Hillsborough's debt is still outstanding

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The Independent Online
So now we have two Hillsboroughs, the first being that devastating day of tragedy in April 1989, and the second Thursday's heartbreaking drama documentary, written by Jimmy McGovern and directed by Charles McDougall. Both events share the same name and the same horrors, but they are different in that the disaster happened in real time, unfolding over a period of several hours - from the moment when the crowds built up dangerously outside the pathetically inadequate turnstiles at the Leppings Lane End to the time when the last of the bodies was removed from the temporary mortuary in the stadium's gymnasium.

Everyone in Britain will have a memory of that day, whether it was simply hearing the flashes on radio or television, or being at the game, or waiting for news of a relative who was there. Millions of individual reactions were generated, which could not possibly be logged or formalised into a coherent whole.

And it is precisely because of this fragmentation of experience that Hillsborough the programme was so necessary in order to establish a new collective memory of the disaster, one that we could all share and to which we could all respond, not as disparate individuals but as a nation.

Drama-documentary in its earliest form in Greece was a vital process in transforming the rumours and stories of distant battles into a recognisable experience, be it triumph or tragedy, not just as a matter of public record but also of the occasion for national celebration or mourning. So not the least of the programme's achievements was the opportunity it offered to all who watched, particularly the bereaved, for a catharsis, a purging of locked-up emotions - which some of the formal ceremonies immediately after the original disaster only partially achieved.

But Jimmy McGovern's triumph, both as a writer and an assembler of the details of this tragedy, went beyond the merely purgative effect of giving us all a good cry. In portraying the events which we could only previously half-imagine, or indeed shy away from, such as the bleak chaos in the makeshift mortuary and the grim process of identification of the dead by Polaroid photographs, McGovern confronted our own, understandable, instincts to sanitise public tragedy, to render it manageable and distant, to turn it into the problem of other people who just happened to be unluckier than us.

And by concentrating on stories of just three of the families grievously damaged by the disaster, the writer gave a credible voice to them all, generating a humanity which no pure documentary and probably no other medium could have achieved.

There will be those who say that Lord Justice Taylor's official reports on the Hillsborough Stadium disaster were sufficient response, given both his withering conclusions about the organisational failings of the South Yorkshire police on the day, and his recommendations on football ground improvements, which have borne such spectacular fruit in terms of modern facilities, responsible stewarding and intelligent policing.

But the Taylor Report was not delivered to every home in the country and, even if it had been, its precise prose and carefully factual detachment would not have had the capacity to move and provoke us in a way that might make us challenge our assumptions about how our public lives are orchestrated and valued, particularly in relation to watching sport.

Before the Hillsborough crush and the Bradford fire, football fans had grown used to a tradition of material neglect and official contempt. Some of us might even have revelled in it. Growing up in Liverpool and supporting the Reds from an early age, I watched games from the iron-railed cage of the Boys' Pen at Anfield and felt a proud rite of passage, exceeded only by the raw thrill of standing on the Kop for matches with attendances of more than 54,000, the greater part of whom were swaying uncontrollably around as me and my mate clung to the safety of a crush barrier.

I had little sense that my fellow fans deserved better. We scoffed at those in the stands who left before the end. We chanted: "Part-time supporters!" Nor was danger a serious consideration, despite some genuinely anxious moments. But gradually the minimal facilities ground you down, as did the rough indifference of coppers to whatever problem you might have had. The hooligan-afflicted years of the 1970s and 1980s simply increased the chasm between the perception by officialdom of fans as worthless items, and the increasingly hazardous experience of football watching by ordinary supporters.

Aided by a prime minister whose cultural loathing for football was allied to her rabid instincts for the deregulation of public life, this process inevitably culminated in the sickening trio of tragedies: Bradford, Heysel and Hillsborough. And though various levels of accountability were achieved over the first two, the disaster at Sheffield officially remains an accident. That was the unfinished business which also lay at the heart of the Hillsborough programme.

Returning to the Taylor Report, which was the source for much of the drama, its main findings bear further repetition. "The immediate cause of the gross overcrowding and hence the disaster was the failure, when Gate C was opened, to cut off access to the central pens which were already over-full."

Of the police conduct at the ground, and later at his inquiry, Lord Taylor concluded: "In all, some 65 police officers gave oral evidence at the inquiry. Sadly I must report that for the most part the quality of their evidence was in inverse proportion to their rank. There were many young constables who as witnesses were alert, intelligent and open. On the day, they and many others strove heroically in ghastly circumstances, aggravated by hostility, to rescue and succour victims. They inspired confidence and hope.

"By contrast, with some notable exceptions, the senior officers in command were defensive and evasive witnesses. Their feelings of grief and sorrow were obvious and genuine. No doubt those feelings were intensified by the knowledge that such a disaster had occurred under their management. But neither their handling of problems on the day nor their account of it in evidence showed the qualities of leadership to be expected of their rank."

These are not the words of some embittered leftie-class warrior, as McGovern has been characterised in some quarters, but of a man who was shortly to be made the Lord Chief Justice of England. The discrepancy between his verdict and that of the South Yorkshire Coroner's jury continues to haunt the families of the Hillsborough victims.

I was luckier than they were. My younger brother was at the game. We'd spoken on the night before and he'd told me he'd got a ticket for the Leppings Lane terrace. When those first pictures intruded on Grandstand just after 3pm I, like any other long-standing football fan, recognised the signs not of invasion or riot but of a fatal crush. The stomach began to churn not just for my brother but for everyone in those terrible pens. By 7pm, the death toll was confirmed, I had still not heard from him and phoned our mother to prepare her for the shock of his death. Half an hour later, he phoned, in tears, from somewhere outside Sheffield. Safe.

The minimum response to Hillsborough, given its additional evidence of ignored police-camera footage, an apparently skewed police inquiry and a questionable inquest, would be for a Home Office investigation and a second coroner's inquest away from Sheffield. Since that dreadful day in 1989 football may have come home - but it still owes a debt of justice to those 96 supporters who did not.