The inquest into the Hillsborough Tragedy reported yesterday.
To say that it has been long-awaited would be an understatement: 27 years have elapsed since the deaths of 96 people, crushed to death at the 1989 FA Cup semi-final at Sheffield Wednesday’s Hillsborough stadium.
The emphasis of much of the media reporting has been on the exoneration of the Liverpool supporters though in reality the myth that fans were the cause of the tragedy was exploded long ago. Rather the judgement that the police were criminally negligent for what happened that day is certainly the most important takeaway from yesterday’s announcement.
It is not within the purview of this blog to deal with the whole range of police failings that led to the inquest’s conclusion. Rather I would like to explore one line of thought that could not realistically be expected from that kind of judgement but is nevertheless very important for an understanding of how such events can occur.
I should briefly like to explore, not what the police did wrong 27 years ago which is now well-documented, but why they did it. What were their motivations, conscious or otherwise?
The Hillsborough disaster can never be fully understood ouside of it’s cultural backdrop. We live in days when football (I know the blog has a sizable American contingent whom from this point onwards should read the word “soccer”) is feted by the great and the good. Politicians queue up to deliver their verdict on the latest footballing triumph at either national or club level. In short football in our day has kudos.
It was not always so however. There was a time when football was considered a dirty word amongst the ruling elites and not without good reason. All through the 1970s and 1980s English football was plagued with hooliganism, partly due to infiltration by far-right organisations, but other times just fuelled by too much alcohol and the laddish conception of what constitutes fun.
Reports of thuggish violence inside and outside football grounds were the staple diet of newspaper editors for many years. The culmination was in the Heysel stadium disaster at the European Cup Final in 1985 where Liverpool & Juventus fans clashed and - with the assistance of a collapsed wall - 39 people, mostly Italians, lost their lives.
Those were dark days for football especially in this country and it is a tribute to all of those who worked hard to eradicate the scourge of hooliganism that they seem so long ago now.
But we see that violence had been part of the footballing narrative for many years prior to Hillsborough and policing at the time operated in accordance with that narrative. Understanding this is a vital component to understanding the disaster itself.
Given this social background, it seems to me that whatever other police failings there were that day (and we know there were many) we can say that one catastrophic failing was South Yorkshire Police’s almost instinctive misreading of what was actually taking place.
As thousands of people funnelled into far too small a space at the Leppings Lane End of the ground, fans began to try and escape the congestion by clambering over the fences that were designed to prevent the pitch invasions seen so often in past years.
At this point, senior SYP figures present seem to have operated according to a simple equation: fans climbing fences = football hooliganism. Further reasoning (if we can dignify this thought-process with that term), would have observed that this was Liverpool, and that Liverpool meant Heysel. QED.
It was this tragic equation that led senior police officers to instinctively treat the fans as troublemakers rather than those actually in trouble. Instead of seeing victims, the police saw villains.
Nor were they alone.
“I’m afraid there are people on the pitch.” reported one correspondent of the unfolding scene. Now later he would be in a position to know that it was actually a good thing that those people were on the pitch - rather than dying in those packed cages - but the note of regret expressed in that comment signals to us a correspondent operating according to the same presuppositions as were the police: fans on the pitch must mean hooliganism.
Even watching the drama live on the television I can recall an initial sinking feeling at that early stage that the club I loved was seemingly being disgraced by hooliganism again. This then was the prevailing paradigm which meant that dozens of desperately-needed ambulances were actually on the scene at Hillsborough but parked up outside the ground awaiting police approval to enter, held back due to perceived “crowd trouble.”
It has been conclusively shown that the tragic misreading of the situation by SYP cost many lives that day. The police expected Liverpool fans to behave in a certain way, and when the first supporter clambered over the fence they were not disappointed.
It is important to say that not all the actions of police officers that day fall into the category of error or misreading. We know that outright lies were told by officers, and thus the disgraceful slurs that circulated in certain tabloid outlets the next day came with a level of police respectability that they did not deserve. It has taken these many years to clear fully the reputations of innocent fans from these slurs.
But these slanders could thrive because of the atmosphere of the time that was so heavily poisoned against the football fan. And it was that atmosphere that prompted the police’s analysis of events.
That assessment was not made in a vacuum, rather it was the outcome of cultural conditioning over many years. That conditioning gave the police - and others -a hugely distorted perspective of what was taking place and they were unable- or at least unwilling- to see past it. They were programmed by the prevailing meme of football hooliganism to respond in a certain way and they duly did.
Now this does not represent some kind of exoneration, for professional police officers ought to be able to calmly and objectively assess what is actually taking place, rather than leap to immediate conclusions based on a preconceived narrative. That they failed to do so is one reason for their culpability.
But it shows us shows us how easily people will jump to conclusions that fit with a worldview that has been fed to them over many years. This is a phenomenon that has been observed throughout history.
When folks in the Middle Ages descended upon the local Jewish quarter armed with torches and pitchforks it was because that they had been fed a narrative (blood-libel etc) for so many years that every little incident became an excuse to blame the Jews.
Every now and then some Jew was bound to actually do something that could (however tenuously) be interpreted in line with the narrative, and when he did no one was surprised. It was what we had always expected of those sorts of people.
In Rwanda one side (the Hutu) had imbibed propaganda about the other (the Tutsi) for so many years that it had produced a febrile atmosphere of mistrust and hatred of the other side. Once that point is reached in a society you need only light the blue touch paper and stand well back.
Sure enough, when the Hutu president’s plane was shot down in 1994 the Hutu knew exactly who to blame: well, it was only to be expected of people like that you know.
When a people have become conditioned to expect certain behaviours of other types of people (be they Jews, Tutsis or football fans) then they will be more than ready when the time comes to interpret every event in a way that fits with their expectations.
For this reason we would be wise to take careful note of the narratives that are being fed daily to the populace in our own day. Today’s propaganda is tomorrow’s narrative. Narratives produce expectations and expectations can get people killed.