"The English follow the principle that when one lies, one should lie big, and stick to it. They keep up their lies, even at the risk of looking ridiculous." So wrote Joseph Goebbels, but the Nazi propagandist was only half-right when it came to the behaviour of many of the South Yorkshire police after the tragedy that unfolded at Hillsborough on 15 April 1989. Certainly they lied big, and kept up their lies, yet they have ended up finally looking not ridiculous, but cynically culpable and emotionally bankrupt.
The Hillsborough Independent Panel's report was published in September last year, but what Dr Bill Kirkup, the panel's medical expert, described as "a gigantic tissue of falsehoods" still had the power to shock as the facts were revisited in Hillsborough – Never Forgotten (BBC2, Wednesday). Dr Kirkup concluded that, had the police and ambulance service done their duty properly, 41 of the 96 who died might have survived. Furthermore, the cover-up started early, as the police checked the blood-alcohol levels of the dead, even those of children as young as 10, and looked for criminal records, searching for reasons to pin the blame for their own mistakes on the victims themselves.
A policewoman tearfully recalled how she was bullied into changing her eye-witness statement – in all, 116 statements were later amended to fit the official line – but it was the testimony of the bereaved families that arrowed to the heart. One man recounted how he had told his mother his brother would be in no danger going to the match, and how she never forgave him until the day she died; another said of the attempts to obstruct justice: "They picked on the wrong city". This reference to Scouse solidarity jars with some, who claim Liverpool is a "self-pity city" whose inhabitants are never slow to wallow in a sense of injustice. Given that after the Toxteth riots in 1981 senior Tory ministers urged Margaret Thatcher to abandon Liverpool to a policy of "managed decline", this view is hardly fanciful, but Hillsborough was ultimately not about a city or a football club; it was about human beings and their loss. This programme paid the 96 and their families a fitting tribute by reminding us of that.
* ITV's Sports Life Stories strand (Wednesday) employs the same technique as Hillsborough – Never Forgotten in dispensing with an on-screen interviewer – there's no Piers Morgan figure gurning at the camera and hogging the limelight. This week's subject, Ronnie O'Sullivan, was nurtured by his father as a snooker prodigy, but struggled to cope in his teens after Ronnie Snr was jailed for 18 years for murder. Ronnie Jnr has since battled drink, drugs and depression, but at 37 looks relaxed and raring to go again after a sabbatical, and the programme had its lighter moments.
Best historical clip was of a nine-year-old Ronnie being interviewed by Danny Baker about his ambitions. "How big do you wanna be?" asked Danny. "Five-ten," replied Ronnie. He also revealed an unexpected friend; pausing in front of a painting of seemingly random coloured dots hanging on his wall, he explained: "Damien Hirst done this for me, my friend. It shows my first 147." The picture may be dotty, but its owner seems at peace again.