Saturday, September 15, 2012

Hillsborough: The apology still missing

After more than 25 years in journalism, much of it spent covering the political arena, there is little that surprises me any more about the lengths to which some people will go in order to preserve their power, position or reputation.

But in the week that the truth about the 1989 Hillsborough football disaster was finally and dramatically laid bare, even an ageing cynic like me has to confess to being shocked by the sheer scale of deception and disinformation involved.

Of course bad apples can crop up in any organisations, and sometimes, as in the case of the West Midlands Crime Squad in the 1970s or, dare I say it, News International in the past decade, this can extend into institutional corruption.

But the fact that so many pillars of the establishment, from the police, to the ambulance service, the coroners’ service, the judiciary, the government and, yes, the media could somehow collude to deny justice for so long almost – but not quite - beggars belief.

Looking back at that old footage of the disaster, it seems in many ways to have happened in another country, a Britain where football was still a working-class game and where the North-South divide was as much a cultural phenomenon as an economic one.

As Labour MP Andy Burnham put it: “There was an 'us and them' culture in the 1980s where people seen as being troublemakers could just be treated as second class citizens - football supporters, people taking industrial action. That was very evident in the North of England when I grew up."

Some believe it couldn’t happen again, that in the age of email, mobile phones and Twitter a cover-up on this scale would be impossible to carry out even if it were to be attempted.

Yet the battle to get at the truth of what happened in more recent tragedies such as the deaths of Dr David Kelly, Jean Charles de Menezes and Ian Tomlinson suggest that perhaps the country has not changed quite as much as might first appear.

If Hillsborough has been a saga that has showed the best and worst of humanity – and there are many heroes to stand alongside the obvious villains - then it has certainly also demonstrated the best and worst of British journalism.

South Yorkshire Police’s deliberate campaign of misinformation found a ready outlet in The Sun, whose then editor was this week forced, to use his own immortal phrase, to empty a bucket of something very nasty over his own head.

Not surprisingly, it was the regional press which demonstrated that journalism can be a potent force for good as well as harm.

It was The Journal’s sister title the Liverpool Echo which, as Labour leader Ed Miliband acknowledged on Wednesday, was primarily responsible for keeping the issue on the political agenda during the long 23-year fight.

But amid all the relief of the campaigners at having finally prevailed, there is, however, one aspect of the truth that is still to come out – the role of Margaret Thatcher.

The documents released this week by the independent inquiry panel make clear that the then Prime Minister was briefed by her aides over the level of deceit by South Yorkshire Police - yet she chose to do nothing.

Is it possible she may have felt she owed them one for helping her win the Battle of Orgreave in 1984 – a decisive encounter in the year-long conflict which ultimately led to the rout of Arthur Scargill’s miners?

She certainly cannot have been expected to show any instinctive sympathy for the victims, having previously been on record as linking football fans to the IRA and the miners as ‘the enemy within.’

In the midst of delivering his “profound apology” to the victims’ families this week on the nation’s behalf, the current Prime Minister David Cameron maintained that the Thatcher government had done nothing wrong.

Well, he had to say that, given the continued emotional hold that the Iron Lady retains over the party which he now rather precariously leads.

But it is nevertheless odd that in the week that has seen everyone from Kelvin Mackenzie to the Football Association to Boris Johnson forced to swallow a large slice of humble pie, there is still one apology missing.

From the woman who sat at the apogee of that complex, interwoven 1980s establishment, there remains an eerie silence.

1 comment:

Stephen Rouse said...

Well said Paul. This has struck me as the elephant in the room throughout all this week's coverage.