Craig Austin looks back on the Hillsborough disaster and the efforts to bring about justice for the Liverpool fans who lost their lives.
It was around noon on the 12th of September when the levee finally broke and, as had been steadily trailed for the preceding few days, its impact was utterly devastating. A fortress-like dam that had been hastily constructed by the state, and then subsequently reinforced in incremental stages, could no longer contain the unremitting force of righteous anger that had pushed it to bursting point; and as the raging torrent of its content coursed through the newsrooms and living rooms of the nation it displayed no mercy to the reputations and careers that it took with it. The heavens opened, the rats scurried for cover, and a nation watched in disbelief as the rain finally came and ‘washed the trash from the sidewalk’.
‘This is not the beginning of the end. It is merely the end of the beginning’
Tony Evans’ words burn with intensity and purpose as he addresses a large crowd of Liverpool supporters at ‘HJC London Rock’, a Hillsborough Justice Campaign fundraising event that recently took place in the capital to raise money for the HJC and the new Hillsborough memorial in Liverpool city centre. In spite of the perceived order of things, a number of supporters of other clubs are present, including (whisper it) a Man United fan, to support a campaign that has – in recent weeks, at least – been shown to have the power to temporarily transcend sporting tribalism and the most bitter of civic rivalries.
Whilst the evening’s events, taking place only a matter of days after the publication of the findings of the Hillsborough Independent Panel, have been relatively celebratory in nature, Evans, in his Churchillian address, knows instinctively that unless the publication of the truth proves to be the catalyst for the ultimate deliverance of justice then it can only ever be deemed to be a pyrrhic victory. As the football editor of The Times, he, along with a number of Merseyside-based colleagues at the Murdoch title, are in the somewhat incongruous position of being in the employ of the same man who chose to engage the venomous poisoner-in-chief, Kelvin Mackenzie, to be his personal attack dog, yet have used their considerable influence within the newspaper to construct an unswerving platform of exposure and awareness. That reached its almost poetic apogee in the days and weeks preceding the release of the Panel’s findings. In addressing ‘the truth’, a phrase forever tainted by MacKenzie’s notoriously obscene Sun headline that prefaced a toxic concoction that accused Liverpool supporters – amongst other things – of robbing the dead, urinating on the police and making lewd sexual suggestions about a dead girl, Evans wrote:
‘I was part of that crowd. I always ask those who believe the lies of 1989 the same questions: Would you do these things? No one has ever answered yes. And no one has ever been able to reply to the follow-up request: then tell me why you think I would commit these outrages’.
The football fanzine When Saturday Comes recently republished the editorial it ran in the immediate aftermath of the disaster. Twenty three years later, at a point in time when, to some, football has become nothing more than the weekend distraction of choice for the day-tripping Surrey stockbroker, it retains a chilling prescient power:
The police see us as a mass entity, fuelled by drink and a single-minded resolve to wreak havoc by destroying property and attacking one another with murderous intent… The implication is that ‘normal’ people need to be protected from the football fan. But we are normal people.
In 1989 the authorities and the establishment didn’t just see these supporters as fans, as ‘normal people’, but as ‘Liverpool people’; lazy, mouthy, left-wing, dole-fodder, the people who had only relatively recently elected a Marxist city council; ‘the enemy within’.
Liverpool has a history of people who dared to be different. I don’t know if it comes from the days of men going to sea and women running the house, but there is a psychological pattern of questioning, and subverting the social order.
This writer is well versed in the ways of Liverpool’s pubs, clubs and football grounds over a continuous period of some twenty-five years though it probably took me only twenty-five minutes or so to grasp that unless your wit is at its sharpest, your trainers from the right stable, and your accent doesn’t veer too far from the banks of the Mersey it’s an environment that can cut the aspirations of the cocky interloper off at the knees and leave him or her scurrying for cover. Equally, and this is wholly symptomatic of Liverpool’s enduring dichotomy, it’s also a city that has shown me a huge degree of love and goodwill over those years, and has introduced me to some of the most loyal and trusted people I have ever had the honour to count as friends. The characteristics that have grown to define Liverpool as a city, its solidarity, its defiance, its intensity and its pride, are precisely the kind of attributes that once saw the working class of Britain admired the world over for its sheer indefatigability and force of character. Times have changes though, not always for the better, and as the vast majority of the nation has compliantly morphed into a neutered, formulaic caricature of itself Liverpool has inadvertently defined itself as the outsider by resolutely refusing to follow suit. Accordingly, it’s with some good reason that the mantra ‘Scouse, not English’ has taken root over time, given the relentless battering that the city has taken from its cultural and political enemies.
‘Anger is an energy’
We live in angry times. A 15 year-old kid is stabbed at a bus stop for nothing more than a glance of perceived disrespect, a nurse is punched in the face during the Saturday night ‘Guernica’ that is the A&E waiting room, a bus driver spat upon, a girlfriend slapped. This is what passes for anger in twenty-first century Britain, a wretched litany of lazy cruelty and random malice, boys masquerading as men, insecurity and vanity dressed up as honour, the paper tigers of the human zoo. The national psyche that once kept its counsel and chose its enemies with judiciousness and forethought becomes more of a historical anomaly with each day that passes, and as its citizens lash out at their brothers and sisters with indiscriminate fury and apparent impunity the real enemy, the principal executors of state oppression and systematic cover-ups are as free to manipulate and vilify as they ever were. Though, in the wake of the revelations of the independent panel, the very same people who chose to ridicule the city of Liverpool and its people as self-pitying conspiracy theorists were quick to form an orderly queue to publicly atone for their prior derision in a series of carefully worded statements that referenced ‘misinformation’, ‘propaganda’ and ‘deception’, the lingering stain remains that there will always be one law for ‘them’ and a separate law for ‘us’. It makes it all the more astonishing that the families of the victims, those who looked on helplessly as their loved ones were maligned and pilloried only days after their deaths, have organised so magnificently in such a dignified and inspiringly defiant manner. Their anger has been a focused and righteous one, its sights trained on the right targets, and one ultimately driven by love rather than hate. The very people who could claim justification in lashing out and resorting to the violence we see all too frequently on the streets of our cities have retained a degree of integrity, persistence and self-respect without which the revelations of September 12th would never have seen the light of day.
For them, and many football supporters, however, one of the underlying tragedies of the Hillsborough disaster and its legacy has been the haste with which the deaths of ninety-six innocent people have been used by a pitifully ignorant section of the match-going populace as a means of sneering at and tormenting their fellow supporters. What should have been a discourse about the worst breakdown of the emergency services in British history was side-tracked by initial accusations of hooliganism and drunkenness that many were all too ready to believe. Some – even now – still do. The section of Chelsea fans who took perverse pleasure in chanting ‘you killed your own fans’ during the minute’s silence for the ninety-six victims during this year’s FA Cup semi-final at Wembley will have their own reflections to make given what they now know although it may be a little too optimistic to hope that hindsight has at least gifted them the facts to acknowledge that what happened at Hillsborough, and its subsequent orchestrated cover-up, was an attack on all football supporters, and a direct consequence of the state’s blinkered one-dimensional perception of the working class male in particular; regardless of the colour of his scarf.
Twenty-three years ago The Sun newspaper made a terrible mistake. We published an inaccurate and offensive story about the events at Hillsborough. We said it was the truth – it wasn’t. The Hillsborough Independent Panel has now established what really happened that day. It’s an appalling story and at the heart of it are the police’s attempts to smear Liverpool fans.
Dominic Mohan’s dead-eyed expression reads his employer’s statement straight to camera, a series of forensically chosen words still inky fresh from News International’s corporate relations department. His speech is as sober as you would expect from the editor of a national newspaper whose crimes have finally been exposed to the same extent as its initial lies and slurs; a development as astonishing as it is rare. Mohan knows that a line has been indelibly drawn in the eyes of the public and from here on in anyone who makes the conscious decision to buy his newspaper does so in full knowledge of the statement that he or she is making about themselves. The plastic office sign that hangs behind him acts as a suitably mocking backdrop to the shattering reverberations that are playing out in the world that exists outside his own cossetted bubble. ‘The Sun’, it reads, ‘The Greatest Paper in the World’.
A few hundred miles north former and still-serving senior officers of South Yorkshire Police prepare for the months of increasing personal uncertainty and unwelcome scrutiny that will be a direct consequence of the lid of this particular Pandora’s box having been permanently prised open, while a former Labour Home Secretary – the supposed party of the people – a literal man of straw, is exposed as a mealy-mouthed collaborator and an institutionalised part of the problem.
Meanwhile, back in London, the hugely instrumental role played by an 86 year-old woman, now apparently oblivious to the realities of daily life, is all too readily ignored by the writers of acres of newsprint that seeks to chronicle and comprehend the shattering revelatory impact of the truth. From the battlefield of Orgreave to the hard concrete terraces of Hillsborough, her influence is everywhere.
‘And the victory that day was turned into mourning unto all the people’
I have friends who in 1989 were in the Leppings Lane end of the Hillsborough stadium as the carnage unfolded below and around them. They were subsequently visited at home by seemingly disinterested South Yorkshire police officers in the days and weeks that followed; the questions invariably following a swiftly established pattern: Had they been drinking? How near to kick-off time had they arrived? Had they previously been in trouble with the police? 17 year-old lads who once went to a football match and who thankfully all came home.
In the days leading up to the match I had been in the hunt for a ticket of my own, an ultimately unsuccessful pursuit that resulted in me reluctantly showing up for work that morning as a Saturday boy at Dixons. A few hours later I watched the horror unfold on a bank of a dozen or so TVs, the hushed words of the customers and the TV commentators wildly speculating about the nature of the latest incident of perceived crowd disturbance. Whilst the speculation is now at least at an end the nightmare goes on for those still experiencing the gaping chasms created by the permanent absence of their loved ones, a pain compounded by the official pieces of paper that for some remain uncollected to this day. A death certificate that still lists the cause of death to be ‘accidental’ when it should actually state ‘contempt’.
Banner illustration by Dean Lewis
Craig Austin is a Wales Arts Review senior editor.