by Martin Odoni
What is more painful; the stupidity or the pointless offensiveness?
Given this weekend is the anniversary of the 1989 Hillsborough Disaster, you would think that Kelvin MacKenzie and the Sun ‘newspaper’ would tread carefully at this one time of the year over the subject of Merseyside. They were, after all, responsible for the nadir of British journalism just a few days later, when they published an article titled ‘The Truth‘, which propagated only lies.
The city of Liverpool has never forgiven or forgotten, and the Sun, which through the late-1980’s had sold over fifty-five thousand copies per day on Merseyside, nowadays struggles to sell more than twelve thousand per day there. The Sun has repeatedly offered half-hearted, unconvincing apologies of the “We’re-sorry-we-were-fooled” variety, instead of the “We’re-sorry-we-were-malicious” variety. Hardly surprisingly, they have all been rejected. If the Sun truly holds out hope of recovering sales on Merseyside, it has to behave differently from its average conduct in future. It also has to be very careful indeed in the way it treats Liverpool. This should be so suffocatingly obvious by now, it should not need pointing out.
So Kelvin MacKenzie’s column in the Sun yesterday was as stupid as it was offensive, and I am still trying to decide whether my sense of aesthetics or my intelligence is more hurt by it. MacKenzie was Chief Editor at the time of the notorious hatchet job on Liverpool supporters, and he was the one personally responsible for the headline ‘The Truth‘.
Yesterday’s article was about an Everton footballer, local boy Ross Barkley, and the column demonstrated how MacKenzie is as dominated by crude prejudices as ever he was. Now, to be honest, I am no fan of Barkley, whose behaviour on a football pitch is frequently thuggish and foolish. But MacKenzie’s article was not a critique of that, it was just published abuse.
MacKenzie described Barkley as,
“One of our dimmest footballers… thick“.
Of seeing Barkley’s eyes, MacKenzie argued that he is,
“Certain not only are the lights not on, there is definitely nobody at home.“
He then added a particularly unfortunate insult when writing,
“I get a similar feeling when seeing a gorilla at the zoo“. (Emphasis mine.)
This particular slur has caused considerable anger, as of course ape-references are popular among racists when making derogatory remarks about black people. Barkley himself is not black, but he is mixed race due to a black Nigerian grandfather. To make matters worse, the article was even titled, ‘Here’s why they go ape at Ross‘.
In his own defence, MacKenzie insisted the reference was not racial, and that he had been unaware of Barkley’s background. Just for the record, I do believe him on that. Barkley’s grandparentage is not that widely known, and in the context of the article, MacKenzie just seems to be referring to thuggish behaviour in an individual, instead of trying to imply his bad behaviour is due to his ‘racial extraction’.
But I do not see that as much of a defence really. For while MacKenzie did not use race as grounds for insults, elsewhere in the article he wrote that Barkley is,
“an attractive catch in the Liverpool area where the only men with similar pay packets are drug dealers, and therefore not at nightclubs, as they are often guests of Her Majesty“.
This is what is so cheap and offensive, and it demonstrates that MacKenzie’s past attempts to apologise for what he did in 1989 were insincere. He is still propagating horrible stereotypes in his crude writing, and having spent the previous few lines describing Barkley in Neanderthal terms, he then insults much of the city of Liverpool by arguing that if a male is rich there, he must be a drug dealer.
This is not exactly a racist stereotype, but it is a geographical stereotype. It still condemns people for the condition of their birth, a fact over which they have no control and which will not decisively govern their character either. There may be a technical difference, but frankly, I struggle to see how geographical slurs are morally any better than racial slurs. On a moral and effectual level, it might just as well be racism. And MacKenzie actually wrote all this on the Hillsborough Anniversary weekend! Never mind Barkley’s intelligence, how stupid is MacKenzie?
The Sun has suspended MacKenzie and removed the article from its website. But the mask has already slipped. As I pointed out recently, responding to a very unconvincing article in the Spectator defending the Sun, the behaviour of the Red-Top has not changed. Once again, we have ignorant, careless editorial oversight at the Sun. Once again we have a lazy, prejudicial, hate-spreading smear article aimed at Merseyside, complete with inflaming title. Once again, MacKenzie shows wildly generalised and barely-informed contempt for the entire city of Liverpool. Once again, he has been burned for it.
The scale is different, but MacKenzie does not learn. If he does not learn, he does not change. The Sun continues its careless love of letting smears be printed on its pages. No matter who staffs it, it does not learn either. So it does not change either.
MacKenzie got away with outright sectarian prejudice last year when attacking Channel 4 News for appointing Muslim reporter Fatima Manji to cover the Nice Attack. He was following the childish logic that a Muslim was to blame for the attack, therefore all Muslims are to blame. Here, he argues that if a Scouser can become rich by becoming a drug dealer, most of them will do it the same way. (Everton FC have responded by at last joining Liverpool FC in banning the Sun from its grounds.)
Kelvin MacKenzie remains the prejudiced blot on British morality he has always been. The Sun remains the ritual abuse-of-journalism it has always been. Journalism is there to hold power to account on behalf of ordinary people. The Sun and MacKenzie are there to hold down ordinary people on behalf of power.
April 4, 2017
by Martin Odoni
There are a few periodicals out there that, you would have thought, should know better by now than to make noise about the Hillsborough Disaster. The most obvious candidate is of course The Sun (so-called) ‘newspaper’, whose crude and wilful smear in its notorious ‘The Truth‘ article four days after the tragedy remains possibly the all-time nadir of British journalism. But The Sun is not alone in treating Hillsborough with crass, ignorant and insensitive cruelty.
The Spectator, one of the great outlets for jeering, British-upper-class snobbery dressed up as pseudo-intellectualism, plumbed similar depths as late as 2004. In the aftermath of the brutal murder of Ken Bigley, Simon Heffer – with apparent extra remarks added in by the ineffable then-editor, Boris ‘BoJob’ Johnson – wrote a characteristically down-the-nose, prejudiced and unresearched article attacking Liverpool supporters for supposedly causing the Disaster.
Heffer and/or Johnson stated, with a startling degree of crass ignorance and posh-tonal impatience,
The deaths of more than 50 Liverpool football supporters at Hillsborough in 1989 was undeniably a greater tragedy than the single death, however horrible, of Mr Bigley; but that is no excuse for Liverpool’s failure to acknowledge, even to this day, the part played in the disaster by drunken fans at the back of the crowd who mindlessly tried to fight their way into the ground that Saturday afternoon… The police became a convenient scapegoat, and The Sun newspaper a whipping-boy for daring, albeit in a tasteless fashion, to hint at the wider causes of the incident
The ignorance driving the assertions is most strongly flagged by, but by no means limited to, the description of “the deaths of more than 50.” While it is technically accurate to say that more than fifty people died in the Disaster, it downplays the proportion of the tragedy by half. One can be certain that if Heffer or Johnson were remotely as well-informed about Hillsborough as they were bluffing, they would instead have said either, “more than 90,” or, “almost 100”. As it stands, the reference to “more than 50” makes it sound like they are confusing hazy memories of the Valley Parade Fire of 1985.
In fairness to Johnson, he has publicly apologised several times for the article, although Heffer has remained noticeably tight-lipped. Even the publication of the Report Of The Hillsborough Independent Panel, which proved irrevocably that the version of events put forward in the article was completely false, has not drawn any noticeable words of contrition out of Heffer. The suspicion is that, because of his right wing prejudices, he feels that his words were still true ‘in the eyes of God’, so to speak, and that the bare physical facts have therefore got it wrong.
With that skeleton in the magazine’s insalubrious cupboard, it is unsurprising that, when The Spectator chooses to poke its upturned nose into Hillsborough-related matters, it is about as welcome as a tray of bacon sandwiches at a Bar Mitzvah. Therefore, it is one of the biggest wonders of the last week – and we are talking about a week in which Michael Fallon and Lord Howard threatened war against Spain, so the competition is fierce – that Roger Alton chose to write in The Spectator in defence of The Sun.
To be clear, Alton was certainly not defending The Sun’s coverage of the Disaster back in 1989. Instead he was criticising the decision of Liverpool Football Club back in February to ban the tabloid, and its reporters, from attending Anfield or the team’s training ground at Melwood, in much-delayed response to the journal’s Hillsborough coverage. Alton’s objection is a familiar-sounding one that many a journalist retreats into when he or his fellows get into trouble for writing irresponsibly.
Thanks to the timorousness of one of the world’s major football clubs, and the pusillanimity of the Premier League, a bitter little drama is being played out that could have savage implications for freedom of the press.
Ah, so we are back in ‘freedom-of-speech-means-freedom-to-lie-and-to-hatchet-someone’s-reputation-unduly-without-any-repercussions’ territory once again, are we? While acknowledging that The Sun’s coverage back in 1989 was outrageous, Alton argues that the ban is wrong, not least because it was,
coverage for which the paper and its editors have repeatedly apologised.
Now, this may come as a shock to Alton, but people all over the United Kingdom are well aware of the red-top’s apologies. The problem is not a lack of apologies, the problem is the lack of sincerity in them. As I argued a few years back, The Sun’s apologies can only be accepted under two conditions; –
Firstly, the apology has to take a form where the paper accepts full responsibility for what was published, rather than repeatedly apologising for supposedly ‘being misled’ by the police. That is not a real apology, it is a recital of the word sorry followed by a cynical blame-shift. Yes, the South Yorkshire Police Force undeniably lied and heavily distorted events in order to offload guilt onto the victims of its incompetence. But The Sun was happy to go along with the lies, because they suited the Thatcherite, right wing, anti-northern agenda of its owner and its then-editor. The Sun’s coverage was more malicious than gullible, and to date there has never been any acknowledgement of that from anyone connected with the paper.
Secondly, the apology has to be accompanied by a recognisable change of behaviour. In other words, if The Sun were ever to stop being a controversy-addicted, sexist, racist, voyeuristic, hard-right, stereotype-fuelling smear rag, well, maybe then people could accept that the baser instincts that led it to publish the notorious article were no longer being followed. But all the evidence points to the contrary. The Sun continues to smear and deride decent, honest people – just ask Jeremy Corbyn – it continues to vilify the most vulnerable people in the country, and it continues to be a yobbish, bombastic, jingoistic receptacle of xenophobia and racism, including against refugees. Nothing has changed in the way The Sun conducts itself, therefore the apologies will not be accepted.
Alton drifts onto some dangerously hyperbolic turf as he writes. He mentions,
[Liverpool’s] owner, John Henry, founder of the Boston-based Fenway Sports Group, was not involved. He is said to be ‘embarrassed’, as well he might be since Fenway also owns the Boston Globe, which makes hay whenever President Trump tries a similar stunt.
Irrespective of John Henry’s opinions, which are unlikely to be the best-informed in any event, this comparison is as intellectually-redundant as it is offensive and crass. To try and compare what Liverpool Football Club has decided to do to the behaviour of the current US President is to compare the common cold to malaria. Donald Trump‘s entirely fictitious cries of “FAKE NEWS!” whenever he gets criticised, no matter how fairly, and subsequent attempts to ban journalists who write unfavourably about him from his press conferences, are in a completely different realm from what Liverpool is doing. Liverpool has banned one newspaper for a measurably untrue, crude, vicious, and malignant hatchet job on its supporters, it is not blanket-banning any and all commentators on hearing the first whisper of criticism. Indeed, many would argue that Liverpool FC has been far, far too restrained in its treatment of The Sun. This ban, after all, took the better part of three whole decades after the crime to be imposed, and it applies to only one periodical. This is utterly different from Trump’s egomaniacal, knee-jerk refusal to speak to newpapers and TV channels by the news-stand-load whenever they say something he finds inconvenient.
Alton then drifts into off-colour remarks about the pressure group Total Eclipse Of The S*n, who are behind the advancing boycott, without ever getting to the nub of what he finds objectionable about it. He then makes a number of irrelevant points about the amount of money Liverpool FC receives from the ‘Murdoch media’, as though that gives the club a moral obligation to let The Sun onto its premises. (How like the right wing media to think that morality is measured in money, incidentally.) Alton also bemoans the failure of the FA Premier League to force Liverpool to back down, in the way that the National Football League in the USA forces its franchises to allow full access to the media. He does not pause to consider that, for one thing, the Premier League might agree with Liverpool’s decision, for another, the NFL does not enforce media access on principle but for financial advantage, or above all, that, as the clubs in the US are franchises in a more tightly-knit collective league structure, the NFL has more control over them than the FA or the Premier League can ever wield over their teams.
Alton then finishes on another moment of crass hyperbole by gently implying that Liverpool’s decision is comparable to Nazism, through a paraphrase of the famous Martin Niemoller quotation, when he writes,
[The smear campaign and cover-up seem] an ominous reason, now, 28 years later, to prevent one football reporter from doing his job. Who knows what could come next? First they come for the Sun…
Oh I see. So because The Sun has been banned from one football ground in the entire country, that means that a state police force now stands poised to crash through the front doors of all journalists connected with the tabloid, and march them off to concentration camps, before getting to work on all the other papers?
Is it even necessary to point out how ridiculous and over-the-top Alton’s analogies are? Given how quick the press can be to dish out stick, often for corrupt reasons, it can be astonishing how deep a journalist’s persecution complex can be, or how thin their skin can be. So The Sun has to steer clear of Anfield, therefore The Sun is now a victim? Oh, diddums! Say that to the survivors of Hillsborough. Liverpool FC’s decision does not mean that The Sun will no longer be allowed to keep publishing – not that I would waste any breath complaining about it if it did.
There is nothing illegal or immoral about a boycott of a newspaper, especially not one that has such a terrible history of hate-mongering as The Sun. For Alton to take the “What about the freedom of the press?” line here is contemptible. This is because one cannot defend The Sun while defending the freedom of the press. They are mutually exclusive positions. The Sun routinely abuses that freedom, and to an extent that would have been hard to imagine before the 1980’s; it constantly hurts the credibility of free press by making its definition inseparable from malicious lies. It degrades and devalues journalism, using it to spread hatred rather than the truth, and to advance the interests of the powerful, instead of to inform the powerless. One cannot defend any entity by defending those that mistreat and manipulate it. To defend the freedom of the press, one must condemn those who corrupt it; to do otherwise is as perverse and amoral as to try and defend the victims of child abuse by speaking up for its perpetrators. The Sun damages the freedom of the press, and it undermines the real purpose of having the press.
As for The Spectator, if it is any better than The Sun, it is only by (slight) virtue of its use of more sophisticated language. For Alton, Johnson, or Heffer, freedom-of-speech appears to mean no more than the right to reinforce their own prejudices, and the secondary right to draw others into the same lazy illusions. This is underlined by the aforementioned presumption and lack-of-research in 2004, and the whiny protests offered this week.
If ending such prejudices will require one day boycotting either The Sun or The Spectator to the point of bankruptcy, I would consider that a worthy price to pay.
by Martin Odoni
Just thought I should draw attention to legal action I will (supposedly) be facing in the near future. Christopher Whittle, whom Hillsborough campaigners all know and love, stumbled onto this blog’s dissection of his (not-terribly-impressive) book, With Hope In Your Heart: A Hillsborough Survivor’s Story, The Denial Of Justice & A Personal Battle With PTSD this week, and appears to have lost his rag again. If you go to the page and scroll down to the comments section, you will see that Whittle left an angry message, reading as follows; –
Absolute disgrace, ODONI. What the hell do you know about Hillsborough? Your rabid character assassination and failure to grasp the true facts, and to disgracefully deny my own Hillsborough experiences, shows the world what you really are. Expect to be contracted[sic] by my solicitors.
(Once again, we see that the only debating tactic Whittle has is to put occasional words in needless capitals in the strange belief that it makes him seem intimidating and authoritative.)
It would be no exaggeration to say that I am petrified by the prospect of Whittle’s solicitors coming after me looking for damages; no exaggeration, that is, because it would be a flat-out lie. I am not worried at all.
Indeed, I would welcome an opportunity to put Whittle under cross-examination in a public forum, and a damages court would be as good as any. He might imagine that I would be the only one to come under examination, but any such case would require cross-examination of my assertions, which are themselves a cross-examination of Whittle’s own work. Therefore, to assess whether I really am guilty of ‘character assassination’, Whittle’s work will have to be checked during the process to establish whether I have distorted anything he wrote, and whether I am correct to accuse him of written anomalies. So all of the anomalies I and other campaigners have found in Whittle’s book and elsewhere would have to be aired and examined in court. And Whittle, if he is to stand any chance of winning the case, would have to come up with convincing answers for all of them.
Even if he could manage that, which I very much doubt, he still would not win, for three reasons; –
Firstly, the anomalies are in his work, and explaining them away after-the-fact does not change the reality that they were there at times of publication, nor the reality that it is his own failing and not mine that they were there. Enforcement of libel laws cannot be applied retroactively against criticisms made before a clarification.
Secondly, I made very clear in the article that neither I nor the other writers are saying that he was definitively not at Hillsborough, or that his accounts are intentionally untrue; we even offered up possible explanations for some of the flaws in his story. What we are saying is that he is a poor writer, in contradiction of his boasts, and his lack of eloquence or clarity on the page is the likeliest reason for the anomalies listed. (Either that or he really is lying; we cannot think of a third explanation.) Whether Whittle feels that is fair or not, we are merely expressing an informed, objective opinion, and backing it up with detailed examples and verifiable evidence, both of which are in short supply whenever he makes an accusation, as history has shown. It is not an indictable smear to make criticisms when they can be backed up with verfiable facts. If Whittle does not like it, I suggest he a) moves to a country where reasonable freedom-of-expression is not protected by law e.g Saudi Arabia or Communist China, and b) shows a lot more caution in future when throwing accusations of his own around.
Thirdly, Whittle has shown a remarkable, consistent capacity for attacking what other people write without even reading it. For him to develop a coherent case against me, he would have to sit down and read my essays and learn for the first time what I actually have to say, rather than take his usual approach of just making the assumptions that will help him avoid cognitive dissonance. I very much doubt he is willing to make that effort.
Whittle has no one to blame but himself. Had he not taken such abusive and high-handed public objection to an article I wrote back in 2012, using the fact that he ‘wrote a book’ as doubtful justification for censoring me, I would probably never have heard of With Hope In Your Heart, never felt compelled to obtain a copy of it, to read it, to find so many faults in it (as many others have found), or to write negative reviews of it. I also find it very rich when he complains about his character being ‘assassinated’, given his tendency to blow his top, and to insult, misrepresent and threaten people when they disagree with him. I have endured all of these at his hands over the last five years, and I am well aware that I am not the only one. Whittle’s behaviour has a whiff of Paul Nuttall’s ludicrous recent claims to being victim of a ‘smear campaign’, when he too is merely being confronted with the flaws in his own claims.
So if Whittle feels he has a right to take legal action against me, perhaps I should do the same to him over all the insults and fake quotations he has pinned on me in the past? I suspect my case would have a better chance of winning.
For now though, Whittle, if you are reading this, I am calling your bluff. Bring on your legal action. I am very confident your latest little threat is just hot air. You lack the backbone to follow it up, but even if you do go for it, you have no case against me.
Do your worst, Whittle.
February 15, 2017
by Martin Odoni
This blog has, to this point, treated the Hillsborough Disaster and the UK Independence Racket-… er, sorry, I mean the UK Independence Party, as two completely unrelated subjects. I suspect that they still are, in fact. But over the last few days there has been an unmissable furore over whether claims of the new leader of UKIP, Paul Nuttall, to have been in the stadium on the day of Hillsborough are true or not.
NOTE: I have chosen to link to the Skwawkbox blog, because I am getting a little fed-up of the Guardian getting all the credit for identifying the anomalies in Nuttall’s story when the SB blog got there way earlier.
I do not wish to spend too long speculating on whether Nuttall’s claims are true. I myself, despite long years studying the Disaster, was not there, and so I have no possible way of knowing for certain. Even so, I can say that I was skeptical for a long time about Nuttall’s claims, and events over the last week or so have only served to increase my doubts. (His latest attempt to explain away a proven falsity in his claims has been debunked with astonishing speed and ease.) I disagree with suggestions that Nuttall’s account of being at Hillsborough was actually contradictory, but even so I doubt he was there, for reasons I have little need to explain, as they are being discussed widely elsewhere.
So I want to discuss the response of some of Nuttall’s defenders, rather than his detractors. Particularly noticeable and crass was of course the intervention of UKIP’s chief funder (and, some would argue, real leader) Arron Banks, who tweeted last night that he was “sick to death of hearing about” Hillsborough.
For my own part, I have stated more than once in the past that I am sick of hearing people say that they are sick of hearing about Hillsborough. This is not least because there is something nauseatingly insufferable about anyone who imagines their personal boredom-threshold is more important than the grisly deaths of almost a hundred people. It says something about Banks’ self-centred arrogance – always in long supply – that he could put his wish for a change of subject before the fact that, even with the new Inquest verdict last year, there has still not been a single successful prosecution over the Disaster or the cover-up that followed.
Banks’ remarks are also startling vacuous at other points. He tweeted, “if a policemen opens a gate trying to help and makes a bad decision it’s an accident. As for a cover up it was the 80’s.”
Now, the first sentence is just stupid, because it is an implied strawman argument contradicted by the drearily obvious. Nobody is suggesting that the South Yorkshire Police were deliberately trying to get someone killed at Hillsborough. (At Orgreave, probably, but let us leave that on one side.) Everybody knows that the crush was unintentional. That does not satisfy the definition of an ‘Accident’ in a Coroner’s Court, I should mention. But even so, no one imagines that David Duckenfield was stood in the police control box next to the Leppings Lane end, tweaking his non-existent moustache and rubbing his hands together in evil glee, like a stereotype Bond-villain, as over three thousand people were crammed into a space suited for about seventeen-hundred. It is beyond stupid to imply that people are arguing Hillsborough was a deliberate attempt to take lives.
But if the first sentence is stupid, the second sentence is just meaningless. It was the 80’s, you say, Mr Banks? Well knock me down with a feather! Say, Arron, have you noticed? The year was called “1989”! Could that be connected with these “80’s” things you are talking about? There must be some link, right? EUREKA!
Sarcasm aside; again, we already know. Just saying, “It was the 80’s” does not explain anything, nor does it constitute a particularly clear reason for just shrugging the shoulders and dropping the whole subject.
Banks then tried to clarify his ‘point’ (for want of a better word), by adding, “It was the 80’s” [thank goodness he repeated that, there was a real danger we might not have figured out which decade 1989 was in without his repeated information] “I been[sic] at some matches that were squeezed beyond belief. This could have happened anywhere anytime.”
Sadly, this only intensifies the impression of crass stupidity. Again, Banks is saying nothing that has not been said countless times before, so he is enlightening nobody; it is perfectly true that almost all stadia in Britain and Ireland at the time were at least as unsafe and poorly policed as Hillsborough. But also, he in fact defeats his own argument in saying it. It is precisely because the Disaster at Hillsborough could have happened anywhere that the issues surrounding it remain relevant today. These issues are; –
- Prejudiced, heavy-handed policing against presumed hooligans.
- Complacency among football clubs and authorities, and again by the police, on matters of public safety.
- Corruption of public and private institutions who are more concerned with protecting their own reputations than with honesty or transparency.
These matters have never been brought properly into the light-of-day, never given adequate official scrutiny or in-depth reform, and quite probably are still not properly guarded against even today. Simply saying, “Oh it was the 80’s” is merely giving this culture-of-shabbiness a name, not explaining or resolving anything. Wrongdoing remains wrongdoing, no matter the decade in which it happened, and a failure to fulfil one’s responsibilities, compounded by a subsequent attempt to shift the blame for that failure onto the people who suffered because of it, is only more wrongdoing.
As for feeling “sick to death”, I can tell Banks this; I’m “sick-to-death” of Banks and his allies lying to us non-stop about how much better off we will all be once we are out of the European Union, but that has never stopped them.
Inevitably, far lower-profile ‘Kippers than Banks have been leaping with partisan fervour to Nuttall’s defence. I have seen UKIP supporters registering squealing objections all over social media. One theme that seems to be popular among ‘Kippers is the notion that the British Left is somehow ‘exploiting’ the way Nuttall has been caught red-handed.
I find this argument vomitous. For a start, how can condemning Nuttall’s dishonesty (this chapter is just part of a far wider pattern of, shall we say, ‘seriously embellished’ claims Nuttall has made for himself) be called ‘exploitative’? Surely it is Nuttall’s manipulation of the Hillsborough Disaster, in an apparent attempt to associate himself with one of the British public’s greatest ever victories over institutionalised injustice, that is exploitative? He is standing in the Stoke-On-Trent Central By-Election next week, and the people there need to know the sorts of confections he is capable of. They must consider whether it is safe to elect a man who would lie to the whole nation about something like this, and in order to deliberate on that, they need to know he has done it.
But equally, let us remember that this whiny objection is coming from supporters of UKIP! Which is to say, from the party and support-base that have spent most of the last five years or so constantly trying to score cheap and cruel political points against other parties over alleged widespread child abuse by politicians. That UKIP supporters get so outraged about child abuse, but never seem to remember the alleged victims after the desired political damage has been inflicted on opponents, should tell us all just how much they really care about those same victims. So how is that not exploitation of a far, far lower order than merely pointing out when someone is using the tragedies of others to gain publicity? In fact, Nuttall has been pulling the same trick by trying to tap into outrage over the police cover-up after Hillsborough. If he was not there – and on balance it seems ever more likely that he was not – then he is being exploitative in one of the ugliest ways I can imagine, and so if you want to say that giving him a public caning for it is also ‘exploitative’ (it is not), well, swings-and-roundabouts.
No, the exploitation is very much on one side. Whether Nuttall was at Hillsborough or not, it is clear he was little-affected by it, but still he tries to associate himself with the campaign for justice after remaining silent about it for well over twenty years. Nuttall did not have to use Hillsborough to gain publicity, he chose to. He has exploited, he has not been exploited. He deserves vilification, for, after all the horrendous agonies Hillsborough campaigners have been put through over the last twenty-eight years, they did not deserve to be used like this.
It was their battle, not his.
December 14, 2016
by Martin Odoni
A few years back, Peter Marshall created a Panorama documentary for the BBC about the Hillsborough Disaster, of which I was mildly critical, as it did largely feel like a rather needless retread of familiar, very harrowing details. This week, he released a new documentary on ITV, Hillsborough: Smears, Survivors & The Search For Truth. This one was certainly a more constructive programme, as it focused on comparatively new research and investigations that have been carried out while the rebooted Inquests were in progress. Much of the material Marshall covered I personally was already aware of (because I peripherally observed some of the research), but most of the public are not, so this new programme felt far fresher than the one from 2013. The upshot of the programme therefore is that the Report of The Hillsborough Independent Panel, while remaining enormously significant, is now effectively ‘out-of-date’, as very few of the details Marshall discussed were examined by the Report – perhaps were not even noticed by the Panel – four years ago. So anyone who imagines that the HIP Report is the ultimate position of research into the Disaster is well behind the times.
Aspects of the new documentary I found refreshing were that there was less focus than usually happens on the South Yorkshire Police, more attention than usual was paid to the (too-often-overlooked) misconduct of the West Midlands Police, the much-neglected Hillsborough Justice Campaign was given more recognition than the Hillsborough Families Support Group for a change, and there was more of an ‘outlet’ for traumatised survivors of the Disaster and not only for the bereaved families.
The only detail I want to dwell on for now though is the interview with Ray Lewis. He was the referee for the 1989 FA Cup semi-final at Hillsborough, and was famously the man who blew the whistle and ordered the players to clear the pitch six minutes into the game when fans spilled over from the overcrowded terrace.
Lewis reveals that he gave a verbal statement to Superintendent Barry Mason of the West Midlands Police after the Disaster. During the statement, he described the crowd outside the stadium on the day of the tragedy as ‘mixed’, by which he meant that he saw Liverpool and Nottingham Forest supporters mingling freely, peacefully and in good spirits.
A quarter of a century later, Lewis finally got to see the type-up of his words, and to his consternation, he found that the word mixed had been substituted with the word pissed. An investigator from the Independent Police Complaints Commission discussed the alteration with Lewis, and apparently concluded that it was probably just a typographical error.
Now, as a rule, I tend to subscribe to cock-up theory far more than conspiracy theory, but in this case, I reckon this is a classic IPCC excuse for being too lazy to investigate. To my mind, the odds on the change-of-words being an error are pretty remote.
For one thing, a typing error is usually just a spelling mistake, frequently just getting one letter wrong, by inadvertently hitting a key adjacent to the correct key. For instance, mixes would be a typo for mixed. Moxed would be a typo for mixed. Nixes would be a typo for mixed. But on a standard ‘QWERTY’ keyboard, the letter P is not adjacent to the letter M. Pissed also has more letters than mixed and is therefore a doubtful result of a typographical error
Secondly, if we assume instead that the typist misread what was on the page, it still does not look like they would objectively assume that pissed could be the word Lewis had used. The handwriting, as Lewis himself concedes, was very poor, but even so, from studying pictures of the handwritten document, it is still thoroughly clear that the word Mason wrote down begins with the letter M. Looking at the word in isolation, if I were pushed into saying what word I think it is, I would answer, “It probably says mined“; –
For sure, that would stop the sentence from making the slightest bit of sense, and the typist would have to come up with an alternative word, but it would be a ludicrous leap from there to assume it was pissed. As much as anything else, implying legless drunkenness runs somewhat contrary to the spirit of what Lewis had said earlier in the sentence about the crowd being in good humour.
But thirdly – and this is the clincher for me – is it not just a bit too much of a coincidence that the word the officer chose as a substitute ‘just happened’ to be slang for drunkenness? Of all the possible substitutes the typist could have chosen, and there must be dozens, (s)he ‘just happened’ to choose the one that emphasises the impression of drunk-and-disorderly behaviour, which ‘just happened’ to be the very impression that officers in both West Midlands and South Yorkshire had been trying so very hard to convey?
Not for the first time when discussing the Hillsborough Disaster, I find myself asking the question, “Do the British police really think the public are that stupid?”
November 17, 2016
by Martin Odoni
I am not keen on people making judgements of works they have not read, so this essay may seem somewhat hypocritical. But I am confident that a book I have not read will not be worth the bother of reading.
This week sees the publication of a book written by the controversial retired police officer, Sir Norman Bettison. If you are unaware of who Bettison is, you can read a couple of articles about him, here and here. His putative involvement in the legal cover-up of the causes of the Hillsborough Disaster have long established his name as one of the ‘Great Unmentionables’ on Merseyside, even though he has always denied playing any knowing role in it.
I have not yet decided whether I will read Hillsborough Untold: Aftermath Of A Disaster myself, but I am already fairly sure that I will be wasting time if I do. (Neil Wilby has written a very comprehensive analysis if you wish to have a fully-informed view of the book. I am not yet in a position to express agreement or otherwise with the analysis, but I can say that Mr Wilby sounds highly skeptical.) Mainly, my trouble is that Bettison’s discussions of the book so far have been on the maintained basis that he knew nothing about the cover-up, and that the book outlines what he was doing instead of co-operating with police malpractice. He has gone on record more than once as saying that he
“never altered a statement nor asked for one to be altered.“
As that is the angle from which the book appears to have been written, it establishes in itself that Hillsborough Untold is unlikely to be overburdened by factual accuracy. There has been strong evidence circulating among Hillsborough campaigners for several years that Bettison must not only have known that alteration-of-statements was happening, but also that he himself had solicited several instances of the practice.
During the preparations for the original Coroner’s Inquests, Bettison held meetings with a number of his fellow officers within the South Yorkshire Police to discuss their witness statements, and potentially to press them to change their content. Below is a screenshot of a memo, from the 24th of July 1990, giving notice of one such meeting; –
(If you have difficulty reading the handwriting, it reads as follows; –
“Interview [the] following officers and ask them to re-examine the transcript of their evidence to the Taylor Inquiry as the subject of police “monitoring” of the pens on West Terrace. Obtain further statement if they argue that wrong impression has been given in their original evidence.
1. Chief Insp. CREASER
2. Insp. CALVERT
3. Insp. DARLING
4. Insp. SEWELL”
‘Superintendent Bettison’ is named as the officer allocating the task, bottom-right of the memo.)
At the very least, this clearly indicates that Bettison was knowingly taking part in efforts to get officers to change their stories for one reason or another. In this light, Bettison’s claim to being completely ignorant of alteration processes seems implausible.
Bettison further wrote a faxed letter to Peter Metcalf of Hammonds Suddards Solicitors in 1990, listing off amendments he recommended be made to a statement submitted by former Chief Superintendent Robin Herold.
Item 2.a) is particularly suspicious, as Bettison recommends removal of reference to “any reliance on fortune”. The only reason for that instruction would be a desire to make the police operation at Hillsborough sound better-controlled than it really was.
In fairness, these instances were roughly a year after the Taylor Inquiry completed its work, and it was the statements submitted to Taylor that are the main controversy, so these items do not really establish Bettison’s involvement in the most notorious chapter. But nonetheless, they do show that his claim that he “never asked for [a statement] to be altered” is heavily overstating the case, while the chapter deserves notoriety of its own in any event.
That Bettison seems to have written the book from an angle of unknowing innocence does not therefore do the work’s credibility or appeal any favours. I do perhaps feel duty-bound to read Hillsborough Untold eventually, but I will do so without much urgency.
As I have been writing this, I have listened to Bettison discussing his book with Shelagh Fogarty on LBC Radio, and he has raised more questions than answers. One noticeable change-of-angle during the interview was that he has denied that there was a cover-up by the South Yorkshire Police at all. He points to the fact that the Taylor Interim Report had within four months debunked the claims of fan behaviour causing the Disaster. Therefore, he asks, why are people talking about a cover-up at all when the truth was already out?
There are a number of reasons why these remarks are silly. Firstly, just because Lord Justice Peter Taylor saw through police attempts to shift blame does not mean that the attempts were not made after all, or that the alteration of witness statements to remove criticism of the police operation had not been carried out. (He blames the solicitors for the alteration process. Not entirely wrong of him, but the police never offered any resistance to the idea at all.)
More importantly, an awful lot of the wider public did not cotton on to the real causes of the Disaster when the Taylor Report was published, hence wide numbers of people continued to believe the victim-blaming narrative for decades afterwards, with encouragement from media reporting myths fed to them by the police.
Still more important, however, is that the South Yorkshire Police bitterly rejected Taylor’s findings and, with the help of the West Midlands Police, spent the next several years using the Coroner’s Inquests as a platform from which to ‘un-write’ the Report. Considerable key evidence was hidden from the original Inquests, leading to the incorrect ‘Accidental Death’ verdict.
If that little lot does not constitute a cover-up in Bettison’s mind, I can only thank the stars he is no longer a Chief Constable.