September 30, 2012
by Martin Odoni
‘The Report finds… police efforts – and I quote – “to develop and publicise a version of events that focused on allegations of drunkenness, ticketlessness and violence.”
‘In terms of changing the record of events, we already know that police reports were significantly altered but the full extent was not drawn to Lord Justice Taylor’s attention. Today’s Report finds that a hundred-and-sixty-four statements were significantly amended, and a hundred and sixteen explicitly removed negative comments about the policing operation, including its lack of leadership.’ – David Cameron, UK Prime Minister making a statement to the House Of Commons on September 12th.
Cue, admittedly subdued, gasps of astonishment and murmurs of the most damning word allowed under Parliamentary convention; “Shame!” On one of the most startling and emotive days in British Legal history, many other chilling details of mendacity, foul play and deceit were announced to the nation.
Through the hours that followed the Prime Minister’s statement to the House, back on Merseyside the Hillsborough Independent Panel, and official groups representing families bereaved by the Hillsborough Disaster of 1989 also answered questions from legions of the press, many of whom were clearly buzzing in astonishment at the revelations of a protracted and systematic Police cover-up of the Disaster’s real causes. The current Chief Constable of the South Yorkshire Police, David Crompton, clearly taken completely by surprise by the Report’s findings, also submitted to media interrogation. An interviewer for BBC Radio 5 Live demanded of him with bitter disgust what he thought of the practise of amending official statements to remove reference to poor Police performance on the day of the Disaster. Or of the cynical decision by the South Yorkshire Coroner to take blood samples from the dead to check alcohol levels – even from some victims who were 14 or younger.
Now before I get to the central point of this essay, let me stress that the media are quite correct to regard the details in the Prime Minister’s statement as shocking and disgusting, the giveaway ‘smoking gun’ of a criminal cover-up of a mind-numbing scale and proportion. Yes, outrage is the only justifiable response to such discoveries. I also need to make clear that there are indeed some horrifying new revelations in the Hillsborough Independent Panel’s Report, revelations that simply had to be made public, thus vindicating once and for all, in the face of much cynical opposition, the decision to establish the Panel and to release the documentation to them so far ahead of the Thirty-Years-Rule. (Indeed, the cover-up by the South Yorkshire Police once again raises serious, uncomfortable questions about the Official Secrets Act, and the ease with which it can be exploited by authorities to hide their own calamitous mistakes.) For instance, I actually burst into tears, un-manly though it is to admit it, when I learned that forty-one of the victims might still have been saved after 3:15pm (the notorious ‘cut-off time’).
My problem with all of this though is the media’s general stance, both on the day of the Report, and in the several weeks since then, that almost everything in the Report is revelatory news. Outrage at the South Yorkshire Police’s scandalous mendacity, as I say, is perfectly correct, but what the media is not being terribly honest about is that it is also long past time; in reality, only a modest amount of what is in the Report of the Hillsborough Independent Panel is news at all. That so many in the British media appear to have been completely unaware – caught cold to learn I daresay – of the alteration of Police statements, for instance, only goes to underline how ignorant most of them have always been of the causes of Britain’s worst stadium disaster. This draws attention once more to the appalling lack of professionalism and rigour of most of the British media in the days, weeks, and indeed years, that followed the Hillsborough Disaster.
The myths surrounding what caused the Disaster are well-recorded elsewhere, including on this blog, so I shall waste no time going over them yet again right now. But these myths were allowed to take hold on the consciousness of most of the British population from 1989 through to at least 1996 (when Jimmy McGovern’s docu-drama about the tragedy finally started the slow, painful process of setting the record straight), in large part by a sensation-seeking, unquestioning, unskeptical media, who were more interested in upholding lazy stereotypes about football fans and Liverpudlians than in challenging the version of events being put about by the authorities. (Authorities who themselves were very obviously in the firing line for condemnation for the Disaster if they were unable to find someone else to put in the way.)
Now, as the Prime Minister himself intimated in his Commons announcement, the malodorous reality of the Police altering statements is not a new discovery at all. Not even remotely. It was actually discovered, and questioned as to its necessity, by Lord Justice Taylor during his Inquiry in the summer of 1989. So the practise was officially acknowledged not just in 2012, but within about four months of the Disaster. And the statements, both in their original forms and in their doctored forms, were published under Freedom Of Information rules, as long ago as 1998, since when they had sat, little-considered, in the library of the Houses Of Parliament. In other words, the media has been expressing breathless shock at revelations that are at least fourteen years old, and arguably almost as old as the Disaster itself. The exact extent of the practise has now been firmly identified and pinned down, but that is all – and in fact, in a sense it plays the matter down very, very slightly; the original suspicion was that one hundred and eighty-three statements were altered. We now know that the total was somewhat lower, at one hundred and sixty-four. For what little that difference is worth.
And yet, listen to the BBC throughout that afternoon, or read half the national newspapers the next morning, and you would imagine that the alteration of statements had been hidden from the view of all but a tiny handful of powerful Illuminati at the peak of the nation’s Legal establishment for over two decades. In truth, if they had been hidden, they had only been hidden by a general apathy on the part of the media at the times the information was previously made available to the world.
Similar with the Coroner’s appallingly intrusive decision to take blood samples from all the victims. Yes, it was a completely unacceptable move, and Stefan Popper should have been prosecuted for it by now. But again, this is not news. It was a decision criticised at the Coroner’s own Inquest into the Disaster through 1990 and 1991, and addressed again at the (thoroughly toothless and empty) ‘Scrutiny Of Evidence’ conducted by Lord Justice Stuart-Smith in 1997.
The final clearing of the Liverpool supporters once and for all of guilt for the Disaster is of course welcome, but even that is far from a revelation. The real cause of the Disaster i.e. the shepherding of large numbers of people into an enclosure that was already full is yet again very well recorded. The Taylor Interim Report, published in August 1989, summarised all the copious evidence pointing to serious Police failures, and more or less clearing the supporters of any real blame. But many in the media (even one or two columns in the Liverpool Echo, which has spent the last twenty-three years forcefully battling to clear the names of the fans) have announced the conclusion of the Panel that the fans were not to blame as though it is a spectacular reversal from the established account of two decades.
My irritation over this is growing, not least because of the predictable “backlash-against-the-backlash” that occurred on the subject of one Kelvin MacKenzie. Now, I doubt anyone reading this is from the planet Neptune, so an explanation of who Kelvin MacKenzie is or of his part in the history of the Disaster is hardly necessary. But just in case, here is a brief summary; –
MacKenzie through the 1980’s was Chief Editor of The Sun, Britain’s most popular tabloid (and most notoriously voyeuristic and scandal-hungry smear-rag; a newspaper you could not use as lavatory paper, as you would wipe on more than you could wipe off). Four days after the Disaster, MacKenzie published an inflammatory front page article under the brazen headline ‘The Truth’, which accused Liverpool supporters at the Hillsborough Disaster of pouring into the ground in their hundreds without paying, of urinating on the dead from the upper tier of the West Stand while resuscitation attempts were made, of picking their pockets, and of attacking Police officers making rescue attempts. The accusations were completely unsupported, and many of them patently absurd. (If the fans were ticketless, for instance, when and how exactly did the Police find this out? Also, how could the fans in the upper tier urinate on the dead, when the resuscitation attempts were being made at pitchside, which was about forty feet ahead of the front of the West Stand? Extremely powerful bladder muscles, clearly…) The article is today at the pinnacle of British journalism’s catalogue of infamy.
The Hillsborough Independent Panel’s Report has not only debunked once more the accusations in that article, but has also established at last where the rumours originated; a Sheffield News Agency called Whites, fed by disinformation from the South Yorkshire Police. MacKenzie, under orders from the owner of The Sun, Rupert Murdoch, offered an apology for the ‘The Truth’ article in 1994, only to make an arrogant withdrawal of it in 2006, insisting that all he had ever done was tell the truth. On the day of the Hillsborough Independent Panel’s Report, he flip-flopped again, re-issuing an apology, ‘confessing’ to being taken in by the lies of the South Yorkshire Police.
This stance of “I-was-just-reporting-what-I-was-told” is scarcely an apology at all, and hardly surprisingly, it has been treated with scorn by the bereaved families. Perhaps most nauseatingly, MacKenzie has now even gone as far as to demand that the South Yorkshire Police issue him with an apology for lying to him, and putting him in a perilous position in which people on Merseyside supposedly threaten his life. (No details, so far, have been forthcoming from MacKenzie’s usually-uncontrolled mouth about what such threats have been made, but then even if they genuinely have been, who could blame the people of Merseyside for it?) And he has also expressed exasperation at being ‘singled out’ over the smears. After all, he points out, other newspapers in 1989 reported the same smears that The Sun did.
On that score – and only that score – he is correct, and therein lies my growing annoyance. Many in the press are being very hypocritical, as the unsupported allegations against Liverpool supporters were indeed being made all across the printed media in the days after the Disaster. (The Mirror, for instance, has tried to present itself as a kind of ‘Champion of the Hillsborough Victims’ since 1996, even though it was cheerfully printing exactly the same damning false accusations against the supporters in 1989, without ever formally retracting them in between times.) The other newspapers may not have been as gung-ho or extreme in their coverage of the accusations, let alone so obnoxious as to title them ‘The Truth’, but they still made precious little attempt to clarify that the allegations were no more than allegations, or to fact-check before printing. Once upon a time, I am fairly sure, fact-checking was considered an integral part of the journalist’s job description.
To be clear, I thoroughly despise Kelvin MacKenzie, and am utterly contemptuous of his extraordinary, whining new stance of being one of the greatest victims of the Hillsborough Disaster. For certain, his apology will never be accepted in its current form. Nor should it be, for it is an apology for being gullible, when that is not what people want him to give account for. Maybe, in a sense, he was gullible, but what he is unable to admit publicly (perhaps even to himself) is that he was perfectly happy to be gullible. He cannot admit that he was pleased at receiving word of the Police’s allegations, and that he wanted the allegations to be true. They conformed beautifully to his prejudices, to his lurid desire to see the left-leaning city of Liverpool as a plague-pit hive of uncivilised, lazy, violent psychotics, and to believe that Socialists are all, by definition, anarchistic, greedy and aggressive.
It is only when he admits that he was following his prejudices where he should have been investigating the facts that his apology might – might – be taken seriously. And he can never do that, because it will immediately destroy his journalistic credibility. It is the ultimate indictment of a journalist’s professionalism to be found to have prejudged what he has reported. If MacKenzie’s Hillsborough coverage is established to be about his personal animosity towards Merseyside, who will believe anything he says, ever again? What news organisation would ever employ him again? And what will it say for many of the other sensationalist ‘news’ articles he has published down the years? He has ruined many lives and reputations, and seriously distorted public opinion, with his long history of twisted, irresponsible, right-wing, gutter-lurking reportage.
MacKenzie’s position would be laughable were it not so disgusting.
But just like twenty-three years ago, we should not focus solely on Kelvin MacKenzie’s excesses. The fact that so many in the media – not just those with connections to The Sun – were shocked by the findings of the new Report, when a great many of the findings themselves were not new at all, shows that fact-checking all across the British media at the time of the Disaster was scant and superficial at best, and that in later times during follow-up investigations, research by reporters into the day of the Disaster was also lazy and semi-interested. Far too many journalists in the Britain of the 1980’s and early-1990’s, especially in London, were happy to paint a picture of daily life that resembled a Music Hall Sketch. A puerile, unthinking world born exclusively of the human imagination, a world where Irishmen are all stupid, where Germans are all officious, where Frenchmen are all randy, where Scotsmen are all penny-pinchers, where West Countrymen are all yokels, where men with beards are all perverts, and of course where Scousers are all drunken freeloaders. It was therefore far too easy, and too tempting, for most journalists to accept the South Yorkshire Police’s version of events, at least in spirit if not in detail, that the Hillsborough Disaster was the product of crowd misbehaviour, without checking to see whether the accusations made sense, or tallied with the known facts. We now learn, indeed, that most of them were not even aware of the known facts until the last couple of weeks, because they are now so shocked by them.
The twenty-three-year history of this Disaster is a damning indictment of Police corruption, beyond doubt. Indeed, I do not hesitate to call this the greatest cover-up (yet discovered) in British Legal history. But it is an equally-damning indictment of our media, especially our tabloid journalism, for its shoddy standards of fact-checking, and its lazy love of stereotype and caricature. I of course feel no sympathy at all for the South Yorkshire Police, who are now on the receiving end of the very same type of scapegoating moves that the force itself resorted to against the victims between 1989 and 1991. But this should not stop the media from taking a very long and very shamefaced look at itself, and its real motives for allowing the false view of the Hillsborough Disaster to become so prominent from the outset.
The very least that the media should now do collectively is hold up their hands and admit that they got it so hopelessly wrong, in large part because they forgot what they are there for in the first place.