LONDON, UK — What happens when innocent people lose their lives because state institutions fail? Do political leaders admit fault and apologize? Not often.
But it happened this week, when Britain's David Cameron apologized for the gross failures of his predecessors for the second time since becoming prime minister.
That reflects the magnitude of the case in question in the British psyche: the Hillsborough disaster in 1989, when 96 supporters of the Liverpool soccer club were crushed to death during a match at the Hillsborough stadium in the northern English city of Sheffield.
The initial police report blamed drunken fans for the tragedy. This week, the findings of a new inquest into the event found that report to be a lie. The right-wing Daily Telegraph called it "The Biggest Cover-up in History."
The inquest examined 450,000 documents related to the event, as well as extensive interviews with people who were there.
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Hillsborough shocked Liverpool, Britain and the rest of the world. Television pictures of desperate fans penned into cages trying to climb free, some being pulled up by their arms by supporters in more expensive seats, circulated the planet. The bodies of the dead lying on the field after the cages were finally broken down, when hapless emergency service workers tried to revive them reinforced the image of an event beyond the authorities’ control.
The South Yorkshire Police put out a narrative almost immediately: it was the fans' fault. They arrived late. They were drunk and unruly. A group had charged into the pens and created the crush.
The implied question was “What did you expect?” The implied answer: There was nothing we could do, Liverpool fans are hooligans.
That was spun into the press even before the bodies were returned home for burial, and many bought it.
Only the people of Liverpool were unsurprised by the conclusion of the two-year official inquest, chaired by the Bishop of Liverpool, James Jones.
The key points:
The tragedy was caused by inept police work. The South Yorkshire Police later doctored 116 of 164 documents relating to the tragedy detailing their ineptitude.
The emergency services failed to intervene in time because they didn’t recognize the situation’s severity.
Pathologists who examined the dead tainted the coroner's report by making gross errors about the time and cause of death.
The original report said none of the 96 could have been saved because they were all dead by 3:15, when the gates of the pen were finally opened. It is now clear that 41 of those people were still alive and could have been revived if the emergency services had reacted properly.
The Hillsborough disaster was a central event in the last quarter century of British history. Besides its magnitude, it brought together several strands of social developments into one tragedy.
At the time, football hooliganism had been the most visible expression of social breakdown in the UK for a decade-and-a-half. Fans usually stood on terraces at matches because there were no seats. At one time, terraces added to the communal atmosphere. However, hooliganism put an end to that. Fans were sequestered after iron pens were erected to keep them separate.
Dedicated footie fans put up with it, along with substandard toilets and being policed as if they were animals. Football inspires a blind love and many accepted the discomfort as the price for their obsession.
There had been a number of close calls before Hillsborough, even loss of life, but the practice of locking fans in persisted. Anyone with half a brain could see it was unsafe. I stopped going on the terraces for matches of my local club, Arsenal, in 1987 because I considered it no longer safe. (The Arsenal stadium was a model of decorum compared to other grounds.)
It wasn’t hard for police to spin the idea that Liverpool's drunken fans were to blame for their tragedy because there had been many incidents of alcohol-fueled violence during the previous decade and a half.
In fact, Liverpool fans weren’t really known for being hooligans.
That was another strand of social history highlighted by the tragedy: Liverpool itself. There’s an intimate connection between the city and its football teams, Liverpool and Everton. Today, Liverpool is owned by John Henry, owner of the Boston Red Sox. But the blind passion of Red Sox fans pales in comparison to the obsession of Liverpool fans for their team. It was even greater in the 1980s.
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The city had virtually nothing left except football by 1989. Its population had halved since its glory days as a port 50 years earlier. The Beatles had departed in
1963 and never really returned. Longstanding de-industrialization had collided with the harsh reality of free-market economics endorsed by Margaret Thatcher. Unemployment and accompanying social unrest were rife.
I made my first visit to the city to report on football and decline in 1987. The local newspaper The Liverpool Echo contained one page of help wanted ads and two pages of death notices.
But economic hardship was bearable because Liverpool FC weren’t just the best team in England, but the world. "We may not have money,” one unemployed Liverpool fan told me back then, “but we've got the silverware, the trophies."
When the 96 people died horribly at Hillsborough did, the whole city felt it.
When Britain’s largest-selling newspaper, the Rupert Murdoch-owned Sun, ran the headline "THE TRUTH," which claimed people in the stands robbed the dead, it wasn’t a case of just sticks and stones. It scarred a community for generations.
Yesterday, the reporter who wrote the article apologized again.
No one running for public office in Liverpool could hope to win without a promise to help the truth emerge. Local MPs pressed for it for twenty years, often in the face of criticism from Britain's overwhelmingly right-wing press. That’s another strand of the story.
Liverpool is a Labour Party stronghold, but beyond that, it’s unique in England. It has a massive population with Irish Catholic ancestry. It's the source of a fair amount of prejudice. There has never been much love lost between Liverpudlians and the rest of the country. Readers old enough to remember John Lennon will remember the chip on his shoulder. Most Scousers (as the city's natives are called) carry it, too.
This week saw the vindication of every local MP and family representative who endured scorn over the years. The authorities’ terrible failings might have remained hidden but for their stubbornness.
Cameron's apology is only a first step in the state’s restitution. The prime minister declared that the attorney general would now be free to decide whether criminal proceedings will be instituted. It’s pretty clear that obstruction of justice took place ("perverting the course of justice" is the British term). There might even be grounds for charges of manslaughter.
Whether criminal charges will be brought is open to question.
For the moment, however, the people of Liverpool are happy their community's name has been cleared and the families of the dead have seen the truth confirmed.
And the people of Britain are left feeling thankful they live in a system where the government is willing to apologize when gross errors are made, even if it takes a couple of decades for the truth to come out.