I didn’t have high expectations for the latest Panorama documentary about the Hillsborough disaster. How many ways can you re-say the same thing? I’ll let you know when I cease updating this blog. On a less flippant note, the programme was mostly a good example of the genre – testimony of copper with a conscience here, revealing interview with interested-but-ultimately peripheral player in the scandal there, pointed reference to the lack of response from a key player everywhere. Workmanlike would be the appropriate description for most of it.
Except in one respect. The thing which has caused the outrage over Hillsborough to bubble under for two decades was not the disaster itself or even the subsequent cover-up. It was the decision by the coroner, Dr Stefan Popper, to impose a time limit on any evidence submitted to the inquest. As far as he was concerned, everyone who died was doomed after 3.15pm due to the extent of the injuries they had received so there was no point wasting the inquest’s time by allowing evidence after this time. Stated in such a blunt manner, the decision makes sense. If everyone was as good as dead by 3.15pm, why muddy the waters with anything that happened after it? In an interview a number of years back, Popper was belligerent in his defence of the decision. He had done the families a favour by not entertaining anything that had nothing to do with the deaths and those who were suggesting otherwise should be ashamed of themselves for using the grief of the families for partisan ends. The confidence he displays in his own decision and the forcefulness with which he expresses it would be very convincing to someone not disposed towards the families of the victims. If someone like me were to object, well, I would say that, wouldn’t I?
The problem with Popper’s self-congratulation is that it assumes that the assumption (so to speak) was correct. To put it in a more sinister context, anything which contradicts the correctness of the decision must be dismissed. How to address the testimony of Derek Bruder? He had told West Midlands Police that Kevin Williams was still alive when he attempted to revive him. Bruder was convinced that this was after 3.30pm but couldn’t be sure. Faced with this inconvenient statement, you can almost imagine the delight of the investigating police when he mentioned the arrival of an ambulance on the field. The inquest was told of his uncertainty about the time but his certainty about the arrival of the ambulance, because the official narrative had it that no ambulance had arrived on the pitch after 3.15pm. Anyone watching the programme would have seen Stefan Popper smugly dismissing his evidence in a 1994 documentary on the subject. 96-0 to the coroner.
It was into this breach that Peter Marshall has stepped. Having established this official position on-screen Marshall, in a breathtaking few minutes of forensic television, drove a coach-and-four through it. He shows the three ambulances on video at 3.37pm, confirms from the ambulance driver that the police were quite explicit in their understanding of when this third ambulance arrived, then reports that this fact was never revealed to the inquiry. We then see Derek Bruder arriving at Kevin Williams, exactly when he said he had, and the viewer now knows that his timing of the ambulance’s arrival was correct. It’s an Istanbul-style comeback for the truth.
Some people online have been griping that this would have been better revealed decades ago, how the BBC had all this footage and never revealed it to the world until now, and of course in an ideal world we wouldn’t be seeing this with Anne Williams gone to join her Kevin. But let’s look at what Peter Marshall and the Panorama team have accomplished here. They had the footage and they had Derek Bruder’s testimony, but they had no way of knowing if the former would confirm the latter. It was the journalistic equivalent of looking for a needle in a haystack when you couldn’t even be sure the needle was there. I dread to think of the hours of analysis of the footage from eight separate cameras they must have ploughed through to find the few seconds of film they needed. Yet find it they did. Peter Marshall and his colleagues on Panorama have done a great service to the truth. Hopefully they’ve brought us one decisive step closer to justice for the 96.