This is a post about culture. I’m covering 27 years of history here so please bear with me.
I grew up in 70’s/80’s Britain. Violence seemed to be part of every day life. From the troubles in Northern Ireland to the miners strike, from race riots to tribal football rivalries, punks v skins etc. If, like me, you spent your life at gigs and football matches, random violence was an occupational hazard and you developed a sixth sense for when it was going to kick off and when you were in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Then on 15 April 1989 Hillsborough happened. I was at a match myself that day, watching Chelsea play at Leicester hoping we would get the win we needed to secure promotion back to the top division. We lost. Halfway through the first half the stadium announcer told the crowd the FA Cup semi final had been delayed because of crowd trouble. We all cheered.
It wasn’t until I got home that night that I found out the extent of what had happened. 96 fellow fans had set out that morning, like me, full of hope and expectation. But they never made it home. Over 400 more were hospitalised. This week a new inquest ruled that those 96 Liverpool fans were unlawfully killed that day at Hillsborough.
At the time I was a Civil Servant in Westminster. Six months later I secured what I thought was my dream job, working in the team responsible for football policy under the auspices of the Minister for Sport. My pre-job induction was to read the recently published Taylor Report into the Hillsborough disaster.
I joined a small team swamped by hundreds of letters coming in every week to the Minister from football fans and MPs protesting about the Taylor recommendations. Each letter was given a tailored, individual answer. Of course we had stock paragraphs we cut and pasted as required, there was always an official “line to take” on every key issue. It was grim work.
I was also a member of a Government working group of all the key Government Departments, the English and Scottish FA’s, and respective country’s police and transport police representatives. Our role? To ensure English and Scottish fans could not wreak havoc at the forthcoming World Cup in Italy. But that’s a whole other post!
To be fair, they were dark days for football. The Bradford fire and Heysel disasters of 1985 were still fresh in the memory. As a result of the latter, English clubs were indefinitely banned from playing in Europe, we were the pariahs of the beautiful game. I supported a club whose then chairman had installed a 12 foot high electrified barbed wire fence around the pitch. Fortunately he was never allowed to turn it on.
As a travelling fan I had stood in Hillsborough’s Leppings Lane end myself a few times where those fans died, I had been caught in crush situations many times at different grounds when far too many people were crammed into fenced pens, or too many were outside a ground trying to gain access through too few turnstiles with watching police either unwilling or unable to act and apply common sense. Football fans were treated (and so often behaved) like scum, animals. Hillsborough was a disaster waiting to happen.
Lord Justice Taylor had recommended the reduction of terracing at all stadia, the removal of fencing and the banning of alcohol. Margaret Thatcher subsequently tried to introduce an identity card scheme for all football fans. To a large degree the assumption was that hooliganism had somehow created the conditions for the disaster. What none of us knew was that we were all complicit in a massive institutional cover up.
It took over 20 years for the truth to emerge about how the South Yorkshire police conspired to lie and cover up their own inadequacies and systematically blamed the Liverpool fans for what happened. If you haven’t watched the brilliant ESPN documentary on the fight for justice I would urge you to do so. It reduced me tears more than once, and left me feeling both unbelievably angry and ashamed to be English. David Conn’s excellent Guardian piece this week is also a must read.
Living on the other side of the world as I have for the past 19 years, I had lost touch with the fight for justice being waged by the families of the dead. This film was a shocking and damning revelation.
Ultimately we are talking about culture. Interestingly, I spotted last week Gemma Reucroft’s absorbing old post about the Battle of Orgreave during the year long miners strike where the South Yorkshire police similarly covered up their disgraceful actions.
Shadow Home Secretary Andy Burnham told the House of Commons this week that the conduct of the South Yorkshire Police during the recent new inquest showed that the force “hasn’t learned and hasn’t changed” since Hillsborough. He went on to say that while he didn’t blame the ordinary police officers who did their best on the day, “I do blame their leadership and culture, which seems rotten to the core.”
By continuing to try and discredit those who died through the recent inquest despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, we’ve seen proof that bad cultures/leaders cannot be changed.
According to the Guardian, it is the culture of the force that so many have talked about. One former senior employee described it as “naive for a big city force, conducting itself in a way a small constabulary might have done 20 or 30 years ago.” An ingrained culture described as too slow to admit mistakes – institutional defensiveness, difficulty in admitting failings and trying to blame others.
Thank God we now live in a world where, for all its faults, transparency and openness are prevalent and wrongs are quickly righted. Where we demand more of our leaders and hold them accountable for their actions. We understand the need for honesty and decency and most of us will speak up and admit when we’ve made a mistake. We no longer tolerate blame cultures in our organisations and we take an almost zero tolerance towards bullying, polarizing or intimidating behaviour.
Could such a long term cover up happen today? I don’t believe it could.
The day they took the fences down after Hillsborough English football slowly but surely came back from the brink. It’s probably too late for the South Yorkshire police. Instead it’s the families of the 96 who have achieved justice with courage.