As the nation reeled from the shock of discovering that a News International tabloid newspaper had hacked into Millie Dowler's phone; listened to (and deleted) messages to make space for more, and considerably added to the grief of her parents and loved ones, there was one place where it came as no surprise: my home town, Liverpool.
We had visited this particular circle of hell before, back in 1989, just a couple of days after the Hillsborough disaster, when the Sun newspaper published an outrageous attack on the Liverpool fans at the game. Under the banner headline "THE TRUTH", it alleged that they urinated on "brave cops" helping the stricken, and picked the pockets of their own dead. The suffering this front page inflicted on the grieving families of the 96 dead fans – and more generally on the club, its fans and the city too – was devastating to witness. Imagine what would have been done if the fans had mobile phones back then.
The Sun's calumny was clearly an attempt to smear the fans to support the police contention that the fans were ungovernable. The essence of this "defence" was clear within minutes of the disaster unfolding. For the unfortunate Graham Kelly, the newly-appointed head of the FA, the Cup semi-final on 15 April, 1989, was his first official engagement. Within minutes of the tragedy, Kelly made his way to the police observation box where match-commander, Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield, was in post, and asked what happened. He told Kelly that the fans had broken the gates down and rushed into the stadium. In other words: Blame the Fans. It was a lie.
In the event, Lord Justice Taylor's Inquiry principally blamed the police. But the Hillsborough families have never received justice; they never accepted the "accidental death" verdicts and the fact that so much evidence of incompetence before and after the disaster was not heard in court. They have fought for over two decades to unearth the real "truth", supported by almost everyone in Liverpool and many outside too.
That is why the recent petition to the Government urging disclosure of all relevant documents went from a couple of dozen signatures to over 100,000 in a few days, triggering the requirement of a Commons backbench committee to consider allocating time for a full debate in Parliament.
Many documents have been made available in the past two years following a BBC request under freedom of information. They were released via an independent panel set up for the purpose – but did not include Cabinet minutes or records of discussions by then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. The current Information Minister, Christopher Graham, acceded to the BBC's request for these documents last month but insisted that their general publication be "managed" by and through the independent panel. However, under its terms of reference, the panel may not disclose information about the views of ministers at the time because this would "undermine Cabinet collective responsibility".
What these records of discussions among the Cabinet and others hold is unknown. At the time, Mrs Thatcher appeared sympathetic to the police view. She didn't like football; it was a bloody nuisance and a constant embarrassment when English fans caused trouble abroad. She announced her intention to "sort football out" once and for all with potentially the most damaging piece of legislation for the professional game which would require fans to buy computer-readable ID cards before they could attend a match.
Despite intense resistance from every organised group in the game, including referees, the PFA, the FA, the Football League, and most especially the fans through their national campaign led by the Football Supporters' Association, by the time Hillsborough happened, the "ID Card" Bill, as it was unpopularly known, was awaiting the formality of a Third Reading, though, subsequently, Lord Taylor's report dismissed the scheme as unworkable and potentially dangerous.
After Hillsborough and The Sun's headlines, many in Liverpool suspected a triumvirate of establishment powers conniving to serve each other's interests, and "blame the fans" worked for everybody. In fact, it's exactly the same trio so recently caught up in the phone-hacking scandal. The police (then the South Yorkshire Constabulary); News International (The Sun) and politicians (including local Conservative MPs in Sheffield and the Prime Minister herself). It would be very interesting if the disclosure of minutes of discussions at the heart of government lent any support to these suspicions.
Meanwhile the Hillsborough families and their supporters battle on. Most of the fans who died were under 30; over one third were teenagers; the youngest, 10 years old. The loss of so many young people at a football match one sunny afternoon has left an indelible scar. When Murdoch senior was recently questioned in the Commons by the Select Committee, one MP referred him to that infamous Sun headline. It was clear the 80-year-old Rupert had no memory of it. Not so in Liverpool.
Rogan Taylor was chair of the Football Supporters' Association in 1989 and attended the match at Hillsborough. He is director of the Football Industry Group at the University of LiverpoolReuse content