The Hillsborough Denier
“Tony from Hanwell” was weird from the get-go during the BBC Radio London Early Breakfast Show’s Wednesday discussion on the Hillsborough verdict. “Do you like my voice?” he asked relentlessly good-natured presenter Nikki Bedi. “Croaky…deep…baritone…” he continued. And creepy though this opening gambit was, it was by some distance the highpoint of his contribution. I once heard the phrase “my freedom to swing my arm ends just before the end of your nose.” I believe in an equivalent limit on freedom of speech and Tony exceeded that limit. “Everybody’s entitled to an opinion,” Bedi said when Tony left the airwaves. But she sounded shocked enough by Tony’s words to doubt whether he was entitled to his opinion on Hillsborough.
Tony is either a hideously insensitive wind-up merchant or, and I can find no more sensitive way to put it, a “Hillsborough denier.” If there were any lifelong members of the Flat Earth Society listening, I could imagine them screaming “you can’t ignore the evidence” at him. “I’m no fan of Kelvin Mackenzie or the Sun newspaper,” Tony began, like someone who has surely been “no racist, but…” before. “But I think he was wrong to apologise. He should have stuck to his guns.” This was about the “Truth” headline on the April 19th 1989 front page of the Sun newspaper (the day the death toll reached 95), the police-sourced beginning of concerted attempts to blame Liverpool fans, including the dead themselves, for the deaths.
Briefly, Tony made the basis of a reasoned point about police “mistakes” in “a highly-pressurised situation,” although this was only a reasoned point about police chiefs on the day. But (here it comes) “the Liverpool fans behaved like beasts, they brought it on themselves.” Bedi, excusably, did not appear to grasp what Tony had said and she pursued his Mackenzie angle, exclaiming: “You can’t stick to your guns as the editor of a paper that’s published lies and you’ve been found out.” Checkmate, you would have thought. But you would have been mistaken. “They weren’t lies,” Tony replied, as if the story upon which he had phoned in to comment had passed him by completely, along with the findings of the Hillsborough Independent Panel which reported in 2012, having had access to nearly half-a-million pages of material.
And how did Tony know they weren’t lies? “I saw it on the television. I saw the way they were behaving, they were disgusting. They rampaged the place, the police couldn’t hold them.” He didn’t have time to clarify what television pictures he saw, or why they were evidently not among the “mass of television and CCTV coverage” the panel reported as being “disclosed to” it. “So you have no sympathy for these families, Tony? Because it doesn’t sound like you do,” asked a by-now despairing Bedi, probably wishing she had one second rather than one minute left until “Kate Kinsella with the weather.” “No,” Tony said, haughtily and predictably in equal measure. “No sympathy at all. I’m sorry.”
Surely echoing the thoughts of everyone listening, Bedi said: “Well, I don’t think you’re sorry.” She then cited everybody’s entitlement to an opinion, adding: “I expect our phones will be ringing off the hook now as a reaction to your…yep…there they go.” And, with an admirable tolerance and respect miles beyond the call of duty, she thanked Tony “for picking up the phone.” Ken Livingstone, who stirred up an anti-semitic hornets’ nest with his comments to Vanessa Feltz on Radio London just two-and-a-half hours later, picked the wrong show.
Other, better, writers have run verbal lanes through Tony’s one-dimensional arguments, not least by highlighting that the late Lord Justice Taylor rejected them in August 1989 and that in October 2014, at the inquest, South Yorkshire Police inspector George Sykes acknowledged the severest allegations on the infamous Sun front page as false. And I am not about to try to improve on those insights. However, part of me wishes I could understand Tony’s mentality, very publicly holding views so at odds with available reality. Another part of me is glad that I don’t understand such a mentality, in case I could wholly or in part justify it or, worse, have it.
I can imagine Tony citing “political correctness,” or variants thereof, to explain the inquest jury unanimously ruling that there was “no behaviour on the part of football supporters which caused or contributed” or even “may have” caused or contributed “to the dangerous situation at the Leppings Lane turnstiles” (the second question, and key, ruling on the subject, which legally destroys Tony’s entire argument). He and others of his persuasion on this topic may believe that a “prevailing mood” contributed to this week’s verdicts and the sense of inevitability which surrounded them, at least among observers from any distance. Just as a “prevailing mood” allowed the South Yorkshire Police version of events to gain such traction in 1989 and for many years afterwards.
The Panel’s verdict certainly pointed strongly in the direction of this week’s rulings. There was no outward surprise amid the celebratory first reactions to the verdict. And I’m guessing Tony wasn’t caught unawares either. He and his cohorts may point to reports of David Duckenfield, the matchday police commander at Hillsborough, being “steadily worn down, surrendering slowly into a crumpled heap” during his spell in the inquest witness box, as if the pressure placed upon him was entering forced confession territory. And these were words from the Guardian newspaper’s David Conn, perhaps the major journalistic champion of the Hillsborough families’ cause.
Some may even level the accusation of playing on emotions at those who were thinking, as I was, of ten year-old victim Jon-Paul Gilhooley and his parents and family when Tony was branding the 96 “beasts” and rejecting the concept of sympathy for the families (Bedi refused to use the word “beasts” when summarising his comments later in the show). This, however, is pure guesswork and speculation, based on hearing him for two minutes at twenty past six on a miserably cold April morning, ten minutes after I woke up. Maybe, if Kate Kinsella could have waited a little longer before talking about scraping frosts off car windows, Tony could have offered a wider perspective and context for his views. Mind you, only Bedi’s good nature, which was to her credit, allowed him to say as much as he said. And thanking him for calling was perhaps a touch too polite, even for the BBC.
I feel a little clearer, though, as to where Tony’s freedom of speech ended. Because there are now no groups better informed about the events of April 15th 1989 than the 2012 independent panel and, most vitally, the inquest jury themselves. The faith that so many of us have in their verdicts is predicated upon that fact. When, and only when, Tony and his ilk become that well-informed are they entitled to the freedom to express such strong, damning views of the dead of Hillsborough and those who mourn. And I’m sure that once they have that freedom they will know how badly wrong Tony was last Wednesday morning, unless Tony and other “Hillsborough deniers” really are beyond salvation as rational humans.