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Tuesday, April 26, 2016 

The bitterest of ironies.

The findings at the Hillsborough inquest are a landmark in many respects.  The 9 members of the jury who attended the hearings for that period of time deserve some kind of special recognition for their service, not least when so many aspects of the events of the 15th of April 1989 in one corner of Sheffield were and remain so harrowing.  That the crush both outside the ground and then in the Leppings Lane end of Hillsborough were captured by cameras that didn't stop rolling, providing a vital document of the events, helped to ensure that after 27 years, justice is at last in reach for the 96 who died that day.

It still isn't guaranteed, however.  Yes, today's verdict of unlawful killing for every single one of the 96, and the further finding that Liverpool fans' behaviour did not in any way contribute to the disaster is a further vindication of the at times lonely campaign fought by the Hillsborough Family Support Group and others.  It does not automatically follow though that charges will be brought against organisations, or especially individuals, despite the Crown Prosecution Service's statement that prosecutions will be considered once Operation Resolve and the Independent Police Complaints Commission's renewed inquiry are completed.  Even if prosecutions are given the go ahead, it's extraordinarily rare for juries to find against the police in criminal cases, where beyond reasonable doubt is the standard as opposed to on the balance of probabilities.  It's one thing for a jury to state someone was unlawful killed; to find an individual or group responsible for manslaughter is something else entirely.

That it has taken 27 years, multiple inquiries and a second two-year long inquest to reach the point where all blame has finally been lifted from the victims in itself needs to be quantified.  Some will say today should not be the day for recriminations, and instead be purely about justice finally being in sight, but that is to ignore why it has taken this long in the first place.  As stated above, this was a tragedy that was captured from multiple angles, that was broadcast live on TV and radio, that was reviewed that night in depth on Match of the Day.  Photographers expecting to record an FA Cup semi-final instead turned their cameras on the crowd, many of the shots of the death throes and agony of those caught in the crush far too distressing to ever be published.  If there had been behaviour like that subsequently claimed by South Yorkshire police, the local Tory MP and most notably, the Sun, then it would have been captured.  That it wasn't didn't stop the myth of "tanked up mobs" being responsible from becoming accepted.

For why you have to look at how football was regarded and fans treated in the late 80s.  Hooliganism might have already been in decline, but that didn't prevent the Thatcher government from wanting to introduce an ID card scheme for supporters, such was the contempt they were subject to.  It's not an exaggeration to say fans were seen as another part of the "enemy within", and SYP had shown how they were to be dealt with at Orgreave.  The ban from Europe that followed the Heysel disaster was a national embarrassment, the blame for which could only be laid on Liverpool.  That it was the same club involved again couldn't possibly be a coincidence.

When SYP then set out to lay the blame squarely on the fans and on Liverpool, a process that began within minutes of the unfolding disaster with chief superintendent David Duckenfield telling FA chief executive Graham Kelly that fans had forced the gate he had ordered be opened, they knew what they were doing.  The media (and the public, too) tend to believe the word of the police over other eyewitnesses at the best of times; combined with all these other factors, it was hardly surprising the tabloids reprinted the most reprehensible, despicable of lies as supplied to them by the Whites agency, sourced from Conservative MP Irvine Patnick, who was in the police Niagara club the night of the disaster, and heard "the truth" from senior officers including Inspector Gordon Sykes.

Not surprising, but still a fundamental betrayal of their duty as journalists.  The same editors who reprinted the claims of fans urinating on and beating police officers trying to save lives, as well as robbing the dead were the ones who reviewed the thousands of photographs sent in of the disaster.  They would have watched the reports of the disaster, perhaps seen that night's Match of the Day, which showed extended footage of events as they played out, where Des Lynam, who had at Hillsborough that afternoon repeatedly said there had been no violence involved, where Jimmy Hill said there was no hooliganism involved whatsoever.  They would have carried the reports of the fans on what happened, none of whom made such claims, who in the main were already blaming the gate being opened and everyone rushing in as a result, although at that point it was unclear if all who had done so had tickets.  The other papers that published the claims quickly retracted them, not least because of the anger and incomprehension in Liverpool at what was being said.

The Sun was the exception.  It doubled down.  Editor Kelvin MacKenzie never apologised unless forced to by the courts or Murdoch.  The day after it splashed with "THE TRUTH", it led with "THE TRUTH HURTS", a front page editorial defending its report, not backing down for a second.  For all these years later for not just MacKenzie, but Trevor Kavanagh to still not be taking any responsibility, putting all the blame on what they were told, rather than doing the absolute minimum expected of journalists which is to be sceptical, to check sources again and again, speaks of how they still don't accept they did anything wrong.  The media as a whole helped spread the lies, helped the SYP to carry on blaming the fans, laid the ground that allowed the first coroner Dr Stefan Popper to turn the first inquests into a charade where the SYP disputed the interim findings of Lord Justice Taylor's report, which had exonerated Liverpool.

It comes back fundamentally, as Flying Rodent writes, to where football and its supporters still were in 1989.  In the eyes of many, both inside and outside of the game, they were fit only to be caged.  Not only did the players have to be protected from them, but so did the general public also.  Not all big grounds had such fences penning in supporters preventing them from easily escaping if such a crush developed, but the one chosen for a showcase event, an FA Cup semi-final, did.  Had those fences not been there, had there been more gates which could have been opened, if the cages had been easier to break down, then fewer if any of the 96 would have died as a result of the other catastrophic mistakes made by the SYP.

It comes back to contempt.  Contempt from the government, contempt from the media, contempt from a public that puts its trust in authority when asked to chose between those depicted as among the lowest in society.  It was only coincidence that it was Liverpool, which made it even easier, when it could have been any club in that semi-final.  It could have been Nottingham Forest's fans in the Leppings Lane end had the decision over which side of the ground to allocate to whom gone differently.

There is of course a coda to all this, and not just that finally, a form justice looks like it will be done.  We all know what happened partially as a result of Hillsborough, partially as a result of England's performance the following summer in Italy, partially to where the game was already beginning to head.  The Premier League.  Sky.  Enormous amounts of money, massive amounts of hype, ambition never really properly fulfilled.  The obscene irony that it was football that saved Rupert Murdoch after he had pumped so much of his money into satellite, when it had been his flagship paper that had so cruelly and unforgivably slandered a club and its mourning, traumatised fans, by extension a whole city, by extension an entire game.  That it took that paper until 2004 to make a proper apology, that today it refuses to comment, that it has never and will never make amends for its reporting on a disaster and yet still prospers, as its owner prospers, is the bitterest of ironies.

A disaster on the scale of Hillsborough might never happen again, but is the contempt still there, is the potential for blaming the victims still there, is the ability of those in power to try their hardest to prevent justice being done still there?  It's never gone away.

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I wouldn't be surprised if Mackenzie was looking for both a lawyer and a new job by this time tomorrow. Surely even Murdoch thinks he's too toxic now to keep employing. Of course, for him to be writing for The Sun at any point after that rag apologised is a clear spit in the face of the victims. But then would you expect anything less?

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