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The last twenty-four hours or so have been rapidly evolving series of watershed moments for the perception of the Hillsborough disaster of 1989. The last cobwebs of doubt have been swept away from the naysayers, and those that might have sought to place the blame for events of that day on anybody other than those that were supposed to be in charge of safety that day. In addition to this, we have had the full extent of the conspiracy to cover it up laid bare in front of us. To use the word “conspiracy” calls to mind those cranks who believe that the FBI was behind 9/11 or that Frank Sinatra carried out the murder of John F Kennedy, but it seems appropriate to use it in this case. Instruments of the state – an MP, government supporting media and the police – co-ordinated a smear campaign against the deceased in a disaster to cover up the shortcomings of those responsible for what happened.
So, over the last twenty-four hours there have been apologies. The Prime Minister, after his apology for Bloody Sunday a couple of years ago, is now well-versed in what needs to be said in such situations, but he apparently couldn’t resist the temptation to remind all listening just how much the police have changed, and to subsequently remind us of this several times over. Those who have, over the years, followed the cases of Ian Tomlinson, Jean Charles de Menezes and Mark Duggan may beg to differ with him on this matter, but overall the tone of parliament this time yesterday was at least one of contrition. The problem with acts of contrition, however, is that this is all that they amount to. Anybody can apologise. Words, as any good PR man will tell you, are free of charge. What matters is whether those doing the apologising actually mean what they say and what happens after the words of regret run dry.
Early yesterday afternoon, much was being made on social media on the subject of what Kelvin MacKenzie might be making of it all. The abhorrent MacKenzie, after all, had run the original story smearing Liverpool supporters in The Sun, and later retracted an apology that he had made, claiming that Rupert Murdoch had forced him to do it. In spite of the overwhelming evidence against it all, he was still repeating his lies as recently as last year (four minutes into this video), so what, exactly, is his apology now worth? Trevor Hicks, the Hillsborough campaigner who has come to be one of the public faces of the ongoing campaign for the truth and justice to be recognised with regard to this disaster, dismissed his words, stating that they were “too little, too late” and describing him as “low life, clever low life, but low life”. MacKenzie has, in recent years, maintained a high public profile as a rent-a-mouth on political television programming in this country. Perhaps those broadcasters that have continued to offer him gainful employment will reconsider doing so in the future.
Another much-anticipated apology came from The Sun newspaper. News International has had an uncomfortable couple of years, with the phone hacking scandal culminating in criminal charges being brought against some its senior executives, but the newspaper that has largely been boycotted on Merseyside since 1989 could only manage “The Real Truth” as its front page headline this morning and a mealy-mouthed apology which used the right words in the right order without ever sounding fully convincing. Unfortunately for that newspaper, the truth of the matter is that the very fact that it has taken twenty-three years for the apology to come means that many will never accept it in a generous spirit, and they have only themselves to blame for this. To an extent, however, The Sun is a victim of its own unpopularity in this respect. The Daily Star and The Daily Express – who both also ran the story fed by the police at the time – have both, broadly speaking, avoided the opprobrium heaped upon The Sun in recent years, and have continued to do so over the last twenty-four hours or so.
Then this morning the Football Association, whose culpability in the Hillsborough disaster has, perhaps, been understated in comparison with that of the press and the South Yorkshire Police, also seemed overlooked in recent years. It bears repeating that the Hillsborough disaster took place during an FA Cup semi-final, at a venue selected by the FA. It was the FA which sanctioned the use of Hillsborough after an incident during the 1981 FA Cup semi-final between Tottenham Hotspur and Wolverhampton Wanderers which might easily have ended with a loss of life. It was the FA who, after a pitch invasion at the end of the 1984 FA Cup semi-final between Everton and Southampton, barred Highbury from being used for FA Cup semi-finals because the Arsenal board refused to put fences up around the pitch there. It was the FA who ignored Liverpools complaints over the ticketing arrangements for the 1988 FA Cup semi-final Hillsborough, and who allowed FA Cup semi-final matches to be played at a stadium without a valid safety certificate in 1987, 1988 and 1989. By 1989, Hillsboroughs safety certificate was ten years out of date. There has even been conjecture that people very close to some of those at the top of the FA profiteered from the sale of plastic seats following The Taylor Report into the tragedy, which recommended all-seater stadia in the future.
The FAs apology, therefore, might have reasonably expected to be a fulsome one. Yesterday, however… nothing. Indeed, some complained of insensitivity as whoever runs the organisations official Twitter feed continued posting messages about the previous evenings England match after the findings of the Hillsborough Independent Panel were published. This morning, however, an official statement was released and it was… wholly unsatisfactory. Dave Boyle takes the statement to pieces here and we strongly recommend that you read it, but it is worth pointing out that, for all their positioning at the centre of what went wrong on the day of Hillsborough, there was no apology in their initial statement and that, when they went back to add one later on, they didn’t even take the time to make it clear what exactly they were apologising for.
And herein lays the big lie about apologising. Merely saying that you’re sorry isn’t enough. Having a track history of apologising, retracting said apology when convenient and then apologising again when the heat is turned up a notch is not an apology worthy of the name. Finally printing an apology, written by an editor not even employed by the newspaper concerned at the time of what was written, twenty-three years later and having had the chance to do so every single day in the mean time is not an apology worthy of the name. Not putting an apology in an official statement, then going back and adding one a few hours later and not even saying what you’re apologising for is not an apology worthy of the name. This, however, is what we have seen over the course of the last twenty-four hours from Kelvin MacKenzine, The Sun and the Football Association, and it should come as little surprise that few people seem to be being taken in by it. Perhaps MacKenzie and The Sun are past redemption. For the FA, though, a little less focus on the needs an best interests of supporters and a little less on kowtowing to television companies and corporate sponsors might be a start, if a complete, top to tail restructuring of the organisation is out of the question.
This is the reason why the attention over Hillsborough must move from the truth and apologies to restitution and justice as quickly as possible. With a groundswell of support starting to build around the idea of criminal prosecutions for those who were directly involved in the deaths of the ninety-six and those who were involved in covering up the truth for such a long time. It is hoped that justice is done rather than merely being seen to be done, and that those responsible are to brought to account for their decisions and behaviour. It is the absolute least that those that have been tormented by this unnecessary waste of life deserve, as well, of course, of those that died on the fifteenth of April 1989. With the truth now known beyond any doubt and the apologies coming thick and fast, we must now move on to justice for the Hillsborough ninety-six.
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Ian began writing Twohundredpercent in May 2006. He lives in Brighton. He has also written for, amongst others, Pitch Invasion, FC Business Magazine, The Score, When Saturday Comes, Stand Against Modern Football and The Football Supporter. Ian was the first winner of the Socrates Award For Not Being Dead Yet at the 2010 NOPA awards for football bloggers.
Excellent analysis, although I think what differentiated The Sun from other papers in their original reporting of the story, was that they chose to print the police lies wholesale, first-person and starkly presented as “the truth” (apparently against the wishes of the reporter filing the copy, who was overruled by McKenzie). Whereas at least The Star, Express, Mirror et al attributed the stories to “police sources”.