Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Your Reaper, the Hillsborough Disaster and Kelvin Mackenzie

Earlier today, your Reaper noticed that Kelvin Mackenzie's name was trending on Twitter. Usually, when a person's name is trending on the network, it either means they have done something that is noteworthy for any possible reason or that they have died.

There's also a third, and more rare, reason that occasionally pops up - this is when a person is trending for no other reason than people keep asking why that person is trending. All we do know for certain at this point is that Kelvin Mackenzie was trending on Twitter earlier today. Why would that have been?

Allow me to enlighten you. This week, the Government has confirmed that it will release all the documents that they hold on the Hillsborough disaster. This was a human crush that occurred on 15th April 1989 that resulted in 766 injuries and 96 deaths. All those injured or killed were Liverpool FC fans who had come that day to witness an FA Cup semi-final tie between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest. The match was abandoned after six minutes of play when disaster struck.

The official inquiry into the disaster, the Taylor Report concluded that "the main reason for the disaster was the failure of police control.". One of the consequences of the report was that all standing terraces at major football grounds in England and Scotland were eliminated. Much confusion did the rounds at the time, as the media reported a number of inaccuracies. However, by far the worst of these was committed by The Sun newspaper on April 19th, 1989. They printed a front page headed "THE TRUTH" which contained a number of outrageous claims that were quickly proven to be lies.

The editor at the time was Kelvin Mackenzie, a man whom your Reaper has little time for. He was forced by Rupert Murdoch to apologise for running these stories, and The Sun has also repeatedly said sorry in the paper for doing so. The paper had essentially said that Liverpool fans had contributed to the disaster - the basis of most of these claims was that a number of fans were drunk and urinated on those who were injured or gradually being crushed to death, and that some had entered the grounds without a valid ticket. Lord Taylor's official report found that these were secondary factors, very much in the "They certainly didn't help" category. Accusations of urinating on fellow fans made by The Sun were entirely false.

Many Liverpudlians were left extremely angry by what had happened, and were deeply offended by The Sun's reporting. Whilst I am quick to condemn those who are easy to take offence, this is not one of those instances. People were right to be disgusted, and boycotts of the paper in the city were entirely understandable. I took to Twitter this afternoon to do what I always do - to express my view. I told Scousers and others who were yet again calling for an apology from Mackenzie for what had happened to "get over it" and to move on.

Now, when I look back on some of my tweets this afternoon, I have to accept some of them could perhaps have been worded differently. Indeed, the use of the phrase "get over it" and I apologise if anyone was offended by my use of the term. Given the subject matter at hand, it was a rather crass thing to say. I'm going to take the opportunity here to make one or two points and to clarify my views on this. Regrettably, one of the disadvantages of Twitter as a tool for debate is the 140-character limit.

Let me state from the outset that I am entirely in favour of the government's decision to release papers and documents connected to the event. It has been clear for a long time now that the original investigation into the disaster was flawed. For example, the process of the inquests into the deaths remains a source of controversy. At the time, the official coroner, Dr Stefan Popper, limited the main inquest to events to 3.15 pm on the day of the disaster, a mere 9 minutes after the match was halted and the crowd began to spill onto the pitch. His reasoning was that all of the victims were either dead or brain dead by this time.

Now, I do not doubt the professionalism of Dr Popper at all here, but this decision was plain wrong. The immediate implication of this decision was that the inquest would be unable to consider the response of the police and the other emergency services after that time, who were already drowning under a torrent of criticism. Out of 44 ambulances that arrived that afternoon, the police refused to allow 43 of them into the stadium. That was a decision which could well have ensured more people perished than would otherwise have done, and it has never been properly scrutinised.

Attempts to reopen the original inquest, which returned a verdict of accidental death, have repeatedly failed. Take the case of Anne Williams, who lost her 15-year-old son Kevin Williams on that dreadful day. She went to the European Court of Human Rights on the strength of witness statements that her son was still showing signs of life at 4pm. Her case was rejected in March 2009. Earlier this year, the Hillsborough Independent Panel confirmed they were going to examine previously-hidden documents to determine what took place after the 3.15pm cut off imposed during the inquest of 1991. The Government's decision to release all documents on this relates to them.

People have a right to be angry about these matters. I do not know why the matter was not properly investigated the first time round. It might simply have been in order to keep costs down, it might have been incompetence on the part of the system or it could have been the influence of various groups keen to ensure their own weaknesses and failings were not disclosed for public scrutiny. I, too, am angry at the thought that a matter of such importance has not been investigated more thoroughly. And yet, what gets people more worked up on this subject than anything else?

It's what Kelvin Mackenzie and The Sun newspaper reported on 19th April 1989. Pardon my impertinence here, but is there a slight possibility that people are getting their priorities wrong? Mackenzie has said he's sorry, although he retracted this in 2006, saying "I wasn't sorry then and I'm not sorry now". Calls for him to apologise again, therefore, are rather pointless. If he didn't mean it back then, why on earth would he mean it now? As far as Mackenzie is concerned, little has changed. The only difference is that he used to be at The Sun, whereas he is now a columnist at the Daily Mail, having joined the paper earlier this year.

Whilst editor Paul Dacre will be keen to make sure his paper is not tarnished by Mackenzie's past, there remains little point in demanding apologies. It would be a scene reminiscent of the questioning of some of the big bankers by a select committee two years ago, where bankers queued up to apologise for the failings of their banks. Those apologies were manufactured and completely insincere - and Mackenzie's apology would be just that. Surely an insincere apology would be far more insulting than no apology at all?

I know that he hurt a lot of people that day, and I know that a lot of people feel they have been denied justice. With all due respect however, that is not the fault of Kelvin Mackenzie. His paper may well have printed outrageous lies, but it was not Kelvin Mackenzie that caused the overcrowding in that stadium. It was not Kelvin Mackenzie that refused to allow ambulances into the stadium. And it was not Kelvin Mackenzie who held an inquest whose scope was so limited that it was rendered almost worthless. He is essentially being used as a scapegoat by people who are more interested in having someone to blame than they are in seeing the truth come out. No one is pretending that Mackenzie's conduct in this was anything less than utterly appalling, but he's not the one that caused the Hillsborough disaster.

It has now been over 22 years since the disaster happened. Instead of continuing to pointlessly aim your anger at one journalist who made some breathtakingly stupid and offensive claims at the time, aim your anger at the authorities who have been denying the families and the victims the justice that they truly deserve.