that no one has ever been brought to justice for the calamitous crowd control errors that directly caused the unprecedented loss of life. Secondly, that there are people out there in the world of football and beyond who cleave to the erroneous idea that it was Liverpool fans' behaviour that in some way contributed to the tragedy.
It wasn't. The video I've linked to above explains more eloquently than I can what happened that day, the mistakes that were made and the many questions that still need to answered. All that needs to be said is that an exhaustive inquiry by Lord Justice Taylor stated clearly that fan behaviour was not a cause of the tragedy; neither were fans without tickets in any way a factor; nor were any gates forced open. Taylor said the accident was a result of several factors, but could mainly be attributed to the failures of South Yorkshire police to carry out their jobs. Again, the video explains how they failed in their duty.
Yet the myth has persisted that Liverpool fans in some way caused the tragedy. In part this is a legacy of the 1970s and early 1980s and the hooliganism that bedevilled the sport, which meant that fans were effectively caged in on terraces like animals. When the crush came as cataclysmically as it did on the Leppings Lane End, there was simply nowhere for the fans to go or escape to. Taylor's report did away with fences and standing terraces, to be replaced by all seater stadiums. Many long-standing fans think something has been lost, in terms of atmosphere, but no one dies at a football match anymore. It's a price worth paying in my opinion.
The poor public image of football fans allowed more insidious myths to take root. In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, it allowed the police to cover up their culpability and transfer the blame directly on to the fans of themselves. Who, after all, were the public going to believe? The police or a bunch of fans (especially when you spread untruths about them being a drunken mob or trying to scam their way in.) Those police lies and distortions were leaked to the press, and spoken openly by the Press Secretary to Mrs Thatcher, and the Home Secretary. The popular idea took hold that it was drunken Liverpool fans, many of them without tickets, who stormed into the stadium, breaking down a gate and charging heedlessly into then overcrowded pens. It was all subsequently proved to be utterly untrue by Taylor but the myth had taken hold.
Most reprehensibly of all, Rupert Murdoch's The Sun ran this front page, probably the most obscene in British newspaper history:
The Truth? They were outright lies and smears, entirely without basis. Quite the contrary, while many policemen, as has been revealed in statements released later, stood around bewildered, dazed, unable to comprehend what was happening, the fans dragged those that they could to safety, turned advertising hoardings into makeshift stretchers and did all they could to save and revive then dying, while the official effort was woefully inadequate.
The Sun is still the biggest selling daily newspaper in UK, shamefully. Though it barely sells a copy on Merseyside. It has tried to apologise, but until it carries a front page saying 'We Lied', which is what Liverpool manager Kenny Dalglish (currently enjoying a second stint as boss) counselled when the paper tried to rectify it's mistake and save its plummeting sales and asked for his advice, few people in Liverpool will listen.
Thankfully, the editor of The Sun, the man who was directly responsible for the headline and presentation of that Sun splash, Kelvin McKenzie, has been subsequently cast into the journalistic wilderness for his catastrophic error of judgement, living in ignominy, a pariah because of his stubborn unwillingness to admit to his error and concede his story was a malicious concoction which did the arse-covering bidding of the establishment by switching blame in the popular mind from those who were actually responsible to those who weren't.
The debate on Monday encouraged the Government to release all documents in its possession - minutes of cabinet and other meetings for example - to help those campaigning for the real 'truth' to understand what was done to cover up the details of the disaster and exonerate those who were to blame. It won't, as some believe, reveal why the disaster happened. We already know why it happened and what caused it. But hopefully the documents, to be shown first to the families, will shed more light on the events that killed their loved ones, and help erase the dangerous myths that many still cling to. The Government did not oppose the debate and the documents will be released in full. It is a huge step forward.
But it's only a step. In his speech (and here's a link to the transcript) Rotheram called McKenzie 'despicable' and a group of MPs have tabled a motion asking him to be forced to come before a select committee and explain his disastrous front page, reveal its sources (though we know- it was the police and a Tory MP) and try and justify his preening indifference to those he has hurt and apologise unreservedly for the distress he has caused. That would be another significant step.
Then, ultimately, with the myths vanquished and ignorance defeated, the families will be able to launch successful criminal proceedings against those responsible and get the closure they desire and so palpably deserve.
Justice for the 96.
Dan - Friday