October 29, 2013
by Martin Odoni
As I write, the weekend just past saw the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the establishment of the Football Association in England, the first ever formal body for the sport in the world. The FA was the original creator of the rules of the game itself, and this is why soccer’s official name is Association Football. For all its right to claim to be The Original though, the FA, in its long history, has developed something of a reputation for being a little too bureaucratic, for being complacent, for being ineffectual, and for making the worst decisions possible in any given situation. This reputation is frankly deserved, what with the Association’s noticeable tendency, no matter who is running it, to ignore problems and to try and brush issues under the carpet. Fans of football in England are generally aware of this, and usually treat the sport’s national governing body with eye-rolling skepticism. Individual examples of FA lethargy, feeble-gesturism, procedural paralysis, and bone-headedness are usually forgotten soon enough, but the pattern never quite seems to go away.
One particular instance of lethargy and complacency remains furiously unforgotten however, and supporters of Liverpool Football Club made sure over the weekend that the FA will not be allowed to forget it either. Home fans at Anfield Road, during the game against West Bromwich Albion on Saturday, held up a banner that read, very coldly, “F.A. – GUILTY AS CHARGED 15.4.1989”.
Now in dozens of other places on this blog, I have explained in some detail the story of the Hillsborough Disaster and subsequent cover-up of its real causes by the British legal establishment, and my overwhelming conclusion that the blame lies chiefly, and comprehensively, with the police force whose responsibility it was to manage the crowd that day – the ignobly corrupt and incompetent South Yorkshire Police. But ‘chiefly’ does not mean ‘exclusively’, in fact it in a sense means the opposite. And sure enough, the responsibility for what happened at Hillsborough does not lie just with the South Yorkshire Police.
The police handling of the crowd, as I say, was excruciatingly poor, right from the vacuous selection of the match commander for the operation – Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield had almost no experience policing any football matches in over ten years, let alone of policing occasions as major as an FA Cup semi-final – to the inadequate allocation of police officers outside the stadium, to the failure to regulate the inflow of spectators into the ground, or to monitor the build-up of numbers in enclosures.
But, while history showed that the stadium could be policed effectively enough to prevent outright calamity, there was nonetheless plenty of indication from that same history that it was an unsafe venue, and ill-suited to stage one of the sporting calendar’s annual showpiece occasions. And yet, Sheffield Wednesday Football Club, the owners of the stadium, always maintained with great pride that it was one of the finest stadia in the country, even while fully aware of its inadequacies, while the FA, it seems, just started taking their word for it when it really mattered.
The real history of Hillsborough as a semi-final venue through the 1980’s was littered with worrisome incidents, and despite what some geo-loyal Sheffield Wednesday fans may tell you to the contrary*, the truth is that not one of the four semi-finals held there during that decade after 1980 passed off without major – and I mean major – safety issues coming to light, especially at the west end of the stadium. And in each case, either Sheffield Wednesday or the Football Association – sometimes both – responded in completely the wrong way. If they responded at all.
The first major problem to occur was at the 1981 FA Cup semi-final between Tottenham Hotspur (‘Spurs’) and Wolverhampton Wanderers (‘Wolves’). Poor organisation outside the ground before the kick-off caused a backlog of Spurs fans who were trying to get in at the Leppings Lane end of the stadium. Part of the problem with the organisation was that a substantial number of Tottenham fans had purchased tickets for the Spion Kop end – the east end of the stadium – which had been allocated to the Wolves fans. The police redirected these fans with the ‘wrong tickets’ to the west end of the stadium, the Leppings Lane end. Unfortunately, the ticket allocation for the Leppings Lane end had sold out, and so these extras from the Kop end created a substantial overflow of numbers. Also, poor general guidance of the crowd led to a severe slowdown of people passing through the turnstiles. The turnstiles were very few in number at that end, exacerbating the bottleneck, and it meant that by the time the match kicked off, there were still hundreds waiting to get in. (Please note, if you find this description unsettlingly similar to aspects of the Disaster eight years later, well, that is because there were a lot of parallels. That is kind of the point.)
The problem would not have been a major issue were it not for the fact that Tottenham scored a goal just three minutes after kick off. The deafening roar of the crowd around the west half of the stadium was impossible for those outside not to hear, and perfectly understandably, many of the Spurs fans still entering picked up their pace in their excited desire to find out what was going on in the game. Many of them rushed down the central tunnel under the West Stand, which offered the main entrance to the standing area, and poured onto a terrace that was already full of excited movement from celebrating fans. In the confusion and the tightly-packed space, fans started colliding with each other, and a column of people lurched forward down the concrete steps of the terrace, involuntarily barging those right at the front into the perimeter fence that prevented the crowd from invading the field of play. With so little room, those who were getting pinned to the fence were finding it impossible to retreat from it, and any attempt to do so simply caused those behind them involuntarily to spring back into them, increasing the pressure.
Police officers on the greyhound track between the perimeter fence and the pitch noticed the growing distress that many of the Spurs fans were in, and moved to assist. The fence had several narrow gates in it at intervals along its length. They were in fact meant principally to allow police officers to enter the terrace and remove any troublemakers they observed in the crowd, more than as an exit route onto the pitch for fans in difficulties, but for want of a better option, the police quickly opened the gates and dozens of bedraggled spectators fell out onto the edge of the pitch.
With the Leppings Lane terrace clearly overcrowded, and without sufficient space anywhere else on the terraces or in the stands, the police instructed the fans to sit on the greyhound track and watch the rest of the game from there. So severe had the crush been however, that some thirty-eight Spurs fans were taken to hospital with crush injuries, including a number of broken bones.
At least in hindsight, and probably in general, it is clear to us that, on that occasion, the South Yorkshire Police performed commendably, and undoubtedly saved lives. But what happened subsequently in response to the incident from the three organisations under examination here tells a tale of a poor sense of priority, stubbornness, and back-to-front miscalculations.
Firstly, let us get the good news out of the way – this is perhaps the one thing that the FA got right on the subject of the Hillsborough Stadium throughout the 1980’s. They immediately ruled that the Leppings Lane terrace was not adequately safe, and that the stadium would not be used as a semi-final venue again until Sheffield Wednesday Football Club had modified it to prevent any repetition. In the event, the ban would last six years – we know now that it should have been a lot longer, but best not to get ahead of ourselves.
Far less commendable were the confused, quarrelsome and defensive responses of the club itself, and of the South Yorkshire Police, especially when discussing the matter with each other. The police, reasonably enough, asserted that they had done the right thing in allowing fans out of the terrace, and that they had probably saved lives in doing so. Documents published last year by the Hillsborough Independent Panel reveal the stunningly blasé attitude that Bert McGee, the Sheffield Wednesday chairman, had to this. “Bollocks!” he sneered. “No one would have been killed!” The only concern he expressed was that the action of opening the gate in the perimeter fence had been “unnecessary” and that allowing the Spurs fans to sit on the perimeter of the pitch had “made the ground look untidy”. (See section 2.1.13 of the Report of the Hillsborough Independent Panel.)
Officials at Sheffield Wednesday, in short, were not prepared to accept any suggestion that the emergency had constituted a serious issue, nor that it was anything to do with them or the condition of their stadium. In keeping with the general mentality of football clubs across the UK at the time**, they were perfectly willing to try and deal with the problems the incident had exposed by simply ignoring them. And had the FA not banned the stadium from hosting more semi-finals until further notice, they might well have done just that. But FA Cup semi-finals had been a valuable source of income to Sheffield Wednesday on and off going back many years, and so, knowing that changes would have to be made if the club were to resume tapping that source, they at least started listening.
For their own part, the South Yorkshire Police pressed for changes to be made to the Leppings Lane end, and here is where their own position becomes somewhat confused. Having established that they had saved the lives of people who were being pinned against the perimeter fence, one of the ideas the police mooted was to install… more fences. More specifically, they wanted Sheffield Wednesday to install two radial fences, running at ninety degree angles from the perimeter fence to the back wall of the terrace. This would divide the terrace up into three enclosures (‘pens’), which, the police hoped, would make it easier to control the crowd and regulate fan behaviour.
It is not easy to work out exactly where this idea came from, or how it was supposed to help matters, because fan-behaviour had not been an issue as such during the emergency. The Spurs fans getting hold of tickets for the wrong end may potentially raise questions about how honestly they were conducting themselves beforehand, and running onto the terrace in response to an early goal was somewhat reckless, but the real issue had been that spectators had been crushed against fences, and there had been no immediate escape route from the overcrowding without the police taking unusual measures. Adding fences to the terrace therefore sounds like a bizarre method of preventing a repetition.
Even more bizarre was that Sheffield Wednesday seemed no more to notice the very obvious paradox in the idea than the police did. They agreed with the suggestion and installed the two radial fences as requested, work that would be completed early in the following football season. Doing this would of course require other changes as a consequence. In fact, one such change had been specifically recommended by the police, one they felt needed doing irrespective of whether the new fences were included. And yet, incredibly, the club did not carry it out. This task was to re-assess the capacity of the Leppings Lane terrace, which had been set officially at ten thousand one hundred. On reviewing the emergency, the police had concluded that, even without the transfer of fans who had obtained tickets for the wrong end of the stadium, the terrace capacity had clearly been overestimated, and that overcrowding would still have ensued. The club officials made no attempt to re-assess the terrace’s capacity before the new fences were installed – which was fair enough given that once the fences were in place whatever figure was arrived at would become obsolete straight away – but disturbingly, they also made no attempt to re-assess it after the fences were fitted either. So, when the installation work was completed in the November of the 1981-82 football season, Hillsborough’s substantially-modified Leppings Lane terrace was opened to the public with its capacity still officially set at ten thousand one hundred. If that was too high a capacity when it was a continuous terrace, what would that mean for a terrace that had more space used up and more pressure points applied by extra fencing? Furthermore, the terrace had three entrances; the central tunnel going under the West Stand, and two wing entrances going around the sides of the Stand, allowing spectators options for evacuating in the event of an emergency. Now that the new fences divided the terrace up, the only way out of the pen a spectator was standing in would be the entrance he/she had entered through. This could present a problem if fans were attempting to evacuate through an exit where other fans were arriving the other way.
More worrying still was the matter of the ground’s safety certificate. Safety certificates were introduced for all British stadia with a capacity above ten thousand as part of the Safety Of Sports Grounds Act of 1975, which had in turn been introduced in somewhat leaden-footed response to the Ibrox Disaster of 1971. The certificate was supposed to be issued by local Government authorities on inspection of a stadium that was deemed to meet adequate safety standards. The certificate would include, among others, full details of the stadium’s overall capacity, the capacity of individual stands, terraces and enclosures, emergency exit routes and evacuation procedures, approximate evacuation times from each area of the stadium when full, and the positions of fences and crush barriers. Now it is alarming enough to realise that Hillsborough was not issued a safety certificate for fully four years after the Act was passed – in two of those years, the stadium was actually used for FA Cup semi-finals – which means that the safety standards were not properly assessed until long after-the-fact. But even more disturbingly, with the changes made to the Leppings Lane end in 1981, the certificate issued in 1979 no longer reflected the physical reality of what it was there to certify. For instance, it stated that the terrace had a capacity of ten thousand one hundred, but could offer no insights into how many should be allocated to each of the three pens, because at the time of issue, those pens did not exist.
The certificate was, in short, out-of-date, and the safety standards needed re-assessing to reflect the changes that had been made, with the certificate being amended accordingly. But after three years and more, no formal re-assessment had been made by any relevant authority, and so no amendment to the certificate had been made. So the certificate was still articulating safety procedures and information for a ground lay-out that was no longer there.
By 1985, Sheffield Wednesday, almost a perennial second-tier side, had been promoted to the then-First Division of the Football League and was drawing bigger crowds on a more frequent basis, especially larger numbers of visiting fans, and this was deemed likely to lead to disorder between rival supporters. Therefore, to increase the strength of segregation, over the next several years more changes were made to the west end of the stadium, which was traditionally used as the ‘visiting fans end’ of the ground during Sheffield Wednesday’s home games. Firstly, between the turnstiles and the stands, extra walls were put up to divide off the access routes, and help keep rival supporters apart. This had the unfortunate effect, not recognised at the time, of increasing confusion and obstacles for fans trying to find their honest way around the stadium. Most tellingly, the entrances to the side-pens of the Leppings Lane terrace were increasingly obscured from view. No corresponding improvements were implemented to the way the outer confines of the stadium were signposted. Secondly, on the terrace itself, the club installed two more radial fences at the request of the police. One was installed right in the middle of the central pen, just a few yards from the mouth of the tunnel, dividing the enclosure into two. The second was installed on the edge of the leftmost central pen (facing the field-of-play), and was just a couple of yards from the fence that had been installed in 1981. This created what was referred to as ‘Pen 5’, although in reality it was just a narrow ‘buffer-zone’ designed to remain empty at all times; this was to allow Sheffield Wednesday to use parts of the Leppings Lane terrace for home spectators to stand on during league matches with a small visiting attendance, while maintaining a wider barrier to keep rival fans apart. The two side-pens were left more or less unchanged, although they were now designated double-numbers, suggesting there may have been plans for the near future to partition them as well; the rightmost side-pen was now tagged as ‘Pens 1 & 2’, even though it was only one enclosure, and similarly, the leftmost side-pen was now tagged as ‘Pens 6 & 7’. The freshly-divided central pens were known as ‘Pens 3 & 4’.
During this time, crush barriers, designed to prevent fans at the front of the standing area from having to absorb the full weight of all the people behind them during crowd-surges, were often being added to and removed from different parts of the terrace, sometimes because they were deemed to be an obstacle to people trying to enter or leave an enclosure, at other times because the police were worried that hooligans might get up onto barriers and use them to climb over the fences. (No firm reason was ever given, as far as the documentation goes, as to why this was considered a particularly likely danger.)
So the Leppings Lane terrace was changing constantly through the 1980’s, and while it would be an exaggeration to say it had changed out of all recognition, it was nevertheless substantially different from what it had been in 1979. And yet, shockingly, the documentation for administering and maintaining the terrace, even now, remained unchanged. By 1987, the safety certificate had still not been renewed, and even more outrageously, the capacity of the terrace had still not been recalculated. Ten thousand one hundred had been an overestimate at the outset in 1981, and yet now, even with the terrace divided up into four pens, and an empty buffer-zone wide enough to accommodate probably over a hundred spectators, Sheffield Wednesday Football Club had still not bothered to revise the capacity downwards.
Sheffield Wednesday nevertheless appealed to the Football Association that with all the amendments made to the stadium – the Kop end had also been enlarged and a roof had been added to it – all that could be done to prevent another crisis had been done, and that Hillsborough should therefore be reinstated as an FA Cup semi-final venue. The FA looked, and seemed to agree that the stadium was indeed much changed and that that must mean that it was now safe. There appears to have been no particular attempt on the part of the FA to assess any of the implications of the changes made, or to establish whether they genuinely did make the stadium safer than it had been in 1981. Nor was there any check made to make sure that the stadium now conformed adequately to safety standards set out in the 1976 Green Guide, or even whether the stadium had been properly inspected or certified by the appropriate authorities subsequent to the changes made. It is a matter of serious doubt as to whether anybody at the FA was even aware that the ground’s safety certificate was now eight years, and over a dozen piecemeal changes, out-of-date. And the reason nobody was aware was that nobody at the FA had thought to check, which seems scandalously complacent, given the reasons why the stadium had been banned from hosting semi-finals in the first place.
It was in this spirit of casual ignorance therefore that the Football Association restored Hillsborough as a venue for the FA Cup semi-final, and awarded it the 1987 fixture between Leeds United and Coventry City. What happened that day, 12th April 1987, should have been all the warning the FA needed that this decision was a big mistake.
One of the problems in the 1981 semi-final had been that a bottleneck had formed at the Leppings Lane turnstiles as Spurs fans had tried to enter, causing them to get in only after the game had kicked off. There had been only twenty-three turnstiles at that end of the ground, and for all the other changes made during the intervening years, nothing whatever had been done about that shortage. Indeed, the turnstiles at the west end of the stadium were not even being properly maintained, and were by 1987 becoming rusty and dilapidated. Leeds United fans were now allocated that end of the ground, and during the final half-hour before the game kicked off, there was abject chaos as they tried to get in. The turnstiles were moving much more slowly than the rate at which the Leeds fans were arriving, and there was so little guidance given to them by stewards or the police that there was great confusion and hysteria as people tried in vain to find the correct banks of turnstiles to try and enter through.
The kick-off of the match had to be delayed by fifteen minutes to give the Leeds United fans sufficient time to get in. In other words, it had only been by taking exceptional measures – once again – that there had been no carbon-copy repetition of what had happened to the Spurs fans in 1981. The fundamental problem that had caused fans to be delayed getting into the stadium had not been addressed at all, let alone gone away, and this was made abundantly obvious by the simple fact of the kick-off having to be delayed. For that reason alone, the FA should immediately have re-imposed the ban on Hillsborough hosting the FA Cup semi-final. Worse though, many of the Leeds fans found once they were on the terrace that they were repeatedly getting crushed, that they sporadically lost all control over the movements of their own limbs in the density of the crowd, and that they were frequently unable to breathe, so tightly were they packed into the enclosures. Several fans even had to be hoisted up into the upper tier of the West Stand by their fellow supporters above in order to escape injury – all phenomena that of course would be seen again on a bigger scale two years later.
The problems of 1981 had not been solved one jot. If anything, they had become even worse, for the modifications to the Leppings Lane terrace had reduced the real amount of space there, and without any attempt to revise the capacity downwards, the pressure of numbers was immense, even when there were no ticketless fans. But the FA paid these warning signs no heed at all, and a year later, Hillsborough was chosen again for the 1988 semi-final. This one was between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest. Sheffield was more or less between the two cities (sort of) – although rather nearer to Nottingham – and so it was seen as an ideal location to use as a neutral venue. Many Liverpool fans were annoyed about it, feeling that Manchester United’s home stadium of Old Trafford would be a better choice. It was also roughly between the two cities, but it also had more major roads connecting to both of them directly, and a larger capacity. Getting to Hillsborough, by contrast, was far easier for Forest fans than people from Liverpool, as the big city of Manchester was almost directly between Merseyside and Sheffield, creating quite a serious obstacle.
The South Yorkshire Police had learned a few lessons from the previous year’s near-debacle, and had introduced a new system of filtering fans into queues a long way up the road on the approach to the stadium. Without completely alleviating the problems presented by the shortage of turnstiles, the chaos of the previous year was avoided and this time the semi-final kicked off on schedule and passed without major incident, to the pleasure of the FA who felt that this time the semi-final had been such a success that it confirmed the decision to restore Hillsborough’s status. Sheffield Wednesday sat pretty in self-congratulation at its ‘splendid’ work over the previous seven years. (In reality, the ‘success’ of the semi-final was more to do with it proving to be one of the most exciting games of the season, between two of the most entertaining sides in the country, than with it being stage-managed particularly well.)
Yes, it passed without major incident, but “without major incident” is not meant to imply that it passed without any incident at all. On the contrary, in the days after the game, the Football Association received over a hundred letters, not of congratulation for how well it had all gone, but of complaint from Liverpool supporters who had stood on the Leppings Lane terrace. The letters had almost identical echoes of the previous year’s misadventures of the Leeds United supporters. Liverpool fans warned the FA that standing on the Leppings Lane terrace was the most dangerous and uncomfortable experience they had ever had watching a game. Many of them had experienced all the familiar symptoms of overcrowding and minor crushing, and in the central pens it had been particularly bad. The message was plain for anyone to see – the terrace was unsafe. Its capacity was clearly smaller than its ticket allocation, and its layout and facilities were inadequate to support a crowd for one of the country’s showpiece sporting occasions. The gradient of the tunnel leading into the central pens was too steep, the gradient of the terrace itself was too flat, the crush barriers were set too low into the concrete, and both ingress and egress were too slow and complicated.
Not one of the letters was replied to, or even acknowledged. The FA, apparently still unaware even that the safety certificate of the stadium was by now nine years out-of-date, simply ignored all negative correspondence. It was perhaps inevitable therefore that, when Liverpool and Nottingham Forest were drawn together again for the semi-final of 1989, the FA complacently decided to try for an exact rerun, allocating the fixture to Hillsborough once again.
And yet, on the 15th of April 1989, there was no rerun. For this time, all the warning signs from previous years finally delivered on their lingering threat. Just six minutes after kick-off, the referee had to withdraw the two teams from the field of play as large numbers of desperate supporters spilled out of the brutally overcrowded central pens, and a frenzied, chaotic rescue attempt followed as police and supporters alike struggled to free and save helpless spectators who had been unable to escape the immense crush of bodies behind the perimeter fence.
Nearly a hundred people died on the Leppings Lane terrace.
Some were crushed against the perimeter fence. Others were crushed by the sheer enormous numbers packed in around them. Some died when a crush barrier collapsed under the weight of excess numbers – that crush barrier had become vulnerable due to the prior removal of other barriers from the same pen that had formerly taken some of the weight now imposed on it.
Now to be accurate, this overcrowding was not really a result of the overestimation of the terrace capacity***, but through poor guidance of the crowd by the police, who ended up shepherding far too many supporters into the central pens, and too few into the side-pens. This is why prime culpability lies with the South Yorkshire Police. But even so, it is clear that the stadium was still inherently dangerous, even when the spectators had been distributed evenly across the different enclosures. People were still suffering crush-injuries at every semi-final held there, and the changes that were made to the stadium by the club were amplifying the dangers instead of easing them. There was real danger of people experiencing serious, even life-threatening injuries on that terrace, even when policing and stewarding were of a good standard. The confusing lay-out of the outer confines of the ground, the insufficient number and quality of the turnstiles, the inadequate crush barriers and evacuation routes that failed to meet the standards recommended in the Green Guide, were all brought to public attention in the investigations that followed. But in truth, all the warning signs had been there at every one of the three previous semi-finals that Hillsborough was not a safe venue, that the FA had no business using it, and that Sheffield Wednesday had no business playing major fixtures there until it had correctly addressed all these inadequacies. Sure, they had made changes to the danger area, but these changes were never properly calculated with the dangers in mind. They were instead the result of the fallacious old equation of “Something must be done; this is something, therefore we must do it.” As a result, they were implemented without properly identifying whether they would resolve what was going wrong, whether they would be ineffective, or whether they might even make things worse. It is of course quite obvious, and not just in hindsight, that they would make things worse – if the problem in question is innocent spectators getting badly crushed against fences, how exactly is installing numerous extra fences supposed to stop it happening again?
But as much as the club is to blame for the facilities, the FA must take a large chunk of the blame too for using those facilities without really checking whether they were appropriate for the job. Given how close the Spurs fans came to catastrophe in 1981, and the very correct decision the FA made to ban Hillsborough from hosting semi-finals until the failings in the stadium were rectified, it seems astounding that the Association could then lift the ban so casually, and not make sure that what had gone wrong six years earlier had been corrected by the changes first.
There has been a long-standing sentiment among Hillsborough campaigners that, of all the agencies involved in the Hillsborough Disaster, the FA got off particularly lightly. Other agencies such as the police and the club have evaded actual repercussions for their failures – so far – but at least there was substantial condemnation of them. The FA, it is often felt, have avoided even that.
As the Liverpool fans made clear at the weekend though, there is still time to remedy that, and they are rightly determined to see it happen.
* Many Sheffield Wednesday fans seem oddly convinced that their club was poorly-treated in the aftermath of the Disaster, in that the stadium was not used again for an FA Cup semi-final for a grand total of… er, three years – this ‘cruel punishment’ might be considered small potatoes when set against the fact that the club has still not been prosecuted in a court of law after nearly a quarter-of-a-century, but hey, why bring logic into the discussion when people have a persecution-complex to spur them on?
** The only major exception to this culture was Glasgow Rangers, who ten years earlier had lost sixty-six supporters in the second Ibrox Disaster. The Disaster was caused when, after the end of the annual ‘Old Firm Match’ against arch-rivals Celtic in the New Year of 1971, hundreds of fans fell down an unsafe staircase – known as ‘Stairway 13’ – as they were leaving the stadium. While Rangers Football Club should be applauded for its urgency on safety matters subsequent to the Disaster, beforehand it had exactly the same casual attitude to spectator safety as the rest of the UK; this tragedy had itself had many warning signs in the ten years previously, with numerous incidents of people falling down the stairs. Two people were killed and seventy were injured on Stairway 13 in September 1961. Eleven more were taken to hospital after another mishap on the staircase in September 1967, and there were nearly thirty more injuries there in January 1969. But Rangers Football Club, in each case, did little or nothing to modify or improve the staircase, and seemed to rely expressly on hope that it just would not happen again. The Disaster itself was required, it seemed, to jolt the club out of its denial. Even though the rest of the country continued just to ignore safety concerns, the club’s new Managing Director, Willie Waddell, on taking over in 1972, embarked on a very lengthy project to rebuild the Ibrox Stadium from the ground up. The fully-modernised all-seater stadium that Ibrox was converted to through the 1970’s and 1980’s became the template for modern British stadia as required by Lord Justice Taylor’s Final Report into the Hillsborough Disaster, published in 1990.
*** On the other hand, aspects such as the confusing layout of the Leppings Lane end, the abysmal signposting, the insufficient turnstiles and crush barriers, and the undersized gates in the perimeter fence undoubtedly were serious factors in the Disaster.
More on Hillsborough:-
October 28, 2013
(It’s not satire – it’s the nasty party)
We’ve all heard nasty quotes from Tories such as “Hang Mandela“, “The homeless are what you step over when you come out of the opera” etc etc which prove just how nasty the nasty party really can be. But those quotes are all pre-Cameron – who likes to claim his party has changed.
Well, here are a selection of quotes from Tories from the Cameron era which prove the nasty party is alive and kicking and just as nasty as ever:
1) Hugh Jackson– Tory councillor in North Tyneside – suggested euthanasia was a good way to reduce the costs of looking after disabled children.
2) Steve Hilton – senior adviser to David Cameron and Tory strategy director – said the government should boost economic growth by abolishing all working mothers’ maternity leave and rights.
3) Iain Duncan Smith – Tory Work…
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October 14, 2013
Indeed, why? If Labour wants to win support from the media, sure, keep moving right. If it wants support from the electorate, it needs to move left, and a long way left at that.
One of the things that really rankled about Rachel Reeves’ attempt at Tory talk in yesterday’s Observerwas the (observable) fact that she didn’t need to.
Why try to out-Tory the Conservatives when their share of the vote has been going down at every election – among a proportion of active voters that is – itself – reducing?
So in 1955, they managed to snag 49.6 per cent of the votes. In 2010 this had dropped to 36.1 per cent. Turnout was 76.8 per cent in the first instance and 65.1 in the second. They got 38 per cent of all available votes in 1955 and 23.5 per cent in 2010.
Some could point out that Labour’s share in 2010 was only 29 per cent – around 18.8 per cent of all available votes – but this just proves the point. Neoliberal New Labour were very close to the Conservatives…
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October 5, 2013
FACT: The Government doesn’t need to borrow to pay for it’s spending.
Despite this fact, the prevailing view is the exact opposite i.e. if the government doesn’t collect enough taxes, by necessity, it must cover its spending shortfall through borrowing. Most people think this is obviously true. Nevertheless, it is a myth. Don’t just take my word for it though. Here’s economist James K Galbraith explaining further*:
“In the modern world, when the Treasury writes you a check, your bank credits your account. That’s how money creation works. The Treasury then issues bonds to absorb that money. Banks like this because bonds pay more interest than reserves. But there is nothing economically necessary about the bonds. This is obvious since the Bank of England (BoE) buys back many of them, leaving the public with the cash it would have had in the first place.
Could the Treasury skip…
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October 4, 2013
by Martin Odoni
What really galls me when watching/reading the bulk of right-wing opinion is the growing tendency among its thinkers to imagine that any policy it disagrees with can be invalidated by simply slapping a label on it. That label can be ‘socialist’, ‘Marxist’, ‘left wing’, ‘Communist’, ‘Stalinist’ or even ‘liberal’ – although my suspicion with that last one is that people, perhaps unknowingly, are using the US definition of the word, which implies a less centrist position than the British definition. There never seems to be any great motivation to articulate why the label is appropriate or, even supposing it is, why that makes it ipso facto something undesirable. It’s just about the most widely begged-question of our time, with the eternal assumption, that Marxism is bad because its left wing and that being left wing is bad because it’s Marxism, just going unqueried in most of the British media. On the few occasions the question is acknowledged, we can be confident that someone will very swiftly raise the subject of Josef Stalin or Chairman Mao Tse Tung.
This last week has seen the perennial outbound toilet paper of the English Middle Classes, The Daily Mail, attack a prominent left-wing intellectual of the past, ostensibly on the grounds that he ‘hated Britain’, but really on the grounds that his son is now the leader of the Labour Party, and is beginning to win the battle with the Conservative Party for the figurative hearts and minds. Ed Miliband’s speech to the Labour Party Conference last week was quite impressive, and even had a few precious crumbs of genuine substance in it, which is something of a departure from standard political practise. And one or two of those ideas could even be classed as coming out of the textbooks of the left, making them rather brave and daring in an era when almost the entire British media is neoliberal from surface-to-core. One idea that got particular vitriol from the right-wing press was the eminently sensible policy of forcing developers, who hoard large stretches of land but then fail to build on much of it, to sell the land to the Government so that new houses can be built on it. With house-building so modest and infrequent, with the demand for housing so high, and house-prices so insanely inflated accordingly, new house-building programs are clearly just good economics, and if necessary land is sitting idle in large quantities, well yes, let’s use it. Let’s make it get used. Not only would it help address the housing shortage, but it would also be a valuable shot-in-the-arm for an ailing economy that is screaming out for some real stimulus in the building industry.
Almost inevitably, Miliband was immediately accused of planning a ‘Stalinist land-grab’. Now I may be wrong here, but I have never seen any example of Josef Stalin allowing private landowners in the Soviet Union a chance to develop their holdings before he chose to take them away. Nor is there any indication I know of that Stalin was kind enough to pay the landowners the going-rate for their land when he seized it. So to compare Miliband’s paid-seizures-of-land policy to Stalin’s dictatorialism is hyperbolic at best, and sums up the ‘everything and everyone goes in its own box’ mentality that is so prevalent among many conservative commentators. Nationalisation of assets had bad repercussions in the USSR, they want us to think, therefore all nationalisation is bad.
The Mail however went further than this and produced an ‘opinion piece’ that assumed Miliband got the idea from his father, whom it painted as a Marxist monster who hated the United Kingdom. (The reason I put ‘opinion piece’ in inverted commas is that I am highly doubtful that what was in it was an opinion in the accepted sense of the word. An opinion, as I have highlighted before, has to be something the person expressing it genuinely believes. Otherwise it is just a lie, and I am not convinced at all that Geoffrey Levy, the writer of the contentious Daily Mail article, genuinely believed his own profile of Ralph Miliband.)
Ralph Miliband was a Jewish Marxist who, as a teenager, had fled his native Belgium during the Second World War, and fought for Britain in the Royal Navy against Nazi Germany. After the war, when by any logical view of a man who hated his adopted country, he might have returned home to Belgium, Miliband instead chose to stay in Britain and build a family here. He became a very prominent, shrewd, and eloquent proponent of leftist ideology in the UK.
The Daily Mail’s profile of Miliband concluded that he hated the country almost entirely because of a diary entry he had written shortly after he had first set foot on British soil. He was sixteen years old when he had written it, and was still suffering the culture shock of moving to a new land, and the ongoing terror of knowing that his homeland had been conquered by foreign ideologues who wanted to cast all Jews out of Europe, Miliband included. Worse still, his mother and his sister had failed to escape the Nazi occupation and he had no idea whether they were even alive. His diary entry, laced with understandable exasperation at the familiar, ignorant British arrogance he frequently encountered, read, “when you hear the English talk of this war you sometimes almost want them to lose it to show how things are.” This was a confused and traumatised sixteen year-old venting frustration, nothing more, and even then he didn’t say he actually wanted Britain to be conquered, only almost, and that if it happened, at least it might jolt the British upper classes out of their intellectual complacency a bit. And it bore very little resemblance to the views he expressed in post-war adult life.
In short, the quotation used by The Daily Mail was the absolutely vintage example of the ‘quotemine’ i.e. a quotation deliberately taken completely out-of-context to make a person sound like his position was the polar opposite of what it really was.
Inasmuch as it had anything beyond that to say, the rest of the article tried to use his evident dislike of the British ruling class to prove that he disliked Britain as a whole. But of course, that is such a grossly stupid projection of the particular onto the whole that it scarcely needs pointing out. I dislike the city of Glasgow, and Glasgow is in Scotland, so by The Mail’s puerile logic, that must mean I hate all of Scotland. But of course I don’t, I have great affection for the likes of Edinburgh, Stirling, Scone, and Inverary, among other places. I dislike the city of Birmingham, so that must mean I hate all cities that have ever been built, right? A woman doesn’t like her husband’s habit of singing in the bath, therefore she doesn’t like her husband at all? (Well, in my experience that does turn out to be true quite a bit, but…) An EastEnders fan hates the big villain of the moment, be it Dirty Den, Phil Mitchell, Nick Cotton, or a hundred others, therefore she hates EastEnders?
The worst aspect of this attack was the clear and damnable lying. This was not a free expression of opinion, but a deliberate falsification designed to smear the current Labour leader, not through anything about himself but through a man who died nearly two decades ago. But there is also the two-faced hypocrisy. Part of that is that The Mail was one of the right-wing brigade that, six months ago, railed self-righteously against the celebrations that broke out around the country when Margaret Thatcher died. “Where is the respect for the dead?!?” they cried. And after a fashion, they were right. A lot of the condemnation of Thatcher was accurate and it was perfectly correct it was given voice to, especially given the rose-tinted hagiographies that were prevalent in much of the media at that time, but the actual street-parties were pretty disgusting (as again I mentioned before). But at least nobody tried to attack Thatcher through her long-dead father during her career, when he wasn’t there to defend himself. And nobody actually smeared her with blatantly cherry-picked quotations after she had died, which is what The Daily Mail is now doing to Ralph Miliband, in order to attack his son. (It’s not even ‘playing the man and not the ball’. It’s ‘playing a man who was playing in a different game altogether, in a different stadium altogether, and in a different season altogether, and not the ball’.) Where is The Mail’s respect for the dead now? Where was it a few weeks before Thatcher died, when Hugo Chavez met his end?
But also, the hypocrisy takes the form of missing how easily The Mail’s own stupid, generalised logic can be reversed and thrown at The Mail itself. Ralph Miliband hated an aspect of Britain, therefore he hated Britain? Well, even if we are to assume that blind, warts-‘n’-all patriotism is a good characteristic to have, can anybody name me a part of the British media that has more pet-hates in British life than The Daily Mail itself? Almost every day, on its front page and on its website, you will find an opinion piece attacking homosexual rights in the UK, the British working class, Scottish culture, the young in modern Britain, the Welsh accent, the British Welfare State, British women who go to work, the high number of single parent families in the UK, immigrants who remain in the UK for the long haul (and who therefore presumably have some kind of affection for the place – how dare they?!?), the National Health Service, the British Public Sector… oh, I think I’m going to lose count!
There is so much that is British that The Daily Mail appears to dislike and to want to have a go at, that it would probably take far less time to list off the aspects of Britain that it approves of i.e. the Royal Family, Middle England, reckless free market de-regulation, and The Last Night Of The Proms. Hating Britain, with its obsolete class system and its long denial of its Imperialist criminal past, is ipso facto a bad thing, is it? Well The Daily Mail is the worst of the worst then. In fact, I’m not even sure what the poisonous, stuck-in-the-past reactionaries who routinely staff that ‘newspaper’ are even still living in this country for, there’s so little about it that doesn’t trigger the surly furrowing of their brows. (Yes, Peter Hitchens, I definitely include you in that, you pompous ingrate.)
As for labels, Marxist bad, unpatriotic really bad, no one should take them seriously. They are seldom explained, and even when they are, they are usually more of the same stupid projections of the particular onto the whole i.e. Stalin was bad, therefore everything about the left is bad.
And no, I’m not even going to bother assessing the much-circulated (and very true) point about The Daily Mail’s founder being a fond supporter of Adolf Hitler and Oswald Mosley in the 1930’s. It speaks for itself.
Not only was Levy’s ‘opinion piece’ an example of the shameless depths that this over-influential rag is always willing to plumb, it was also stupidity. It made the British right look dishonest, which it usually is, and overshadowed the Conservative Party Conference, which was getting under way even as the row broke out. The result was that so much focus was placed on the argument over Miliband that the Conference itself got only half-eyed attention throughout, when the Tory Party needed to have a good, well-publicised Conference in order to try and win back the initiative that the Labour leader had so clearly seized with his (admittedly only very modest) move to the left the previous week. With The Mail as the openly-secret mouthpiece of the Conservative Party in the British media, this has to be one of the worst bits of political timing all year. Indeed, even some Conservative figures of past and present importance have spoken out against the article. The fact that The Mail stubbornly refuses to apologise for what was not just ‘an-exercise-of-freedom-of-speech’ but a cynical abuse of it demonstrates that, on a level of maturity and responsibility, it is no better than The Sun.
But then it never has been. The Daily Mail has always been the ‘other’ issue of The Sun – the issue for those right-wingers who are too prudish to cope with the sight of topless women on page 3.
EDIT 11-3-2014: Interestingly, The Mail seems to have felt the effects of this ‘own goal’, judging by information released on the quiet this week by the Press Complaints Commission. Please read this by Mike Sivier.
October 3, 2013
by Martin Odoni
The sun never sets on the British Empire, but it also never sells in one of the Empire’s former hubs. The Sun ‘newspaper’ – if you choose to flatter it with such a generous description – has been reviled in the city of Liverpool for nearly a quarter of a century, and it is very rare that you will ever find any Merseysider who is prepared to buy a copy of it. Rarer still to find a Merseysider who is prepared to admit to buying a copy of it.
Paradoxically, given the shameless right-wing bias of The Sun, for much of the 1980’s the paper sold very well in socialist Liverpool. The turning point came in the aftermath of the 1989 Hillsborough Disaster. Liverpool, being a very close-knit community, was in mourning for the loss of almost a hundred supporters of one of its football clubs in the worst tragedy in the history of British sport, when, on the 19th of April, the city was given its second horrific shock in less than a week. Inflammatory reports began circulating around the British media, claiming that attempts by officers of the South Yorkshire Police to rescue victims of the crowd crush at Hillsborough had been hampered by supposed hooligan behaviour amongst Liverpool fans. These rumours included wildly-exaggerated and out-of-context accusations of violence, enormously far-fetched insinuations of urinating on police officers, and even deeply implausible claims of theft from dead bodies*. By any standards, these accusations were shockingly cruel, insensitive and hurtful, and doubly so that they had been made while Merseyside was still trying to come to terms with the horror of the Disaster itself. Victim-blaming is a sadly common practise in British life, but to resort to it so soon after the trauma, and in such visceral, far-fetched terms was not just heartless, it could only have been an attack deliberately designed to hurt not just reputations, but innermost human feelings.
The rumours were published on the front page of The Sun. The issue for the 19th of April 1989 included a trumpeting banner headline, ‘The Truth’, written by the paper’s notorious Chief Editor of the time, Kelvin MacKenzie. Ethically speaking, it was possibly the lowest point in the history of British journalism. Whether the smears that were printed that day, originating with the South Yorkshire Police itself, swayed the wider public’s opinion on the Tragedy is not clear – those who blamed the victims seemed by and large to have already made up their minds before then – but the damage it did in the minds of many survivors was almost irreparable. Over and above the trauma of injuries, and the psychological scars of what they had witnessed happening to their fellow supporters on the Leppings Lane terrace, the survivors were now assaulted by instinctive feelings of guilt. Even though they knew they were not to blame for what had happened, the bombardment of sleazy insinuations still got under their skin, still coloured their self-perception in such a way that they still felt as though they were guilty ‘in principle’, so to speak.
Circulation of The Sun on Merseyside absolutely plummeted, reaching as low as six thousand copies per day at the deepest trough of its sales, having formerly sold as many as fifty-five thousand copies per day.
Now, it’s perfectly conceivable that Liverpool, as a city, could have held a more general grudge against the national media as a whole, and would still have been adopting a perfectly reasonable stance. For it was not just The Sun that was peddling these smears with an uncritical/non-analytical abandon. Most of the popular dailies were reporting them with a tone of “Typical-football-hooligans” disgust. Even The Daily Mirror, which these days routinely presents itself as the eternal journalistic champion of the Hillsborough victims, was quite happily announcing the rumours to the public while making no real attempt to emphasise that rumours were all they were, or that they had not yet subjected the allegations to any fact-checking. But nonetheless, the sheer gleeful fervour with which the ‘The Truth‘ headline had fronted The Sun that day was the worst, most excessive and irresponsible of the reports, largely written and planned around MacKenzie’s vitriolic desire to reinforce lazy stereotypes and turn the whole country against Merseyside. MacKenzie, under pressure from the newspaper’s owner Rupert Murdoch, apologised a few years later, but in 2006, having long since left The Sun, he retracted the apology, insisting that he had only offered it under duress and that the notorious article genuinely was ‘The Truth‘.
When the Hillsborough Independent Panel released their report a little over a year ago, they confirmed that the accusations against the Liverpool supporters had been a mixture of wild hyperbole, speculative insults, most of which made no sense, and baseless allegations. In response, MacKenzie re-issued his apology, but couched it in deeply unconvincing terms of him having been ‘suckered’ into writing the headline by the police. At the same time, Dominic Mohan, the current editor of The Sun, issued a video-apology on behalf of the newspaper. It wasn’t the first apology to come out of The Sun for its Hillsborough coverage, and I doubt it will be the last, as it desperately tries to win back its substantial former readership on Merseyside.
These were the words Mohan used; –
“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.
Now, there might have been a genuine case for accepting this apology, even while rejecting MacKenzie’s. After all, Mohan was not at The Sun in 1989, and nor indeed were the rest of the staff who are there today. The remorse expressed for what happened, combined with their lack of direct culpability for the smears, perhaps entitles the current generation at The Sun a second chance, you might argue. The emphasis on the police attempts to smear the fans, a little like with MacKenzie’s half-baked apology, still smacks of trying to offload the brunt of the blame, but still, it isn’t exactly a false emphasis. So maybe the Merseyside stance should be softened?
Well, how can I put this? No.
The reason I don’t think the apology should be accepted is rather retroactive. It works like this. The only way you can ever establish for certain whether an apology is sincere is to establish if the person apologising would again do what he/she is saying sorry for in similar circumstances. In the case of the present incumbents of The Sun, the answer is a resounding, “You bloody bet they would.” (That’s probably why the paper chose to employ them to begin with.)
My evidence of this? Well, you don’t have to look far for it. Indeed, we need only look as far as the very next week after the Independent Panel’s Report was released. Seriously, just eight days later, The Sun showed to the world that it hasn’t changed one bit. What I am referring to is sometimes called ‘Plebgate‘.
‘Plebgate’ is the joke vernacular name – in keeping with the tiresome post-Richard-Nixon tendency of the Western World to give practically any breaking scandal a nickname with the suffix ‘-gate‘ – for an acrimonious row that broke out between the then-Chief Whip of the Conservative Party, Andrew Mitchell, and the Metropolitan Police. On the evening of the 19th of September 2012, Mitchell was riding his bicycle away from his office in Downing Street, when one of the police officers guarding the entrance to the road instructed him to use the pedestrian gate instead of the main gate. According to the police version of events, Mitchell’s response was to swear at the officers and to call them ‘plebs’, a very unfortunate derogatory term for a Conservative MP to use, given the generally sour relationship that the Party usually has with the British underclass.
Guess which newspaper the story was published in the following morning? And guess which newspaper only ran the police’s version of the story, and made no attempt even to hear Mitchell’s side of the argument beforehand?
There was a mighty furore over the next few weeks, as the incident was held up by many as the latest example of the (sadly, very real) contempt in which the working class are held by the Tories. In late-October, Mitchell had to resign from the Cabinet because of the constant pressure he was under, even though he strenuously denied that he had used the ‘plebs’ pejorative. (He did admit to using foul language, mind.)
The snag was, in December it was discovered that evidence put forward to support the police version of events was – oh please don’t amaze me so! – unreliable. The key evidence against Mitchell was that one person, claiming to have been an eyewitness amongst a crowd of tourists stood outside the gate when the argument had broken out, had sent an e-mail backing up the police account. Unfortunately for the police, CCTV footage taken at the time of the argument showed that there was no crowd of tourists at the gate. It later emerged that the e-mail had been written by another police officer, one who was categorically not present **.
Now for what it’s worth, I have never much cared for Mitchell, and it wouldn’t surprise me one jot were I to learn that he genuinely does use the term ‘plebs’ to describe the working class behind closed doors***. But I can’t say one way or the other whether he really does, and either way, fabricating evidence in an attempt to pin the accusation on him is not only unethical, it is downright illegal. The stakes may have been far lower this time (indeed for the most part I found the story trivial and I soon got very bored with how much attention the media were paying to it), but there was a disturbingly familiar pattern to this whole sorry chapter. The police invented false witness statements, and The Sun newspaper just printed the allegations without running a critical eye over them first. What does that remind us of…?
Indeed, when the contrary evidence emerged to undermine the police version, The Sun put on a thoroughly predictable display of obnoxious stubbornness, insisting that it was going to stand by its story one hundred per cent. Does that not have a loud echo of MacKenzie’s insistence in 2006 that ‘The Truth‘ really was the truth…?
What makes this latest chapter of corrupt police/media collusion so hard to believe is not just that it resembles The Sun’s unskeptical enthusiasm for the police and their smearing anecdotes in 1989. It is also the fact that it all happened only one week after the newspaper had been castigated for exactly the same type of shenanigans, and had tried to make a formal apology for them.
In itself, ‘Plebgate’ was in some ways a pretty meaningless distraction; even if the accusations aimed at Mitchell had been true, it would only have told us that he was a Tory who behaves like any Tory will from time to time. Disgusting, sure, but not exactly ‘man bites dog’. But the scandal was important in one respect; it gave us all the evidence we need that, in the aftermath of the Hillsborough Independent Panel’s Report, Dominic Mohan’s apology was hollow and meaningless, because it didn’t lead on to any perceptible change in behaviour or attitude by The Sun. Within days, it was once again looking for a big headline with which it could smear somebody, and boost its sales through the manufactured posture of righteous outrage. It was still taking the police’s side of a controversy at face-value. And of course, it was still not prepared to make even the most basic attempt to check the facts and make sure that the story it had been peddled was true. Because this time only one person was the victim instead of hundreds may deodorise matters somewhat, but the principle is still the same, and the principle has still been violated in exactly the same way as in 1989. The principle is, on the one hand, that journalism requires fact-checking, and on the other hand, that journalists should set out with the express aim of telling the public what is actually going on, not with the express aim of smearing people in order to generate more sales.
The Sun just doesn’t do fact-checking, and it doesn’t really set out to tell the public what is actually going on. It doesn’t really do journalism therefore, and it shows no intention of changing that any time soon. It wants to carry on doing exactly the same sorts of deeds, and to maintain exactly the same type of attitude, that led to it becoming a key tool of the post-Hillsborough smear campaign to begin with.
So, while I don’t wish to be presumptuous and imagine that I can speak on behalf of all Merseyside – especially as I don’t live there – I am confident that I’m right when I say the following; –
Dominic Mohan – your apology is refused, and will remain so.
And I am confident that that refusal is also right.
* One of the vilest ironies of the South Yorkshire Police force’s blame-shifting was discovered recently, when it emerged that, not only is there no evidence that fans stole from the dead (and if they had, why were there no arrests…?), but in fact, the police themselves had been guilty of keeping money found among the dead and putting it into their own coffers. Now the sums involved were trifling, but then it is likely that any sums the fans might have stolen would have been trifling too (in the highly unlikely event that they did steal anything). This makes the false accusation not only deeply damaging and cruel, but also flagrant hypocrisy of a truly nauseating order.
** EDIT: 17/10/2013. The Sqwawkbox blog has raised significant doubts about Mitchell’s counter-evidence against the police’s position on the ‘Plebgate’ affair. While this would not in any way absolve The Sun of accusations of reckless smearing, it might absolve the police of such charges.
*** EDIT: 18/10/2013. And sure enough, it seems Mitchell does indeed use the term ‘plebs’ behind closed doors, as confirmed on the BBC recently by former Conservative front-bencher Michael Portillo.
More on the Hillsborough Disaster; –