Earlier today, after three years of sifting through over 450,000 documents, the independent panel investigating the Hillsborough disaster published its report. Staying with nothing but the brute facts for the moment, we learned:
- That the statements of 164 police officers were amended, 116 of them in an effort to remove, diminish, or otherwise obfuscate criticisms of their own operation and their superiors;
- That there was a coherent effort by police officers and a Member of Parliament to present the victims as the perpetrators (and so the perpetrators as the victims), an effort that encompassed all manner of calumnies and untruths, an effort that was hungrily swallowed by various organs of the press, most spectacularly The Sun and its then editor Kelvin MacKenzie, whose grovelling apology finally arrived today and was as pathetic in its lateness as it was despicable in its disingenuousness;
- That the decision of the coroner to rule that all those who died had sustained their mortal wounds by 3.15pm was wrong;
- That the dead, most of whom were under 30, had their blood-achohol levels posthumously tested, a procedure that the panel stated had "no rationale";
- That, finally and most heartbreakingly, that the lives of up to 41 of the 96 Liverpool fans that died might have been saved, had the response of the emergency services not been so inadequate.
You'd think that would be enough; you'd think that would be more than enough. But today also represented something larger. Today represented the thundering and comprehensive defeat of a concerted effort on the part of those responsible to dehumanise those that died.
Football in 1989 was a different beast to the glitzy money farm we know and muddle through today. Notoriously, The Times described the sport as "a slum game for slum people" (and oh, how disgustingly delicious the irony that the promotion and exploitation of that same slum game now underpins the media empire of that paper's owner, one R. Murdoch). Fans -- all fans -- were viewed as occupying a space somewhere between mental deficiency and straight-up animalism: as the When Saturday Comes editorial that followed the disaster noted, football was treated as "a public-order problem rather than a form of entertainment", because all fans were "deemed to be passive accomplices to the sociopathic minority".
Grounds slipped into disrepair, then slipped beyond that into danger. The independent panel drew attention to an earlier crush at Hillsborough in 1981, when supporters of Tottenham Hotspur narrowly avoided catastrophe. The ground did not have a valid safety certificate then, it did not have one during similar near-misses in 1987 and 1988, and it did not have one in 1989 when Liverpool met Nottingham Forest in the semi-final of the FA Cup.
Then it happened, then it was over, and then the war for the story began. On the one side were the fans, bereaved and distraught, on the other was a police force desperate to disguise its own risible incompetence, a government delighted to accept that football was everything that its worst prejudices insisted, and a press as instinctive in its disdain for those in the terraces as it was in its support for those in uniform. The demonisation of the dead didn't need a grand conspiracy, birthed in smoky rooms and sealed with secret handshakes. Such chicanery isn't required when everybody important shares the same unfettered, unthinking, unquestioning ideology of supremacy leavened with contempt.
Football stadiums are safer places now, though the suspicion remains that the response of the authorities was less an attempt to improve things for those that were already interested in the game, more an attempt to find other, better-off consumers. (And as Dave Boyle, former chief executive of Supporters Direct, pointed out on Twitter, a fair few football people did quite well out of the sudden need for plastic seats.) On the question of whether Britain still has a problem with the unthinking acceptance of uniformed untruths, we must defer to the families of Jean Charles de Menezes and Ian Tomlinson; on the question of whether Britain still has a profoundly troubling interlacing of politics, policing, and press, we must defer to David Cameron's horse.
The decision on whether fresh inquests will take place has been referred to the Attorney General, and the question of criminal proceedings remains. Apologies have come from all sides of the political spectrum and from the police. The truth is here; justice, hopefully, will follow. That's a matter of specifics and protocol, and is a process beginning far too late. For today, there are two competing sensations that arise.
On the one hand, today was the final and never-to-be-forgotten confirmation that 96 football fans, 96 people, 96 wholly innocent sons and daughters and brothers and sisters and lovers and friends, had their reputations traduced, their memories disgraced, their histories invaded and their names besmirched for no greater misdemeanour than dying in a manner that exposed the people charged with their care as being utterly and devastatingly incompetent.
On the other, today was a validation, of sorts. It shows that if you fight hard enough for something worth fighting for, and if you refuse to accept the scorn of those you know to be wrong, then you can drag the facts into the light. That it happened is a tragedy, that it took so long to get to where we are today is a travesty, but that a group of ordinary people can be made extraordinary by their desire to right a wrong, and can expose the self-interested and self-serving liars for what they are, is a victory of immense significance. It is a victory that we cannot help but respect, even as we acknowledge that it pales to nothing when set alongside the horror of both what happened, and what happened afterwards.
The last word goes to Margaret Aspinall, chair of the Hillsborough Families Support Group. "The 96 rest in peace for the first time."