Wednesday, September 12, 2012
Finally, closure for Hillsborough injustice
"If it bleeds, it leads" isn't just an editorial mantra. It's how the media often deals with foreign news. You get a big hit, ideally with pictures, on day one and some instant reaction on day two. What happens over the ensuing months -- the inquiries, the understanding of the "how and why," the victims and families getting on with their lives -- is much less of a story the further away you are.
For the past 23 years, even as campaigners in England carried on their struggle for justice in the Hillsborough tragedy, reminding everyone that what had been peddled by some as the truth -- that drunk, ticketless Liverpool fans had caused the deaths by forcing their way into the stadium -- was in fact a lie and a cover-up, too much of the rest of the world was largely oblivious.
The original fraudulent narrative fit nicely with the zeitgeist of 1989. English clubs had been banned from European competition after the 1985 Heysel tragedy in which 39 supporters lost their lives. At the time, blame for Heysel was squarely placed on Liverpool-supporting hooligans and, to a lesser degree, the police and organizers, whose security measures on the day were wholly inadequate.
"They did it at Heysel; they did it again at Hillsborough."
That was the prevailing view among many across Europe. As recently as last year, I was involved in a radio debate on hooliganism when that same lie was repeated: Liverpool hooligans caused death at Hillsborough, just like at Heysel. I'm prone to giving people the benefit of the doubt, so I'll say it wasn't malevolence. It was ignorance. It's the same ignorance I find talking to casual fans from other European nations and elsewhere.
And that's why my hope now is that the findings of the Hillsborough Independent Panel and the words of British Prime Minister David Cameron -- "The report is black and white
Liverpool fans were not to blame" -- resonate as widely and as loudly as possible.
But there's another major message to take from this day. I spoke to the chief of police of a major Italian city. He deals with policing and supporter safety every week. I met him a few years ago when an English club was drawn to play a European game in his city. In addition to talking to the British police, which is normal in these situations, he was keen to liaise with visiting fans so he could better understand their needs and figure out the best possible way for his police force to do their job, which is to maintain order and safety.
He had read the Taylor Report which, way back in 1990, established that the main cause for the Hillsborough tragedy was the failure of "police control." He asked me why there had been no follow-up, why those law enforcement officials responsible had never been taken to task.
"As policemen we have a stressful and difficult job, but we also have an obligation for transparency and accountability; without it we don't have trust," he said. "We are human, we make mistakes. The difference is that when law enforcement makes a mistake, or is even accused of it, you have to fully investigate and apportion responsibility. If you don't, you lose faith in the institutions. And when that happens, the job of all police becomes that much more difficult and dangerous."
In this case, not only were the authorities not fully investigated; it has since emerged that, on 164 occasions, witness statements by police officers and emergency services, as well as other documents, were redacted, selectively edited or otherwise doctored to shift blame on the supporters. This, folks, is what you call a cover-up, of the kind that weakens trust in all authorities and makes their job more difficult. It's one of the worst possible crimes law enforcement can commit, because it doesn't just affect the direct victims, it also affects their very own colleagues.
This doesn't mean that today is not a happy day. It is, because uncovering truths, however painful, is better than living in an echo chamber of suspicion and cynicism. And it shows that, at least on this occasion, at least in the long run, the system eventually worked.
It's also an occasion to remember the other times when fans went to watch a game and never returned. And how, in many of the cases below, the truth remains murky.
Bolton, England: March 9, 1946: 33 dead
Lima, Peru: May 24, 1954: 318 dead
Kayseri, Turkey: Sept. 17, 1967: 40 dead
Glasgow, Scotland: Jan. 2, 1971: 66 dead
Athens, Greece: Feb. 8, 1981: 21 dead
Moscow: Oct. 20, 1982: 66 dead
Bradford, England: May 11, 1985: 56 dead
Brussels: May 29, 1985: 39 dead
Kathmandu, Nepal: March 12, 1988: 93 dead
Orkney, South Africa: Jan. 13, 1991: 42 dead
Bastia, France: May 5, 1992: 18 dead
Johannesburg: April 11, 2001: 43 dead
Accra, Ghana: May 9, 2001: 127 dead
Abidjan, Ivory Coast: March 29, 2009: 19 dead
Port Said, Egypt: Feb. 1, 2012: 79 dead
Here's hoping the victims of these disasters and their families might one day also find peace and closure.
Gabriele Marcotti is a London-based journalist and broadcaster who covers world soccer. He is the author of three books, the world soccer columnist for The Times of London and a correspondent for the Italian daily Corriere dello Sport. You can catch him on ESPN Press Pass and read him here twice a week. Follow him on Twitter: @marcotti.