HILLSBOROUGH: A PERSONAL EXPERIENCE
Mickey Blue Eyes
On 12th September 2012 the Independent Review Panel issued their report on the Hillsborough disaster in which ninety-six Liverpool supporters lost their lives at a FA Cup semi-final with Nottingham Forest on 15th April 1989. You can find it here: http://hillsborough.independent.gov.uk/.
There are no words to describe what the families, heroes all, have been through all these years; those of us who didn't lose someone cannot even begin to imagine their anguish, nor should we try. Everything else pales by comparison. We can only offer our support in the best way we can and hope it adds to the critical mass. Their courage and decency has been unstinting, their determination wonderful. And they kept going in the teeth of vehement opposition and widespread apathy. In many cases they faced outright enmity from politicians and mainstream media. I dread to think what they have been through. But still they kept going. They are a tribute to the best of the human spirit. Exaggeration and hyperbole are unnecessary. The Truth will do.
The report confirms everything the grieving families and other citizens have said over the twenty-three years since that awful day. In Liverpool we knew what had actually happened that day because we got it from our friends who were there and survived. We knew the police authorities, politicians and media lied in the aftermath; it was the culmination of a terrible turn taken in our national culture a decade before, a culture of blaming and hating the victim, a culture in which the then Prime Minister claimed, "There is no such thing as society." In fact the Hillsborough disaster was a symptom of something much deeper and insidious and poisonous. The evidence speaks for itself. This report is only the beginning of a process that may take years to resolve and may even be derailed by the guilty. Trevor Hicks surely got it right when he said, "The truth is out today. Justice starts tomorrow." It will be a long struggle.
Each of us has our own story to tell of the horror and its aftermath. This is mine. I think it is fairly typical.
At the time I was home in England between project tours in the Middle East, as I am now. I was unable to go to the other semi-final between Everton and Norwich, so I spent early afternoon in front of the TV set, eventually got bored and snoozed off at about 2.30 pm. I came to much later and was confronted by TV pictures from Hillsborough. For a few minutes I was groggy and couldn't understand the images or narration. Then the penny dropped. The commentator - I think it was Barry Davies of the BBC - was describing a crowd disaster.
I immediately thought of young Danny from our studio; he was a fervent Liverpool fan who always got behind the goal at away matches. If he had made it to the match there was no doubt he would be somewhere in the scenes burning their way into my life memory. I thought about telephoning his mother and dad, then thought better of it. They might be unaware of events. Eventually he called in at mid evening to say he was okay.
It turned out he and his friend arrived late because of a motorway hold up, couldn't get near the Lepping Lane turnstiles because of the crush, and ended up forced to one side and next to a steel concertina gate. Then the gate was opened from the inside. It slid open by about a metre and stopped. Relieved fans pushed it further back and walked through. Danny was in the first ten or so fans through. There was no rush, only relief. There were no police or stewards to direct them. Everyone in the first group of fans went through the tunnel straight ahead and into two pens immediately behind the goal. Danny squirmed his way to the right front of the right hand pen. Almost immediately the pressure became unbearable so he and his friend climbed over the separating fence into the adjoining corner pen. It saved their lives. We know what happened then.
Meanwhile, Ronny, another dear friend of mine, was with his brother Simon stuck at the back of the tunnel. As seasoned football fans they knew immediately something was seriously wrong. They turned back and began to try to struggle out of it. Simon went down under the pressure. Instinctively Ron managed to reach down and drag him out of the crush to safety. Simon remembers none of it. Only later did they learn many of the casualties were in the tunnel.
We all know what happened then too. A campaign of vilification began almost immediately, first in slanted TV and radio news broadcasts, then in a determined newspaper assault. As the days wore on it turned into an all out attack on the city of Liverpool and its citizens. It was a repeat of establishment propaganda manufactured in the wake of political dissent in the city and the Heysel Stadium disaster of 1985; it was outright evil even by those standards. In our city, enough was enough. The response was visceral and spontaneous. Across Merseyside people organised and fought back. The worst newspapers were boycotted and have remained so to this day. But the mud stuck for years as the establishment sabotaged every legal effort made by the families. Mainstream media stood by and gave no help.
The following week I encouraged Dan to tell his story and helped him compose a statement that he submitted to the first fans group formed as defence against burgeoning lies. Later he emigrated to Australia but has now returned and settled in Liverpool with his young family. Like many other fans he suffered "survivor's guilt," a devastating condition which has you wondering why you escape while others did not. Ronny, then a student, has become a distinguished academic. Simon is a partner in a leading North West practice. Now they and all other fans are vindicated.
During the week the fans arranged for a scarf-tie event across Stanley Park. In this, alternative Everton and Liverpool scarves were tied together to reach from Goodison Park to Anfield. I took my youngest daughter, then barely five years old. She looked at the scarves and said, "Did we tie scarves together when Granddad died?" I can't remember how I answered her. They can break your heart even at that age.
At individual level the emotional cost was incalculable and heart-deep for the families. The rest of us were initially disbelieving at the media attacks, then wildly outraged. Often it expressed itself in unexpected ways. My best friend Billy, a docker, an Evertonian, and generally regarded as a very hard man, broke down in tears at one point; I never saw him thus, before or after. On another occasion I found myself in my car shouting incoherently at a particularly grotesque radio broadcast about the disaster. Many of us behaved in similar fashion; we have the same kind of stories to tell.
I felt as angry and impotent as many others. During the week following I telephoned and wrote to as many of the worst newspapers as I could and demanded to speak to the guilty editors or columnists. Needless to say I wasn't put through. Invariably I found myself talking to a dead-voiced public relations apparatchik as my blood pressure rose to dangerous levels. The same thing happened with TV and radio stations. Until I tried Channel 4 TV News.
I had run out of options. Channel 4 was the last stop, then the least popular of all free-to-air TV stations. I was expecting as much short shrift as I had received elsewhere. I got through to the newsroom where I spoke to a young researcher whose matter-of-fact tone caused me to think I was about to get yet another brush off. I lost my temper and started shouting, something which would normally lead deservedly to disconnection; it went against all my training; it was stupid; worse, it could have had precisely the opposite effect. The researcher would have been right to hang up. Instead, to my great surprise the main presenter came on, Peter Sissons. (At the time I did not know he was a Liverpudlian born and bred). To my even greater surprise he took time out, half an hour of it, to calm me down and listen to what I had to say. Eventually, shamefaced, I apologised to the researcher. Sissons said they already had that evening's programme in preparation, that if I watched it I might get a surprise. So I did.
He opened the 7.00 pm news with the line, "There is outrage in the city of Liverpool tonight." He went on to give the other side of the story. At the time Channel 4 News was the only mainstream media outlet to give the disaster this kind of treatment. I wrote to say thank you and to my still greater surprise Peter read out part of the letter during a live broadcast of the religious service from the Anglican Cathedral. Peter Sissons and his team did their best. Alas, they were swamped by the rest of the coverage. But at least they had tried. Later, Peter was a member of the independent panel.
The journalist who drew most contempt was the then editor of Rupert Murdoch's the Sun, Kelvin Mackenzie. It is impossible to describe the revulsion he caused. Ten years after the disaster I had a small opportunity to make a point with him. I lived in Kuwait at the time and had satellite TV which could receive the US propaganda station CNN. One of the programmes was Q & A hosted by Riz Khan, in which guests were subject to telephoned questions from around the world to the Atlanta headquarters. One evening the guest was Kelvin Mackenzie. The subject was tabloid sensationalist treatment of the Windsor family. I telephoned, expecting the number to be engaged, and, even if I did connect, the question to be rejected by the moderator. It wasn't.
The question I put to him was, "Basically what is the difference between tabloid lies about the Windsors and lies you told about Hillsborough?" His jaw dropped for a second or two before he responded. His answer - and it was exactly like this - was, "InevertoldanyliesaboutHillsboroughandI'lltakethenextquestionplease." It was only a small victory, perhaps even pathetic, but it was better than nothing. And it signalled to him not only that his behaviour would never be forgotten but there was no hiding place. Over the years, this kind of thing happened to him wherever he went. Now he is face to face with the consequences of his actions, as are the other guilty journalists.
I said at the beginning this whole terrible event was symptomatic of something much deeper and insidious and poisonous. It was the end of a dreadful decade that set the socioeconomic and cultural temper for the next generation. Basically, the establishment declared open class warfare, sold off national assets, deregulated banks and other financial institutions, deindustrialised, destabilised unions, and impoverished mostly northern regions. Anyone who dissented politically was characterised as The Enemy Within. Coal miners were drawn into a rigged strike they couldn't win on their own. Liverpool City Council tried popular democratic political dissent they too couldn't win on their own. By the time Hillsborough happened the country was polarised and mainstream media little more than an ultra right propaganda machine.
Accordingly, Liverpool had been demonised long before. For those of ill will in the media - virtually all of it - it took little or no effort to continue the same method after Hillsborough. The city had no defence in the national eye; even one of the Liverpool Daily Post columnists, John Williams, joined in the attacks. Eventually the local press had to make some sort of defence or it would never have survived: to its belated credit, it did. But that became as swamped as Channel 4 News. In subsequent years right wing politicians of all parties sniped away at an easy target. Until now.
It was the courage of the families and fans who made it possible for a few decent politicians to pursue justice. Together, they made it happen. It has taken twenty-three years. Now the real work begins. It remains to be seen if the British establishment can face its greatest peacetime shame.
Justice for the ninety six.