JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 14.9.12
LIKE MANY SCOTS, in these times, I struggle to feel that David Cameron, as Prime Minister, has much to do with me; whoever he is, he is not my leader. Yet it seems worth acknowledging the strange truth that this Prime Minister has been noticeably at his best, on the two occasions when he has had to offer a public apology for an immense and shocking failure of the British state. In the summer of 2010, he made a memorable apology to the people of Northern Ireland over the Bloody Sunday killiings of 1972.
And now, 23 years on from the horrific Hillsborough football disaster of 1989, it has fallen to David Cameron, again, to offer a public apology to the grieving famiies of those Liverpool fans who not only lost their lives that day, but – according to a devastating report published this week – were then systematically smeared and attacked by the South Yorkshire police force and their friends in the media, in an effort to shift blame for the disaster onto its victims. On Wednesday at Westminster, the Prime Minister apologised handsomely and without reservation; at these times, the cladding of free-market rhetoric seems to slip away from David Cameron, and he becomes once again the old-fashioned one-nation Conservative, an English gentleman saddened to the core by the abject failure of institutions which he has been taught to regard as the greatest in the world.
It seems unlikely, though, that any underlying streak of decency in the Prime Minister and his colleagues will be enough to remedy the shocking scale of failure exposed by this week’s report into Hillsborough and its aftermath. For even if some of the individuals involved are now brought to book – and it seems they may be – the culture which spawned this frightening chain of events seems to me to remain largely unchallenged, and unchanged. Anyone paying serious attention to the public comments of senior poice officers in the UK over the last 30 years, for instance, cannot fail to be struck by a pervasive tone of petulant self-pity, by a defensive inability to respond well to criticism, and by constant complaints that “political correctness” has made their job impossible. To put it at its lowest, the canteen culture of some forces still seems unreconstructed, and highly reactionary; and this is precisely the kind of psychological environment which encourages a tribal defence of the group at all costs, even if – as in this case – that defence involves the deliberate and detailed falsification of reports by dozens of officers, followed by two long decades of silence from all those who were aware of the wrong that had been done.
Then secondly, there is the clearly toxic relationship between the police and some sections of the media, already exposed during the Leveson Inquiry. We may never learn the full truth of why the Sun newspaper rushed so hastily into print with a series of front-page assertions about the conduct of Liverpool fans at Hillsborough which were completely false. Leveson has left us in no doubt, though, that relations between the police and the popular media in this country are often far too close, sometimes involving outright payments and inducements. And for further evidence of that, we need look no further than the crass and sensational language often now used by senior police officers to describe their own work – a crude, media-driven headline-speak which contrasts vividly with the restrained, nuanced and strikingly mature language generally used by British military commanders, often operating under far more threatening and traumatic circumstances.
Once we begin to consider the role of the popular media in this systematic failure of British governance, though, we inevitably return once again to the world of politics, and to the culture of complicity between the Sun, as a News International paper, and successive British governments since 1979. In the spring of 1989, after all, the city of Liverpool was hardly a neutral location in British politics. Like parts of central Scotland, it was a community that had been hit hard by the decline of Britain’s industrial economy, and by the “on your bike” politics of the 1980’s; like central Scotland, it was a cultural heartland of opposition to Margaret Thatcher’s government, and all that it represented.
It therefore suited the Sun, in the aftermath of the catastrophic crowd control failure at Hillsborough, to portray the event not as the fault of the police, but as another self-inflicted injury for a city full of whingeing failures, with nothing better to do than to get drunk before lunchtime, and invade a football ground for which they didn’t even have tickets. These allegations were lies; but they were lies which fitted the new narrative of British life, the one which said that the poor, and the victims of economic change, had only themselves to blame for their problems. In their haste to blame the Liverpool fans, both the press and the authorities played into the hands of a police force hell-bent on exonerating itself at any price; and it is that mistake which eventually led to this week’s apologies, not only from the Prime Minister, but from former Sun editor Kelvin Mackenzie.
Yet as everyone on Merseyside knows, the impulse to smear Liverpool, to insult its people, to marginalise its achievements, and to mock its culture of cheerful working-class collectivism, came from the heart of the ideology that both men still embrace and defend today. What happened at Hillsborough on that April day 23 years ago was a terrible accident, although one that could have been prevented. The subsequent cover-up, though – and the press coverage of it – was no accident at all. It was the consequence of something deliberate, deep and harsh in the political culture of 1980’s Britain, an impulse of distancing and blame, directed at the most vulnerable in society, that is still with us today. And like the responsible individuals in the Hillsborough case, that cruel impulse, and the ideology behind it, needs to be named and called to account; before we can finally say that justice has been done, and we have laid the terrible story of Hillsborough to rest.