The Hillsborough Leak: Why Now, And By Whom?
The devil, as so often in these cases, is in the detail. While the reflex reaction to this weeks leaking of documents concerning the Hillsborough disaster of 1989 may be to focus on the word “drunk”, it may be more informative to focus on the use of the word “Merseyside”, in terms of which police force it was that was making unfounded claims with regard to the behaviour of Liverpool supporters in a broader sense. But who, after almost twenty-three years, would leak such information into the public domain and why? It’s a question that many will have wondered aloud over the last couple of days or so.
Labour MP Steve Rotherham, whose impassioned speech in the House of Commons last year was one of the defining moments in the long battle for justice, has his suspicions and is calling for an inquiry into how these documents came to be leaked, and the families of those that lost relatives that day will be asking much the same thing. Could it merely be a coincidence that a document featuring the word “drunk” was released into the public domain shortly after it was confirmed that the full report into the disaster, which should include the release of previously classified documents regarding what was being said at the top level of government in the immediate aftermath of that days events?
The use of alcohol as a tool with which the dead could somehow be found to be to blame for their own deaths us hardly a new one. One of the more familiar tropes of the immediate aftermath of the disaster was that this was the case, a line pushed vigorously by certain tabloid newspapers who, twenty-three years on, retain their pariah status in the city. This was largely dubunked in The Taylor Report, which dismissed alcohol as having been a significant cause behind the disaster , but this particular myth has been a particularly pernicious one, all tying into an idea that somehow those killed that day “deserved” their fate.
If the documents released do cast a light on a role played by the Merseyside Police into what many regard as a deliberate policy of misinformation to slur the dead, then it does shine a new light upon the case, although not necessarily in the way that those releasing them may wish. It should come as no great surprise to us that the police may always be inclined to stick together in such cases, but he spread of malicious rumour from South Yorkshire to Merseyside is a curiosity, to say the least. Merseyside Police will have had people involved in the case, but their involvement on the day of the disaster would have been minimal, to say the least. This paperwork may well have found its way to the Prime Minister’s desk in 1989, but how reliable was it and why has it taken until 2012 for it to be leaked ino the public domain?
It may also be instructive to consider the paperwork apparently initialled by then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, in which the phrase “drunken Liverpool fans” is underlined several times over. We can only consider this in the perspective of the prevailing attitude towards football supporters at the time. The hostility of the government towards football supporters at the time is common enough knowledge. That one document should include this one particularly emotive phrase may even turn out to be demonstrative of an establishment that sought to blame supporters for their own deaths – with the assistance of two police forces and the tame media – from not very long after the event and prior to the official inquiry.
Considering everything that has happened in the past, that people should be seeing a conspiracy over the aftermath of the Hillsborough disaster is far from surprising. Much as those that would seek to disparage Liverpudlians as being somehow “not like the rest of us”, so were football supporters treated during the 1980s. We were not part of society, but somehow separate from it. Consider, for example, the late Kenneth Oxford, the Merseyside chief constable who was, “uneasy about the way in which Anfield was being turned into a shrine.” It’s a comfortable illusion, because it gives the rest of society a warm glow of the opinion that crowd trouble at football matches – and there was a lot of it during the 1980s – wasn’t society’s problem, much as much of the rest of Britain could pretend that the social problems of cities such as Liverpool weren’t or aren’t our fault either. It’s nonsense, of course – as one FA member succinctly put it to Thatcher during the 1980s, “Madam, when are you going to get your hooligans out of our football grounds?”
It seems likely that there will be considerable heartache for the families of those that died at Hillsborough yet. Closure doesn’t necessarily come easy, and there may be many more insensitive, inconsiderate, pig ignorant and insulting words still to be revealed when the full papers relating to this tragedy are laid bare. When this time comes, the only way in which it can be treated is with sensitivity, tact and absolute transparency, and this transparency has always been notable only by its absence from official dealings over the aftermatch of English football’s worst tragedy. That someone should see fit to leak emotive and confidential paperwork to the press so early in this process is unlikely to fill many with people with a great deal of confidence that this will happen.
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