The Hillsborough verdict – ‘justice’ is harder to achieve

After over a quarter of a century of lies, cover-up and obfuscation, what really happened at the Hillsborough Disaster, and who was really to blame for the deaths of 96 innocent people, has finally come to light. The truth of the matter has been self-evident since 1989 to anyone who took the time and trouble to bother taking a look at the facts, but a collusion of right-wing press and government has ensured that anybody in the public who decides what’s true simply from looking at column inches in the red tops has happily derived their opinion from the woefully misinformed or deliberately deceitful.

You’d think, really, that anyone seeking to lay the blame for 96 deaths at the door of the victims is pretty stupid, not to mention inhuman; yet the idea that the Hillsborough Disaster was caused by the victims, who were responsible for their own deaths, has proved oddly persistent. What the Hillsborough verdict finally does is to make it intellectually indefensible (it was always morally indefensible) for anyone to argue that the dead were the problem, and that the fans orchestrated the tragedy.

It was deeply moving to see St George’s Hall in Liverpool lit up with the slogan, ‘Justice for the 96’. It feels like justice. But it isn’t at the moment. As things stand, it’s only exoneration. Finally, the victims’ names have been cleared. Finally, the families and friends who campaigned for more than quarter of a century for answers and an admission of culpability have learnt the truth about why and how their loved ones died. Finally, the police commanding officers who were in charge that day, and who made decisions that caused the tragedy, and subsequently orchestrated a cover-up, have been named and shamed. Exoneration. But justice will occur when those responsible for i) the deaths and ii) the cover-up, face criminal prosecution.

Will that ever happen? I hope so, but I don’t hold my breath. The disgrace to the human race that is Bernard Ingham, Margaret Thatcher’s former press secretary, sent a letter to Hillsborough campaigners that will live in infamy. It drips with condescension, but reading between the lines, there is a veiled warning in there too: know your place, you Liverpudlians. Stop digging for the truth. You’re not entitled to it. We decide what’s true and what’s not true. That old ratbag Thatcher saw the Hillsborough Disaster fall into her lap, and her lapdog Ingham was there to assemble the pieces for her. Those troublesome northerners – worse yet – football fans (the worst sort of people) had been killed. Easy enough to lay the blame at their own door. After all, football hooliganism was big in the 1980s. It didn’t matter that there was no riot, no fighting, no violence: it did not matter that the fans on the higher tiers desperately pulled those being crushed out of the terraces and did their best to help perfect strangers. It did not matter that the 96 deaths could have been wholly avoided if the police had acted appropriately. No, Thatcher and her cronies pointed the finger of blame where it was convenient to point it: to a northern community with a social conscience; anathema to the likes of Lady Thatcher. Did she and her cabinet collude in the cover-up? I’d be surprised if they didn’t, but the fact that we don’t know is another reason why I say that ‘justice’ is still some way off, and will probably never be satisfactorily achieved.

There are promising signs, though. Campaigns to have Bernard Ingham stripped of his knighthood (a move that attracts my sympathy) have come to nothing. He’ll die, and soon-ish, with his knighthood intact. But the important thing is: his reputation is in ruins, and he will be remembered, if at all, for his letter to the Hillsborough families. Judging by his bewildered reaction when he was asked if he would, finally, issue an apology to the people of Liverpool he has so long egregiously maligned, Ingham has no idea that the world has moved on. He hasn’t noticed that he and his cronies no longer control the country, and decide what’s true and what’s not true. He no longer gets to dictate to the media who the good guys (the police) and the bad guys (northern football fans) are. People have access to the truth now, and he’ll never understand that. He’ll never understand why he is now held in contempt by most fair-minded people.

The reportage has changed, too. Simon Heffer, now of the Telegraph, formerly of the Daily Mail, and always of the far right, has recently admitted he drafted Boris Johnson’s notorious letter about Liverpool – another ill-judged public relations move – in which he made some factually erroneous and ill-judged comments about the Hillsborough Disaster. Of course, that sort of thing appeals to Daily Mail readers, the kind of people who look down their noses at others and despise them behind their twitching net curtains, never once looking for the shared humanity in the enemy like – I don’t know – football fans. My respect for Alan Hansen sky-rocketed when he threatened to resign from the Telegraph, not over Heffer’s comments (he may not have known their origins) but over the newspaper’s (brief) employment of Kelvin MacKenzie, the odious former editor of The Sun newspaper, who allowed the infamous front cover claiming, “The Truth” to go to print. There’s another sanctimonious hack who refuses to apologise for his part in the scandal of the lies and cover-up that surrounded the tragedy, as if the 96 meaningless deaths weren’t horrendous enough on their own.

Many of the Hillsborough Disaster’s victims were teenagers. The BBC compiled moving photographic footage of everyone who lost their life on April 15th 1989. Anyone with any sense of compassion or empathy would be hard-pressed to see it without weeping. Lives that had barely started were ended at something as innocent as an afternoon out at a football game.

Alas, some of the key crusaders for truth and ‘justice’ have died along the way. I read Anne Williams’ remarkable celebration of her son Kevin’s life, “When You Walk Through The Storm” some years ago. Apart from through her book, and through her struggle to be given access to the truth about her son Kevin’s death, I didn’t know Anne. We never met. But I was shaken when she died, and moved to tears to hear her mentioned by name by Andy Burnham in the House of Commons during his extraordinary speech.

I remember 15th April 1989, but not clearly. I remember better ten years later, when I was at Goodison Park watching Everton. Before the game, there was an impeccably-observed two-minute’s silence for the victims of the Hillsborough Disaster. The feeling was that justice was near. A new and impartial Inquiry was on the horizon. Thanks to Jack Straw, it would be another decade away still. But that got me thinking that it was a relentless train in the right direction. Now, truly, the time for people like Bernard Ingham is up. It’s time at long last for David Duckenfield to stand trial, and to be convicted, not just for manslaughter, but for perverting the course of justice. It won’t bring back the dead, but it will start to right a grievous wrong, which is, and always has been, to blame the dead for their own deaths, whilst exonerating and making heroes out of liars.

Justice for the 96 matters for all of us. What sort of society tolerates such a monumental miscarriage of justice? Not a decent and fair one. We certainly don’t live in that, but our approximation of it is better than some, if not many. And when ordinary people rise up and fight, year after year, to make their voices heard, despite the best efforts of those with vested interests to force them back inside their boxes, we should treat them as national treasures. They are deserving of titles, accolades and ready access to newspaper editors: not scum like Kelvin MacKenzie and Bernard Ingham. That’s “The Truth”.

And I hope justice is coming. And I hope the guilty sleep uneasily in their beds.