Can any of us really believe the protestations of politicians and cops in the last week that they have been “shocked” by the findings in the Hillsborough report?
If they were genuinely shocked at the changed statements, the catalogue of lies, the obstruction of justice, and so on, this points to a level of incompetence among them that is difficult to comprehend.
If they are just saying it because it’s the right thing to say, and in fact knew about or suspected the extent of the cover-up, then we can only conclude that the go-to response of the British ruling class when the integrity of its institutions is questioned is simply to lie, lie, and lie again.
Yet maybe the scale of the cover-up should be surprising. Even political activists, who wearily expect evasion and lies from the police after a demo or a death in custody, may have thought, “But this was just a football match.”
Why would the police defend their decision to open an exit gate to the Leppings Lane end of the stadium so avidly?
After all, David Duckenfield, the officer who made the decision, could have been forgiven for his actions. He was inexperienced at policing football matches, he had an on-the-spot decision to make, and he made the wrong decision.
He could have been forgiven — were it not for the fact that he immediately began to spin the lie of the drunken, ticketless fan, the lie that would make its way, via a string of unsavoury characters, to the front page of the Sun and other newspapers a few days after the event.
The lie told by a panicked officer to save his own arse was picked up, embellished, and carefully marketed by a group of people including senior South Yorkshire Police (SYP) officers, Paul Middup, the regional spokesman of the Police Federation, and Tory MP Sir Irvine Patnick.
So why the lie? Various Labour politicians, including former Home Secretary Jack Straw, have been criticised by Tories for stating the obvious — that the police had played a political role during the Thatcher years. Straw has talked of a “culture of impunity” that existed in a police force which, by the end of the 1980s, felt that the powers-that-be owed it a debt of gratitude for dealing successfully and violently with industrial disputes such as the miners’ strike.
Straw is obviously correct, even if we choose to ignore his own role in obstructing the Hillsborough families’ campaign for justice while Labour were in office, which is enough in itself to consign him to the bonfire of hypocrites. But there is some danger of this view catching on, that of course the police were “politicised” in the bad old Thatcher days, more so than now, or since.
Last week, the current SYP Chief Constable David Crompton said there was “a whiff of ‘Life on Mars’” about the force in the 1980s. It’s a clever turn of phrase. Everyone knows old-time cops were laughably corrupt, isn’t it a good job that things are better now?
The excruciating 23 years it has taken for the truth to come out show that things aren’t much better. The agents of the state must always be innocent. Ask the families of the Bloody Sunday victims, or of Mark Duggan, or of Ian Tomlinson. What makes Hillsborough so remarkable is not the extent of the cover-up, but the extent to which it has been unmasked, thanks to the tenacity and courage of the victims’ families.
Last week too, in the media, the narrative suddenly changed. Now, and only now, there appears in the newspapers the figure of the wronged Liverpool FC fan, keeping dignified in the storm of smears that those very same papers whipped up. Now, and only now, newscasters quiz senior police officers with the same aggression that they usually reserve for union officials or “fringe” political figures.
This is what it takes for most of our media to even start going after the powerful — the deaths of 96 people, a 23 year long cover-up involving a wide variety of local and national state institutions, and the release of thousands of previously secret documents, under the auspices of an Anglican bishop, which provide incontrovertible proof of said cover-up. Then, when the answers are more or less out, they can start safely asking the questions they should have been asking 23 years earlier.
The press attempt to portray themselves as innocent victims of the lying state. “The man who hid the truth,” proclaims the Sheffield Star’s front page of 13 September, alongside a picture of former SYP Chief Constable Peter Wright. But rewind to the front page of the Star immediately after the disaster, and we find “Ticketless thugs staged crush to gain entry.” The Wright-Middup-Patnick lie again, word for word. So at best, the press can be said to have suffered from a collective lack of journalistic rigour, a willingness to rely on lazy stereotypes and the uncorroborated words of powerful people.
We now have the unprecedented spectacle of senior politicians and police officers calling for criminal prosecutions against those responsible for the cover-up. This in itself is progress.
There are all sorts of questions that even the release of the Hillsborough papers has not answered. Why was Duckenfield put in charge in the first place? Why exactly did the coroner chose 3.15pm as the cut-off for his investigation, when we know now that victims were alive beyond that point? Did West Midlands Police, who investigated SYP (and whose own Serious Crime Squad was disbanded in 1989 because of corruption), make a concerted effort to change the statements of SYP officers?
The Hillsborough Families Support Group is seeking new inquests, and criminal prosecutions, which will hopefully lead to answers. We will see if, and how, the state decides to close ranks again.
State cover-ups are not a thing of the past. Anyone who has any interest in telling truth to power will forever owe the Hillsborough campaigners a debt of gratitude.