TV Review: Hillsborough (ITV)

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The Independent Culture
Was Hillsborough (ITV) prejudiced? Yes. Did it matter? No. To dismiss Jimmy McGovern's powerful drama about the origins and aftermath of the disaster as special pleading would be to miss the point of the thing entirely. This was an act of passionate advocacy, a voice lent to people who feel they have never yet been properly heard - so it was hardly surprising that it displayed the advocate's energy in seeking out details which spoke for the client and a certain indifference to evidence which might confuse the picture. But prejudice does not necessarily mean the same thing as irresponsibility. As television polemic, Hillsborough was protected by two things - the apparatus of research, which reinforced its arguments, and also its generosity of imagination. It proved itself capable of nuance, even when the rage was at its height.

This isn't an easy matter. The core difficulty with drama-documentary was neatly illustrated by an unintentional echo. A title at the beginning of the film had given the customary assurances about the factual basis of what you were to see before explaining that "certain events have been dramatised to aid clarity". Much later in the drama you saw a police constable altering his evidence after a call from the pathologist - "OK. I'll change my statement," he said uneasily. "Clarify a few points." But who's to tell which clarification is permissible and which pernicious? To hope that there might be a simple answer to that question, or to believe that formal hearings have some magical proprietory right to the truth, is naive. The viewer has to make a decision about trust and in the choice between McGovern's wrenching account and the elaborate tale told by the police, I would choose the first.

So while some moments struck you as reckless in their appetite for incrimination ("Who is this wanker?" was the phrase used to introduce viewers to Chief Superintendent Duckenfield, the film's prime candidate for blame), there were many others that left a gap for understanding, if not forgiveness. "It looks like a pitch invasion, sir," said a policeman, as the crowd in the pen began its attempts at escape. Looking at the real video camera footage of the incident, cut into this film, I think most people would agree that that's just what it did look like. Those images fed the fatal prejudice of the police that, if trouble came, the crowd would be perpetrators, not victims. Even as the tragedy unfolded, though, McGovern recognised that confusion and fear were at work everywhere, not only inside that killing enclosure. In one telling scene a policeman desperately tried to resuscitate a fan: "Wake up you scouse git," he said and the scene wasn't a demonstration of deadly contempt (as with the officer who shouted "Shut your fucking prattle" to a father pleading for the crush to be relieved) or of the numbing tactlessness of officialdom ("She is no longer your property," said one man, barring a man from the gym in which his daughters lay dead) - it exactly caught the way that fear for someone can issue as a sort of rage against them.

Hillsborough was full of such piercing details, and of a bitter humour which preserved it from piety ("He knew the pens were choker. Even Stevie bloody Wonder would have known," said one mother, discovering that the police's accounts of what they could see on video were untrue). But while it honoured the grief of the relatives and while it persuaded you that the verdict of Accidental Death was inadequate it couldn't conclusively make a case for the alternative - a verdict of Unlawful Killing. The problem for the families - and indeed for the coroner's jury - was that the moral shabbiness of what the police did was so widely dissipated, never quite condensing at any one time or in any one person into unequivocal criminality (though there are hints about missing evidence). Complacency slid into incompetence slid into a squalid evasion of responsibility. The only retribution they are likely to face now is this accusing finger, pointing at the truth.