That it never should have taken this long is an enormous platitude. That the friends and families of the 96 men, women and children who died at Hillsborough in April 1989 should not have had to wait 23 years for the lies and the cover-up which degraded the memories of their loved ones to be dismissed and uncovered is an obvious truth. And yet they did. As a result, the utterance of platitudes is not redundant. Really, as David Cameron’s well-regarded speech yesterday acknowledged, it is the only appropriate response in the face of such a monstrous demonization and betrayal.
Or, rather, it is the only appropriate immediate response. And only for most of us. Some of yesterday’s apologists, most notably former Sun editor Kelvin MacKenzie, are considerably behind ‘appropriateness’ in the timeframe. While yesterday’s report was astonishing in revealing to a public audience the incredible scale of the institutional cover-up, the lies printed in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy have long been debunked. Eyewitness accounts were suppressed at the time, but they didn’t go away.
Professor Phil Scraton’s book Hillsborough – The Truth has been available since 1999. Boris Johnson apologized yesterday for a column* that appeared on his editorial watch in The Spectator which referred to "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 city of Liverpool, of course, was right to refute this spurious accusation. Yesterday’s report proved that, but everyone knew that it was a lie even then. Michael Howard, Boris Johnson’s then boss, sent him to Liverpool to apologize. That was in 2004.
*Despite what this link implies, the offending (and offensive) piece was not written by Johnson but by current Daily Mail columnist Simon Heffer.
We may have only learned the extent of the cover-up and the complicity of the police yesterday, but the falsity of the allegations had been argued for and in most cases accepted for much longer. So why has it taken MacKenzie so long to apologize? Why did the Sun only acknowledge that its "truth" was a lie yesterday?
The Times football editor, Tony Evans, a Liverpool fan who was at Hillsborough, wrote yesterday that "My eye-witness version – with its broken and twisted limbs and young people dying in the sunshine – was discounted as Scouse revisionism". That’s the answer. Alongside institutional protectionism, football factionalism allowed this to happen. From the beginning, the Sun made Hillsborough a story about "Liverpool" a city that, in the late ‘80s, had its own narrative (we now know, for example, that then chancellor Sir Geoffrey Howe argued for the city’s "managed decline" in 1981). It was accepted as such and has been ever since. Overt examples are the songs about Hillsborough, which current Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers has asked be forgotten, but there has been a tacit acceptance throughout football and throughout the country.
We left the 96 to get on with it; we let it be a regional issue when it wasn’t. We accepted the terms of the Sun’s fallacious position even if we rejected its "truth". We allowed 23 years of injustice to pass.
Saying that this shouldn’t have happened is not the disingenuous apology of MacKenzie, but it is a platitude and should be acknowledged as such. We were, implicitly, complicit and pretending otherwise is disingenuous too. So we should say that this never should have happened. And we should move on, together, to ensure that this sort of divide and conquer cover-up is not allowed to happen again.
In October of last year, I wrote that the enquiry was a triumph of disappearing regionalism. It shouldn’t have had to be and tomorrow can be the triumph of a new togetherness. The 96 victims whose bodies were violated and memories denigrated were not just Liverpool fans; they were football fans. And that should be remembered tomorrow. That which ties us together is stronger than that which tears us apart and the immense achievement of the families and friends of the 96 in ensuring that the real truth about their family tragedies be revealed benefits all of us. We have to show them that we deserve it: we can all do justice to the 96.