That smoke has a name, and the name is prejudice. And when deployed in this way, it serves only to obscure the truth.
My Life In Horror Every month, I will write about a film, album, book or event that I consider horror, and that had a warping effect on my young mind. You will discover my definition of what constitutes horror is both eclectic and elastic. Don’t write in. Also, of necessity, much of this will be bullshit – as in, my best recollection of things that happened anywhere from 15 – 30 years ago. Sometimes I will revisit the source material contemporaneously, further compounding the potential bullshit factor. This is not history. This is not journalism. This is not a review. This is my life in horror.
A Tanked Up Mob
It was going to be something else. It was supposed to be something else. Sorry Alex. Sorry Jim. My Life In Horror does Film Gutter will have to wait.
Sorry to you too, dear reader. Not much light in this one. Some, but not much. Too sad. Too angry. Too tired.
I was ten years old when Hillsborough happened. Unlike some earlier and later tragedies, I don't have a vivid memory of the event itself. As I've previously mentioned, my family didn't turn the news off, so I'd have seen it, but I have no immediate memory of the day itself. What I do have is an association of a sense of dread with the name. The very word casts a shadow inside. That kid feeling of Something Bad. I knew Hillsborough was Something Bad. I knew that People Died. Were, in point of fact, crushed. The figure 96 hadn't registered. Nor had the whys and wherefores.
I didn't grow up in a football house. I'd nominally adopted Liverpool as my football team a few years before – the first televised football match I ever saw was Liverpool vs Barnsley, Liverpool won 2 nil, good enough for me – but truthfully I said that just so I had an answer to the question 'who do you support?'. I never voluntarily watched a match on TV, or even highlights after the news.
Hillsborough bled into the background horror of the news in the 80's – African famine, the miners’ strike, Challenger. Hillsborough. Another word indicating something dreadful, a horror that dropped out of a clear blue sky to kill people at a football match.
I didn't have a personal connection. I didn't lose anyone, nor did anyone in my family. I was aware of the campaign for justice, but I never engaged with it beyond a 'wow, The Sun have really ALWAYS been Scum, haven't they?' kind of a way. And, you know, I've read a lot of the recent coverage, and I'm not sure I have a single original observation to make – I'm not convinced that anything I'm about to write hasn't been said better, more clearly, by someone with more personal stake in this than me. But it's gone 1am on a Friday night at the end of a long week, and instead of sleeping, I'm not sleeping, because this fucking story is rattling around in my head.
So here we are.
It's the verdict, of course. 27 years later, the crime has finally been admitted to. Except that's not quite right, is it? More accurately, in a majority verdict, a coroner's jury has confirmed that 96 Liverpool supporters were unlawfully killed, and bore no culpability for their own demise.
And really, there's no point in me trying to rehash it. I'm just going to assume you know what happened, how it was denied, and the recent result. If you didn't, and you have twenty minutes, as good a concise summery as I can find can be read here: Hillsborough Disaster Deadly Mistakes And Lies That Lasted Decades. Be warned – it's heavy stuff.
No, what I've been trying to figure out is why this one has me so upset. Such a curious mixture of vindication, validation, and anger. Because, again, not my fucking fight, fundamentally. Not even close. So why this potent, nauseating cocktail that has me obsessively reading, tweeting, sharing, and finally blogging about an event that occurred in my childhood, and about which, in all truth, I basically haven't thought about in any depth until this week?
And by the way, I actively avoided opportunities to educate myself. That's worth noting. Jimmy McGovern, the man who wrote the greatest TV show of the 90's (Cracker) did a documentary in 1997 called Hillsborough. Starring Christopher Ecclestone, for fucks sake. And I ducked it. Didn't want it. Couldn't. Too scared. How is that possible? How was I too scared of a story I didn't know? What is that, exactly?
This week, suddenly I couldn't get enough. And in trying to make sense of why, okay, let's start here: I think it was Watergate that first spawned the saying 'It's not the scandal that gets you, it's the cover up'. And what is now crystal clear, a matter of historical record, is that there was a cover up here. This is not paranoid lefty bollocks. This is fact (The Truth, if you will). South Yorkshire Police engaged in a conspiracy to cover up negligence that led to the deaths of 96 people. This happened.
And the first thing to say is, yes, the police on the ground on the day fucked up. The man in charge didn't have the first clue what he was doing, having been transferred into the job two weeks prior (not his fault) and did absolutely nothing to acquaint himself with the grounds or the known issues with crowd control surrounding said grounds (absolutely his fault). It's worth remembering that the verdict also confirms that the design of the stadium itself was at fault, as was the city council that approved this public space for use. In other words, this was a disaster waiting to happen. It should not have been possible for a fuck up in crowd control by the police to lead to a lethal incident. And indeed, nowadays, it isn't. Lessons about football stadium design were learned. It really couldn't happen again today.
Nonetheless, it hadn't happened before at this ground (though there had been a couple of close calls in recent memory, at the '81 and '88 semi-final matches there, and there had been previous stadium disasters overseas – most infamously at Heysel, Brussels, in 1985, an incident that also involved Liverpool fans and a lethal crush. I’ll come back to Heysel, alas – it's vital context). And the reason it hadn't gotten lethal before at Hillsborough was that the officer in charge knew that the access to the pen area was dangerous, and put careful countermeasures in place to prevent disaster. In short, he did his fucking job.
On 15th April, 1989, the officer in charge spectacularly failed in that same job. He made literally fatal errors.
So far, so understandable. So inevitable, even, perhaps. Shitty stadium design plus dodgy health and safety certificate plus inexperienced officer in charge equals awful dreadful tragedy. It could have ended there. It should have ended there. Lessons learned, an end to that kind of stadium design, no more standing pens, and yeah, maybe an officer or two loses their job for incompetence. A city and nation mourns, and then we learn the lessons and life goes on.
Is should have ended there.
Instead, we had the cover up.
It started – and this is not an exaggeration or figure of speech, but a matter of historical record – before the bodies were even cold.
Can you even conceive of it? Try this on for size: at 3:15pm, fifteen minutes after the match was supposed to have kicked off, with the bodies of the dead and the dying still being pulled from the stands onto the pitch, while rank and file officers and swamped paramedics and members of the public ripped up advertising hoarding to make stretchers and frantically attempted CPR, the officer in charge was telling the secretary of the Football Association that drunken ticketless Liverpool fans had forced open an exit gate, and stormed the grounds, leading to the lethal crush. The only slight flaw with this story being that the fans all held valid tickets, and the officer himself had given the order to open the gate 23 minutes before.
Men, women and children were still dying, in circumstances and under conditions that are the equal of any horror the most callous author could dare conceive, and this officer was already putting in place the scaffolding for the Big Lie – a lie that would, in various mutated forms, haunt the victims families for 27 years.
That particular lie didn't last the day. Footage of enraged and distraught survivors waving intact tickets put paid to that. But in the meantime, with modification, the cover up gained pace. And The Big Lie morphed into it's most infamous form – a form, by the way, that is these days recognized as a ubiquitous and pernicious problem when it comes to criminal activity that people seek to excuse. I speak, of course, of victim blaming.
Because here's what happened next; to bolster the already crumbling story of the ticketless fans and the forced gate, the spin became that the fans were drunk. To try and verify this, officers were dispatched – and again, this happened literally before the bodies were cold – to photograph the litter bins and detritus that accumulated outside and in the pens, to look for empty alcohol containers (of which, as the surviving photos show, there were precious few). And how about this? The bodies of the victims were all taken to a nearby gymnasium, where blood samples were taken from the corpses to try and ascertain the level of alcohol consumption of the victims. One of the corpses so sampled was that of a ten year old boy. The bodies remained in the gym. Photographs were taken of the victims, and piles of these Polaroids were given to relatives, to sort through and identify missing loved ones. Those grieving relatives were then immediately questioned by officers about the alcohol consumption of the deceased.
This really happened.
There was a reason for all this. It wasn't random malice. It was an attempt to construct a counter narrative to the truth. It was a flagrant and calculated effort to cover up police incompetence that led to 96 deaths.
This really happened. In my lifetime, this really happened.
And this was all the set up for what would happen that evening. That evening, the local Conservative MP met with police officers who had been involved in the afternoon events. He was told by several officers that the fans were 'Pissed out of their minds', that supporters had 'pissed on' and punched police during the rescue operations. That 'it was booze what done it', that drunken louts had caused and exacerbated the tragedy. Oh, and that survivors had looted the bodies of the dead.
Yeah, you read that right.
We know that last claim is categorically false, by the way. We know, because the police meticulously inventoried the possessions of the deceased, as they must. I mean to say, they knew this was a lie when they were telling it..
Not crass enough for you? Missing that perfect hypocritical, too-gross-to-be-invented kicker? Here it comes: This briefing took place in a police bar, where officers were drinking to forget the terrible things they'd witnessed that day. I mean to say that the people telling lies about 'drunken louts' causing a disaster were not only telling lies in an organised conspiracy to blame the victims and cover up the real perpetrators in the force, but they were likely drunk while they did it.
A Tanked Up Mob, indeed.
This same briefing was given to government ministers and the Prime Minister the following day. And of course the press. This led The Sun to print a front page splash even more notorious in British publishing history than The Mail's Nazi-loving 'Hurrah for the Blackshirts' – listing the above fabrications as facts under the headline The Truth.
Does it still count as irony if it makes you want to burn things down? Anyway.
To cut an (incredibly) long story (obscenely) short, the lie stuck for 27 years, and then a coroner's jury ruled that the deaths were a result of criminal negligence, the end. Except that's bollocks, it’s not the end; and not just because there will almost certainly be criminal trials, after which some of the senior officers involved may well go to jail, and also maybe civil cases, but for at least two other reasons - the reasons I'm up so very far past my bedtime, hammering away at this poor keyboard.
Number one: This cover up happened. South Yorkshire police conspired to cover up negligence that resulted in 96 deaths. That's a fact. That's now a matter of historical record, not leftie paranoia, or anti-Tory or -Sun or -establishment propaganda. The verdict is unambiguous: The victims were not to blame.
Hold that thought. Now consider – the cover up started rolling before the bodies were even cold.
What does that suggest, to you? Because I'll tell you what it suggests to me. It suggests, rather strongly, that we're dealing with an institution with not just an instinct to cover up, but an instinctive understanding of how to cover up. Because the response to this disaster was quick, and decisive, and coordinated. Before the last corpse had been declared dead at the scene (let alone posthumously tested for blood alcohol levels), officers were putting in place the lie that, with modification, they would cling to for 27 years. That required coordination. That required officers at several layers of command to play ball – enough to in turn intimidate the rank and file sufficiently to ensure that the conspiracy of silence that all cover ups require to function would hold
You know what that tells me?
This was not South Yorkshire police's first rodeo. It almost can't have been.
And oh brothers and sisters, that scares the shit out of me.
Because it's one thing to suspect it. It's one thing to say, in a dry and intellectual way, 'well of course it was a different era, and I'm sure corners got cut and whatnot'. It's quite a different proposition to learn that, when you were growing up, a police force that was, now I think of it, my local cops when I was a young child, were all geared up to provide institutional cover-ups on incredibly short notice, should the body count require it. If that doesn't disturb you, I literally do not understand you as a human being. I may envy you, but I don't understand you at all.
And that leads us neatly to point number two: How in the hell did this stick? How can it possibly have taken 27 years to prove that such an obvious fabrication was a lie?
And here's where I have to drop into a brief digression concerning 80's era football hooliganism and the attendant tabloid moral panic. It's late and I'm drunk, so I will keep it brief.
UK football fans had a dreadful reputation in the 80's, mainly due to incidences of fan violence between rival club supporters. These cases were especially bad during international competitions, and at the worst such incident, in 1985 at Heysel stadium, Brussels, 39 fans were killed and 600 injured. The deaths occurred when the English supporters charged at a group of Italian fans across the stands. The Italian fans fled to a concrete wall, where the lethal crush occurred. The wall collapsed, and afterwards many tried to blame the deaths on that collapse. However, subsequent evidence has shown that the deaths occurred before the collapse of the wall, and indeed it's likely that the collapse saved lives.
In due course, 26 English supporters would stand trial for manslaughter in relation to their actions that day, and 14 would be convicted. The stadium management and governing bodies that oversaw the match would also in due course receive censure for their failures in safety that contributed to the disaster.
The impact on British football was tremendous. There was a blanket ban of five years on all English clubs, with a higher penalty for the club whose supporters had been directly involved. The British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, declared that “those responsible had brought shame and disgrace to their country.”
Margaret Thatcher was still prime minister when the Hillsborough disaster occurred.
And the English club that were playing Juventus on 29th May 1985 was, of course, Liverpool FC.
Do you see now? Do you understand how easy it was to stick The Lie? Because, of course, it’s Scouse football fans. What can you expect?
The Lie stuck because of gross stereotypes about football fans, Liverpudlians, and wider stereotypes about the working class and alcoholism. It stuck because there was just enough smoke, and the people in power were craven enough to exploit that smoke to cover up their own failings.
That smoke has a name, and the name is prejudice. And when deployed in this way, it serves only to obscure the truth.
And again, if that casual utilization of prejudice to protect the powerful at the expense of the innocent doesn't chill you to the bone, I'm not saying we can't be friends, but I don't understand you.
Because what happened was, lazy stereotypes about a particular class of people were effectively weaponized in order to a) implicate and criminalize blameless victims, and render them complicit in their own deaths and b) protect a criminally negligent establishment from the consequences of it's own failings.
The 80's was a different era. One of the many ways it was different from now is how much higher the tolerance was for humour and dialogue in general based on stereotypes. And, you know, there are still people who bemoan the end of that era. “Why doesn't anyone have a sense of humour any more?” “Why can't I call people an <offensive slur> any more? It's just a joke!” Above all, that. It's just a joke. Like all those jokes about Scousers. Hubcap thieves. Alcoholics. Hooligans. Pushy. Ignorant. Bad hair, bad teeth, bad manners. Promiscuous. Not too bright. Kind of stupid actually.
Stupid violent thieving drunkards.
Get it yet? Do you?
Because this is how it happens. EXACTLY how it happens. You start with 'harmless jokes', stereotypes, and to use a currently fashionable phrase, microaggressions. And it's harmless, right? Wassamatter, can't take a joke? Got no sense of humour?!?
But it sticks. It festers. It lingers. In the wider psyche, in the general population. Because here's The Truth, people – The Sun ran that headline, and it didn't go out of business. Outside of Merseyside (where the paper is to this day not read, and the name itself so offensive as to be censored by local press as The S*n, a fact that is to the eternal credit of the people and journalists of Liverpool) 'The Truth' was widely read, absorbed, and believed. Why? How? Because this vicious, disgusting lie fitted with a convenient pre-existing stereotype – that's why. I'm not one for the slippery slope argument, as a rule – truth to tell, I think it's most often used as a way of resisting essential change by extrapolating to some ridiculous extreme – but it's hard to deny a proof as visceral and clear as this. Indeed, it would feel obtuse to do so. This is where 'harmless' stereotyping leads – to convenient scapegoats when those in authority who have fucked up royally want to find someone to blame. I know, I know, reads like leftie bullshit. Well, fuck you bucko – it fucking happened. For real, in my country, in my lifetime, it fucking happened.
In my lifetime, a police force covered up what is now, as a matter of historical record and fact, negligence that lead to the unlawful deaths of 96 blameless citizens. And at least a part of how that lie stuck so firm for 27 years was this disgusting stereotype. “Oh well, you know, Scousers. No sense of humor. Can't let things go. Grievance culture. Still banging on about Hillsborough. Still don't buy The Sun. Hey, did you hear the one about when I parked my car in Liverpool?”
Tanked Up Yobs. That's how Bernard Ingham described the dead victims of police negligence. That was the stereotype that the families of the victims have fought against for 27 years, in the face of a hostile establishment and an apathetic public, extending to people like me who effectively said 'wow, that sounds sad/depressing' and changed the channel before I could be bummed out too much. And I mean, to those survivors, and to those families of survivors, some fucking writer I am, because I have no words. I can't comprehend the pain you have faced, have lived with, every day for 27 years. I cannot begin to imagine – or maybe I just don't want to – your incredulity, your outrage, at each setback, each official denial and lie, each miscarriage of justice, on your 27 year journey. I literally cannot conceive of what you have been through, and all I can do is salute your courage, your stubbornness, your indefatigability, in pursuing the cause of justice for the ones you lost.
Well, I can also say thank you. Thank you for not giving up. Thank you for not giving in. Thank you, for chasing this one all the way, for never letting the forces arrayed against you prevent you seeking justice for your loved ones. You have not just honoured their memory. You have not merely rescued their reputation from lies and deceit. You have cast light into darkness, exposed injustice, and set history straight. For that, I am and will remain grateful and humbled. You have rendered us all an incredible service. Not so much 'professional victims' as tireless campaigners for truth and justice. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
To everyone else; the next time that boring leftie friend gives you shit for some intemperate comment you make about some minority or religious or disabled group – any sentence you might think about uttering that includes the word ‘they’ or ‘them’, basically - , and you find yourself about to reply, verbally or perhaps only internally, with 'WTF dude? Don't you have a sense of humour?', please, please, think about this. Think about how thousands, millions of tiny jokes and off-hand comments, built, slowly but surely, a monument, a calcified statue that encased and marginalized and finally dehumanized real people, actual humans, people like you and me that just wanted to go and watch a football match. Then think about how, by cynically exploiting that stereotype, people in positions of power and authority managed to cover up negligence that led to the deaths of 96 ordinary citizens – men, women, children. A cover up that lasted 27 years.
Yeah, it couldn't have happened without a corrupt police force. True.
It also couldn't have happened without the stereotype.
Which of those two factors do you, personally, have control of?
Now, ask yourself if you'd want to have to wait – worse, not wait, fight, fight with everything you have, all your energy, money, focus, dedicated to this struggle - for 27 years, for justice for your wife. Your brother.