TELEVISION REVIEW / Watching a disaster waiting to happen

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The Independent Culture
AT FIRST glance, Dispatches (C4) looked as if it might be nit-picking. By filming secretly in several football grounds they had, it seemed, revealed multiple infringements of the Taylor guidelines on stadium safety; stewards were watching the match, fans were smoking in wooden stands, cigarette butts were dropping into the void beneath the seats. The trouble was that such details - uneven floors and missing exit signs - don't really look like a scandal on screen - they look trivial.

So Dispatches had to persuade you that picking up nits was central to a 'safety culture'. To that end, they rolled on Professor Booth from Aston University who explained that most disasters flow from apparently inconsequential details, exactly the sort of thing about which you might say, 'We really must get around to dealing with that.' This truth already has a proverbial expression ('For want of a nail') but has now been validated, as they say, by academic research and bitter recent experience.

Even then, though, you couldn't get terribly worked up. The film was sensible, clearly, but weren't these just teething problems in old grounds, a matter of minor tightening up? Then Dispatches showed you the people responsible for the safety of football fans and the jaw finally dropped. After watching their responses you wouldn't lightly entrust these people with the security of a bowls club, let alone something as volatile as a football stadium filled to capacity.

The first instinct of most of those confronted with lapses was to buy time by outright denial. When that failed (often in the face of video evidence), they would lay down a smokescreen of reassuring verbiage. 'I'm sorry but I refute that totally', said an official from Sheffield Wednesday's Hillsborough ground when he was informed that potentially dangerous shutter gates had been found unmanned, 'The situation is that safety gates are manned at all periods at all times and the action will be taken against appropriate people at that time'.

Asked whether he thought a constricted gangway was a danger he went into meltdown, sense stampeding towards the nearest exit: 'No, well, obviously, there will be certain obstructions caused at certain periods of time - you know this has been drawn to the matter of the licensing authority, it's drawn to our own intention.'

Others froze into silence as the evident hollowness of their boasts about safety was pointed out to them. We shouldn't hold our breath waiting for the Football Licensing Authority to do much about this widespread complacency, either. Told that a fire had broken out in toilets at Sunderland while Dispatches was filming there, John De Quidt, the distinctly unamused chief executive of the FLA replied, 'Yes - but nobody died'. Faced with a polite but pressing interview, these men put on a display of panic-control and damage-limitation that was little short of pathetic - in the absence of legislation we just have to pray they never face anything more demanding.

This week's Video Diaries was delivered by Paul Taylor, a repentant Nazi who has switched his zeal and absolutism to the cause of the Anti-Nazi League. He was likeable, if a touch ingenuous (black constables presumably don't take kindly to being told 'This is in your interest' by scuffling protestors). He also detailed his life with a guileless candour that was rather touching but you did wonder whether it would ever occur to him that his own conversion to the light was the result of patient argument by his wife and a black colleague - not chanted abuse and professions of hatred.

'Dispatches' is repeated tonight on Channel 4 at 12.35am