Tag Archives: The Guardian

When you walk through a storm

One day soon, within my lifetime I hope, the tone of my annual posts about today’s anniversary of the 1989 Hillsborough Disaster will change from an update on the Hillsborough Justice Campaign to a simple act of remembrance and sympathy with the families of the 96 people who died.

That day seems both closer – with The Hillsborough Independent Panel (HIP) chaired by the Bishop of Liverpool set to report on its findings in the autumn – and further away than ever, as another tide of misinformation washes over the city in the wake of Alan Davies’ spectacularly insensitive comments and the reaction to the reaction to them.

Alan Davies

The TV star decided to use a football podcast to talk about Liverpool’s position of not playing matches on 15 April in largely unsympathetic terms. Since the disaster the club has received special dispensation from The Football Association (FA) not to have their league games scheduled for the date, and in 2009 even the European ruling body UEFA were happy to rearrange a Champions League fixture for the club, noticeably without attracting the ire of Mr Davies. This year, however, another potential clash arose when Liverpool secured a place in the FA Cup semi-finals set to take place this weekend. The two matches were to be played on Saturday and Sunday, with the Liverpool v Everton game eventually arranged for Saturday lunchtime. This decision seemed to cause the comedian a great deal of upset:

Liverpool and the 15th – that gets on my tits that shit. What are you talking about, ‘We won’t play on the day?’ Why can’t they?

Do they play on the date of the Heysel Stadium disaster? How many dates do they not play on?

Do Man United play on the date of Munich? Do Rangers play on the date when all their fans died in that disaster whatever year that was – 1971?

I understand – Hillsborough is the most awful thing that’s happened in my life in terms of football. It’s one of the worst tragedies in English peacetime history but it’s ridiculous this, ‘We refuse to play football on this day anymore’.

Every interview he’s [Kenny Dalglish] given this season he looks like he wants to headbutt the interviewer. This tight-mouthed, furious, frowning, leaning forward, bitter Glaswegian ranting, ‘Liverpool FC do not play on April 15th’.

Yet Liverpool’s desire to avoid playing on this date is no attempt to wallow in the self-pity we are often accused of by outsiders. Instead it is out of respect to the families of those who died, many of themselves fans or season ticket holders at the club. Today, as every year since, there will be a memorial service at Anfield and our senior players and club staff will attend. Like many Liverpool fans, I can’t imagine caring about the result of a game played on the 15th. It is a day when our thoughts are elsewhere. To believe the myth of melodramatic Scousers is to demonstrate a complete lack of awareness of the key issues of the Hillsborough Disaster and its aftermath, which ensure that it remains a raw subject, despite the passage of 23 years.

1989

Facts which are already starting to be lost in the fog of time and misinformation include these. Full details are available – along with audio clips and video footage – at this excellent and informative site. For the match, an FA Cup semi-final, Liverpool had been allocated the smaller end of Sheffield Wednesday’s Hillsborough stadium, despite being widely accepted as having a larger travelling support than opponents Nottingham Forest. Transport delays between Sheffield and Liverpool meant that as kick off approached, many fans with tickets were waiting outside the ground and the build up of the crowd around the small number of turnstiles created a bottleneck that lead to crushes. Everyone who has attended a popular sporting event or music concert has probably experienced the fear and pressure of a crowd building up which you are unable to escape. A request to delay the start of the game was denied and eventually the police took the decision to open the exit gates to allow faster access to the stadium.

This allowed fans to escape the crush outside only to find a much worse one waiting for them. The central pens of the Leppings Lane stand were already nearing capacity, but with no stewards positioned to direct people towards the less crowded side areas, another – fatal – bottleneck was created. Inside these central pens, people were dying of suffocation within shouting distance of members of the emergency services. Some managed to climb out, others tried to break down the fencing with their hands to relieve the pressure. The authorities’ response was to send in reinforcements to contain this ‘pitch invasion’.

The victims

In a moving tribute created for the twentieth anniversary of the disaster, the football club’s website featured the photographs, names and ages of those who died. They are a cross-section of Liverpool’s population, of any city’s inhabitants. A third of them were under the age of 18, the youngest – current club captain Steven Gerrard’s cousin – was 10 years old (a year younger than I was at the time). Two teenage sisters were killed. Friends died together, a boyfriend and girlfriend were among the dead, as were an uncle and nephew, while one family lost two sons.

One victim was on a life-support machine for four years after the disaster; he never recovered. Surviving family members speak of bereaved relatives dying in later years, having never got over the shock of losing their loved ones in such circumstances. There have been a number of suicides, including that of a man who sold his ticket to a friend who died and a Nottingham Forest fan unable to come to terms with witnessing the sight of bodies being laid on the pitch.

The aftermath

The police response as the disaster unfolded was severely lacking and later criticised by the Interim Taylor Report as ‘a failure of police control’. Placing crowd control above safety led to shocking tales from survivors of escaping the carnage, only to be pushed back into the pens by police officers. Ambulance crews were denied access to the ground as the police told them it wasn’t safe to enter due to crowd trouble. Few of the injured were admitted to hospital, with reports of fans trying to resuscitate the dying and people being taken to a makeshift morgue while their lives could perhaps have been saved if they had received medical attention.

‘There was no organised response there at all… There was nobody in charge, no plan, no organisation at all… There was no resuscitation equipment there… The scene was just absolute chaos.’

- Dr John Ashton, Professor of Medicine at the University of Liverpool, who was at Hillsborough.

The blame game

People had hardly begun to bury the dead before the cover up began. By the instruction of senior officers, comments unfavourable to the police operation were removed from police constable’s statements, as one handwritten instruction quoted by The Guardian notes:

‘Last two pages require amending. These are his own feelings. He also states that PCs were sat down crying when the fans were carrying the dead and injured. This shows they were organised and we were not. Have [the PC] rewrite the last two pages excluding points mentioned.’ [Emphasis added]

Key witnesses were not called at the inquests or cross-examined, instead police officers read out summaries of evidence of where and when people died.

Before that, and while the city of Liverpool was still numb with shock, as funerals were taking place and the pitch at Anfield became a sea of flowers and scarves left in tribute – including by Everton fans – along came Rupert Murdoch (proprietor) and Kelvin MacKenzie (editor) of the S*n newspaper, with what they considered to be the real tale of Hillsborough. As Liverpool manager (both in 1989 and again today) Kenny Dalglish remembered in his autobiography:

The press coverage was difficult to comprehend, particularly the publication of pictures which added to people’s distress. There was one photograph of two girls right up against the Leppings Lane fence, their faces pressed into the wire. Nobody knows how they escaped. They used to come to Melwood every day, looking for autographs, and that photograph upset everyone there because we knew them. After seeing that I couldn’t look at the papers again.

When the S*n came out with the story about Liverpool fans being drunk and unruly, underneath a headline ‘The Truth,’ the reaction on Merseyside was one of complete outrage. Newsagents stopped stocking the S*n. People wouldn’t mention its name. They were burning copies of it.

The Hillsborough Justice Campaign

People wondering why the Hillsborough Justice Campaign needs to exist after so long and following a number of official inquests and inquiries in the past should know that many of the families still do not know the full details of what happened to their relatives. Key questions still remain unanswered.

It is important to note that the campaign is not a historical one. This is an ongoing desire for justice for people like Anne Williams, who has evidence that the information presented at her son Kevin’s inquest was false. The coroner ruled that all victims were dead at 3.15pm – but medical personnel present at the makeshift morgue in the ground have testified that 15-year-old Kevin was alive at 4pm.

People like John Glover, quoted in this BBC story, now dying of cancer, but who wants to know what happened in his son Ian’s final hour. Since April 1989 there has been a concerted effort by South Yorkshire Police, the Thatcher government and the S*n newspaper to spread disinformation about the disaster to allow the victims to be painted as deserving of the treatment. And now the campaign is taking great strides forward – the recent parliamentary debate and the decision to release all classified Cabinet papers to the HIP inquiry – all of a sudden people like Alan Davies are popping up to condemn our inability to ‘get over it’.

Today’s anniversary

What is perhaps most saddening about the Alan Davies storm is how fans of other clubs now seem to view Hillsborough and the fight for justice as a uniquely Liverpool issue. Never mind that all fans are kept safer as a result of the change in attitudes to policing large crowds or the improvements to stadiums made after the disaster. Let’s not forget that the support received by Liverpool from fans of other teams – including our at times bitterest rivals Everton, Manchester United and Nottingham Forest – has been outstanding. But there remains a core of people who believe that Liverpool whinge about this too much, that we need to move on and renounce the ‘mawkish sentimentality’ of marking this occasion. I believe that they are wrong.

Late last night, while researching some of the points I make here, I had a frank but well-reasoned exchange of views on the subject with a writer I very much admire, Ben Six of Back Towards The Locus. In the comments below the post, Ben echoes this article by Times journalist Tony Evans, noting that Davies’ comments are not the real controversy. As Evans writes:

why, 23 years on, do we still not know the truth about a police cover-up that reached Cabinet level?

So today, as we remember those fans who went to a match and never came home, those who mourn them and the people whose lives are still scarred by the events of 23 years ago, let’s try to put the mis-spoken words of idiots out of our minds. It is all consistent with what Liverpool MP Maria Eagle has called the ‘black propaganda campaign’ orchestrated by those responsible after the disaster. Instead, fans of all clubs should come together to ensure that the 96 families – along with everyone who loves the passion and joy of attending football matches – do not have to wait too much longer to discover ‘The Truth’ of Hillsborough.

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On repeat

Perhaps this should come as little surprise.  A new study has discovered that the popularity of far-right groups is on the rise across Europe, even in the parts previously considered too enlightened to go in for that sort of thing, such as Scandinavia and the Netherlands.

Of particular concern is that the responses were gathered in July and August, so before Europe’s financial position performed an even more graceless nose-dive.  As the situation worsens, these parties are likely to increase in attractiveness and should – according to the study – experience little difficulty in translating their online support into ballots.

In evaluating possible responses to this news, perhaps we are in a way lucky.  We have a wealth of historical information and experience to call on and can have no doubts over the results of appeasing fascists.  Jamie Bartlett of the Demos think-tank who carried out the study, is right to say:

Politicians across the continent need to sit up, listen and respond.

But the response of non-politicians will be of greater importance.  Sitting back and letting fascism rise unchecked while we assume someone else will take care of it ends in a place no-one should be keen to revisit.  So the question must be, what can be done?

Knowing the enemy is essential.  While a lot about them remains the same as the 1930s, today’s fascists have shifted their attention from International Jewry to Islam, as well as tweaking their message for the new era.  Expert Matthew Goodwin from Nottingham University, quoted in The Guardian’s story, notes that:

What some parties are trying to do is frame opposition to immigration in a way that is acceptable to large numbers of people. Voters now are turned off by crude, blatant racism – we know that from a series of surveys and polls.

[They are] saying to voters: it’s not racist to oppose these groups if you’re doing it from the point of view of defending your domestic traditions.

Yet underneath this seemingly ‘acceptable’ message lies a well-established truth.  Fascism has never been solely a racist agenda.  For fascists, racism, xenophobia and nationalism are tools, they are not of themselves the final aim.  In an essential essay on the ‘Property is Theft’ website, Phil Dickens quotes militant anti-fascists Antifa:

The reason fascist groups tend to attack ethnic minorities and immigrants in this way are because they want to divide the working class. By sowing the seeds of division, fragmentation and suspicion in working class communities they undermine notions of solidarity and cooperation thus strengthening the status quo and perpetuating existing inequalities in society.

And so it naturally follows that the English Defence League in Liverpool have recently made:

…an open declaration of war against organised workers willing to stand up for their interests

by attacking workers protesting against job cuts.  When fascists lay claim to addressing the concerns of a working class they accuse other political parties of abandoning, this real agenda must always be thrown back at them.  They pay lip-service to worries over issues like housing, welfare and jobs, but their economic and social policies show that they remain a party of the bosses, not the workers.

It is down to all of us who love freedom and hate bigotry to tackle fascism in all its forms.  Whether it is that friend you haven’t seen for years posting a Facebook status about ‘them’ stealing ‘our’ jobs, or the EDL planning a march through your town, this is the time to stand up for what you know to be right.  Their propaganda must be countered and their shows of strength combatted, until they get the message:

They shall not pass.

Picture borrowed from here.

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Road to nowhere

For all of those readers who aren’t students of the 1930s – and why wouldn’t you be, given that we seem to be hell-bent on recreating it? – all I can say is, well.

Be warned, the last time foreign creditors tried to circumvent the democratic institutions of a sovereign nation in order to impose ever-increasing deprivation on its working and middle-class population, via a series of coalition governments lacking clear mandates to do so, it did not end well.

And that’s putting it mildly.

Picture borrowed from here, also well worth a read.

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Phony Beatlemania has bitten the dust

Phony Beatlemania has bitten the dust.

- The Clash

The Clash? Just a band.

- Scroobius Pip

Last week’s announcement of new dates by what is usually described as (take a deep breath) ‘seminalManchesterindiedancecrossoverband’ The Stone Roses caused a predictable backlash in certain quarters.  You can always rely on the Daily Mash to tell it like it is

While I will happily confess to quite liking some of The Roses’ songs, and can even listen to a couple off the almost universally loathed ‘Second Coming’, it is difficult to find much to argue with in this, from the Guardian’s Sam Wolfson:

The Stone Roses… are Primal Scream in need of editing; a band with a couple of nice songs that go on too long. Their real legacy is this huge show on an island that wasn’t an island that everyone who was there says sounded awful. They are a live band most famous for being shit live.

And let’s face it, if you wanted to hear a terrible, off-key rendition of ‘I Wanna Be Adored’ being played over a crappy sound system, you could wander into most karaoke bars at a certain hour of the night.  There seems to be little need to fork out £55 plus booking fee to see the now haggard originals, unless you are incredibly keen to pretend that it is the early nineties again.  Even John Squire, quoted in popbitch, seems unsure:

“I have no desire whatsoever to desecrate the grave of seminal Manchester pop group The Stone Roses” – John Squire, 2009

“We’ve rehearsed, we’ve written songs and in some ways it seems like 15 years ago. It’s quite strange” – John Squire, 2011

Perhaps this mythology-building seems particularly hard to countenance for anyone with a passing acquaintance with dance music’s early years, because the way the rock legends were built up into untouchables was something that house – like punk before it – promised was going to be done away with.  The amount of samples and varying influences being thrown in to the mix meant that it was possible to appreciate the past, while never losing the joy of the new.  I believe this blend is at the heart of the love of music, yet if one exists without the other you end up mired in your own glory days or recklessly running from one new trend to another.  Balance is key.

Music moves pretty fast at times, and few other than the professionally fanatical have the chance to keep up.  In the mad scramble, bands and tunes that might have become loved are often lost, so that there is no shame in revisiting past sounds which may have been overlooked.  To avoid doing so could mean missing out on discovering a new favourite, a real tragedy.

But the relentless backwards gaze becomes damaging at the point at which the adulation for the past chokes the airways of the new.  If everyone paying through the nose to watch Mani and co amble through the classics could also be persuaded to chuck in a fiver to watch some unsigned bands, perhaps we wouldn’t be doomed to a chart full of nostalgia-peddlers and end-of-the-pier talent show winners.  Maybe.

It is also hard to get away from a feeling that The Roses had their moment in the sun.  They had all the attention that a band could wish for and – if we are honest – fucked it right up.  Choking under the pressure to perform was largely what they did best (worst?)  Now, older and wiser, they are seeking to seal the legacy and earn one last great payday,  but such an attempt to rewrite their history must be doomed to failure.  At the first sign of arguments or no-shows the music press will be clicking Ctrl+C on the old headlines again.  Perhaps their cause would be better advanced by packing the headlining slots full of up and coming bands who can only dream of such exposure.

But always remember.  The Stone Roses?  Just a band.

Photo borrowed from here, which also contains an article demolishing some of the other nineties indie myths. Worth a read!

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The truth

It is difficult to imagine the emotions that the families of the 96 victims of the Hillsborough Disaster must be feeling today, at the news that all government papers – including uncensored cabinet meeting minutes – are to be made available to the independent panel chaired by the Bishop of Liverpool.

The dignity with which the families have fought the official version of events, while coping with the sudden and shocking loss of their relatives, is an inspiration.  It is perhaps testament to their bravery that many of the MPs who spoke in Monday’s debate on the release of the papers were fighting back tears.  Although with emotions running so high, it was also fitting that Labour MP for Walton in Liverpool, Steve Rotherham opened his address by saying:

I have been careful not to base my account of events on emotion. I have ensured that I have clear and referenced evidence to support all my contentions.

He went on to talk about what the release of the papers will mean to those who have been campaigning for justice:

Misdirection, obfuscation and damned lies were all used as smokescreens to deflect attention away from the guilty. Institutional complacency and gross negligence, coupled with an establishment cover-up, have added to the sense that there was an orchestrated campaign to shift blame from those who were really responsible on to the shoulders of Liverpool fans. Many myths have been perpetrated about the events of 15 April 1989.

It is incredible that the families of the 96 have had to wait 22 years for these smokescreens to lift, and with an estimated 300,000 documents to be released there is still a long road to travel, but I hope that with this announcement we move another step closer to finding out the real truth of what happened that day.

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The tip of the iceberg

The News International scandal is just the tip of the iceberg of unelected oligarchies and corporate power in Britain’s democracy, according to a new report by David Beetham of the LSE, arguing that:

it serves to distract attention, as the MPs’ expenses affair did, from the ongoing embrace of the corporate world by politicians, of which their toadying to Murdoch has been such an egregious example.

Meanwhile, using a piece of legislation for other than the intended purpose, the Met is seeking to force the  Guardian to produce its source for the Milly Dowler phone hacking story by way of the Official Secrets Act.  Precedent seems to suggest that they won’t get very far in this course of action, but it is an unnecessary, not to mention expensive, battle for the Guardian to face.  Especially at a time when they have been picking up almost universal plaudits for pursuing the story in the face of so much hostility.

After a summer of revelations, it looks like this one has got much further to run yet.

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Phone hacking: the end of the beginning?

Having spent the weekend taking journalism’s weak pulse, it would be remiss not to at least glance at the chart of  the biggest media story of my lifetime.  Especially since yesterday saw further revelations from the parliamentary select committee and the preliminary inquiry hearing into phone-hacking by UK newspapers.  Again, I offer my apologies to everyone who reached saturation point with the whole affair long ago.

That seems to be a fairly natural reaction, as at more than one point this summer, it seemed the revelations were coming too quickly to grasp.  Yet things started slowly, as they often do, with actor Sienna Miller receiving a payout in the case she had brought against News Group, publishers of The Sun and The News of the World (NOTW), over claims they had hacked into her mobile phone’s voicemail messages.  As part of the settlement they admitted unconditional liability.

And there it might have rested, one more tale of how vile the British newspapers can be to those they consider fair game because they are deemed to have courted fame for one reason or another.  Interest might certainly have waned, were it not for continuing disclosures of the hacking of phones belonging to murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler, relatives of service personnel killed in Afghanistan and even those who surely, they didn’t need to hack at all.

The NOTW defence that these practices were limited to one rogue reporter, Clive Goodman, jailed for hacking the phones of Buckingham Palace staff, were never particularly convincing.  As occurred to many, what editor would be so un-curious as to the sources of such rival-busting scoops?  That argument was further blown full of holes by a Guardian story detailing payouts of over £1m to settle three cases that threatened to reveal how widespread phone hacking was.  As the Guardian very delicately pointed out:

The evidence also poses difficult questions for:

• Conservative leader David Cameron’s director of communications, Andy Coulson, who was deputy editor and then editor of the News of the World when, the suppressed evidence shows, journalists for whom he was responsible were engaging in hundreds of apparently illegal acts.

• Murdoch executives who, albeit in good faith, misled a parliamentary select committee, the Press Complaints Commission and the public.

• The Metropolitan police, which did not alert all those whose phones were targeted, and the Crown Prosecution Service, which did not pursue all possible charges against News Group personnel.

• The Press Complaints Commission, which claimed to have conducted an investigation, but failed to uncover any evidence of illegal activity.

For confirmed political junkies, this was the effect of pure grade medical stuff being applied directly to the receptors.  Like one of those stoned conversations you hear at the end of a long night, when you feel the truth of every jibbering, over-indulged word from your companions.  Except now it turns out that was all true and ‘they’ really were all in it together

Within quick succession, the NOTW was closed and News International Chief Executive Rebekah Brooks resigned, leaving commentators to ponder what it could possibly all mean.  Was News International unravelling after so long in control, or were these calculated moves to head off further scrutiny, especially the perceived threat of UK investigations spreading to the US?  How far Brooks’ departure could help to avoid this scenario remains to be seen.  Given Murdoch Senior’s skills as a political operator, it is surely premature to write the company’s obituaries.

Especially since, as an excellent article in the New Yorker noted, the tabloid culture dreamed up by Murdoch has taken over British newspapers so completely that old distinctions between tabloid and broadsheet have been pushed aside in the race to the bottom.  While readers may be shocked at how far journalists went, within that culture, it is less surprising:

If your attitude toward the lives of others is that of a house burglar confronted by an open window; if you consider it part of your business to fabricate conversations where none exist; and if your boss treats his employees with a derision that they, following suit, extend to the subjects of their inquiries—if those elements are already in place, then the decision to, say, hack into someone’s cell phone is almost no decision at all. It is merely the next step. All that is required is the technology. What ensues may be against the law, but it goes no more against the grain of common decency than any other tool of your trade.

So while there is certainly more to come from News International and James Murdoch is likely to face more awkward questions, the newspaper readers of Britain should not lose sight of the key questions around what else these ‘rogue elements’ were up to and what the effects on the country’s democratic institutions were.  The fallout of the scandal perhaps offers the best chance in a generation to create a fairer, more equitable society for Britain.   As Freedom of Information campaigner, Heather Brooke writes:

This is why there is collusion between the elites of the police, politicians and the press. It is a cartel of information. The press only get information by playing the game. There is a reason none of the main political reporters investigated MPs’ expenses – because to do so would have meant falling out with those who control access to important civic information. The press – like the public – have little statutory right to information with no strings attached. Inside parliament the lobby system is an exercise in client journalism that serves primarily the interests of the powerful.

Freedom of information laws bust open the cartel. They give everyone an equal right to access information. You don’t have to take anyone out to lunch. You don’t have to pay anyone or suppress a damaging story to maintain a flow of information. You simply ask, with the full power of the law behind you.

She also notes:

Phone hacking, that’s just touching the surface of that whole industry in personal information which is vast, huge, it’s massive

And Tom Watson, a backbench MP who as one of Gordon Brown’s henchmen had his own insider knowledge of the ‘dark arts’ and who now sits on the parliamentary committee investigating phone-hacking agrees:

I think we’re probably only about halfway through the number of revelations. I’m pretty certain there will be quite detailed stuff on other uses of covert surveillance. I suspect that emails will be the next scandal. And devices that track people moving around. That’s just starting to come out.

Unfortunately for those who are starting to get bored with phone hacking this story looks, in the tabloid parlance, to be one ‘with legs’.  A prospect which this politics junkie is relishing.

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