I thought I knew everything about the Hillsborough disaster, or at least everything that it was possible to know. The police had screwed up. They had failed to respond correctly to the crush that developed at the Lepping Lane turnstiles by opening the gate onto the terrace and closing the gates into the already-full central pens. When faced with what was happening, they were caught like rabbits in the headlights and basically did nothing for the best part of an hour. And when it became clear the consequences of their inactions, they closed ranks as all big organisations do. Deny they had anything to do with it and spin against those who might contradict it. Don’t deviate from the party line – if we don’t hang together, we’ll hang separately.
And the latest report into the Hillsborough disaster shows all of this to be correct. What I did not expect was the industrial scale of the cover-up, the sheer effort that went into preventing the truth coming out. Much of what I described above, while not right or fair, is at least understandable. We saw a small example of it from the England-Ukraine match on Tuesday night. A Ukrainian player engaged in a ludicrous piece of diving which led to the free being awarded rather than Jermaine Defoe’s goal. Yet rather than blame the player for cheating, the ref was blamed for not being able to see that there had been no contact. You never know when you may need to behave as if it never happened yourself. Likewise, the police will instinctively defend each other. It’s human nature, and I expected it would all be reiterated in repetitive detail in the new report.
What was unexpected was the sheer scale of the cover-up. For no fewer than 164 police statements to be doctored, there must have been a conspiracy of epic proportions. It couldn’t have just been a few bad apples. They all must have known. South Yorkshire police, West Midlands police, the Police Federation, even South Yorkshire ambulance service engaged in an industrial level project to deny the truth and smear the victims. And for the report to reveal it all was quite breathtaking. The pithiest quote came from Trevor Hicks: “When you get the chief constable sitting down with his trade union to cobble together a solid story, then you know we’ve reached a new depth of depravity.”
In the lead-up the report, I would have been inclined to dampen down expectations. The chances of a smoking gun being found were slim. Surely any doctored statements would have found their way into a shredder a long time ago. The best that the families could hope for was a public airing of all the available facts so no reasonable person could dispute the culpability of the police and a half-hearted ‘lessons have been learned’ apology from someone high up the chain of command. There were two things I didn’t reckon with. The statements didn’t find their way into a shredder. Initially I thought this might reflect a Stasi-like desire to hoard paperwork, but that comparison is too hard even on the South Yorkshire Police. More likely it was a reflection of what Jack Straw has referred to as “culture of impunity” in the Stormtrooper-like police force that had been encouraged under Thatcher – anyone who has studied the miners strike would know that’s not being too hard on the police. The attitude about the doctored statements would have been to not care. If anyone tried to look at them, they’d redact them. And if someone did get to see them, they’d shout loudly that the statements were edited for ‘clarity’ or to remove ‘ambiguity’. They could always rely on their friends in the media to have The Truth spread halfway around the world on while the truth was still deciding what length of blade to use for lower limbs. So the statements survived, ticking away in the filing cabinet of some Humphrey Appleby, waiting for their moment to explode.
The second thing that no-one could have anticipated was the diligence of the independent panel and the ease with which they were able to get their report out. It runs to nearly 400 pages but it’s a masterclass in clear writing and layout. Click on a heading and the information is all there. What’s more, they didn’t have to go through the press to get their message across. Can you imagine the hammering the pre-Milly Dowler Murdoch press would have given this assault from the Bishop of Liverpool and his pinko friends on the thin blue line? The Mirror and the Guardian may have pushed back, but any attempts to be reasonable would have been swamped by the noise from Wapping. Instead everyone was able to analyse it at the same time and it took all of five minutes to get to the explosive parts. If David Cameron were contemplating giving the police a get-out-of-jail-free card in the form of an even-handed apology, he soon would have been disabused by the forensic nature of the panel’s report. The truth was out, and no-one was putting it back in its box.
So what now? As the excellent Joshua Rozenborg points out, this is going to drag on for years yet. The nature of the revelations is going to require a wide-ranging investigation and there are going to be significant frustrations along the way – watch out for a sudden epidemic of ill-health among policemen in south Yorkshire which will put them beyond the reach of any internal police investigations. There will be a backlash of sorts. Watching the news and reading the papers, there has been complete unanimity on the scale of the travesty, which has been great to see. It can’t last though. It won’t be long before the bleating starts about how every bobby is being tarred with the same brush, even if no-one is saying that at all. The residual contempt for Scousers will eventually find some mode of expression. Old habits will die hard. And any trials will be deeply distressing as the accused will be entitled to employ to dredge up any story, no matter how discredited and designed as a smoke screen, in their own defence.
For all of that, the narrative has changed utterly. The truth is now at the heart of the story, not something that needs to be explained in excruciating and defensive detail every time it gets brought up. Watching rats like Kelvin MacKenzie and Irvine Patnick scamper from their sinking ship of lies is a grimly satisfying sight. Simply put, the enemies of the truth are now on the run. No effort must be spared in making sure that becomes a rout.