I STARTED writing this article in the aftermath of the verdicts of the Hillsborough inquests being delivered, but abandoned it because it didn’t feel like the right time to say some of the things I wanted to say.
In the months that have passed, some of Britain voted to leave the EU (more a Sombrexit than Brexit), some Americans elected Donald Trump as the most powerful man in the world and Norman Bettison wrote a book. I also took part in an interesting Anfield Wrap podcast about the boycott of the S*n newspaper and its continuing importance, which led me to contemplate writing the article again. I’d recommend listening to that podcast if you haven’t already.
I have to admit I was struggling to find the right tone that would make this piece suitable for these pages, bearing in mind that this is a football website and not usually somewhere I can just have a political rant. Then I watched a short interview with Norman Bettison on Newsnight in which he was grilled by Evan Davies. I’m not sure I can remember the last time I saw someone squirm on national TV the way Mr Bettison did. Amongst other things, that interview led me back to this article
So, here we are. I’m going to say some things that you might not like. What I ask is that you read to the end then, before shouting abuse at me via twitter (it’s @paul7cope, by the way) or in the comments below, come back and read it again, think about it, let it mull around in your mind for a while, have a cup of tea and a sit down. If you still disagree with anything I’ve said after that, you’ll find I’m happy to engage in a reasoned debate but if you start your message with “you’re a disgrace”, or something similar, you’ll simply be demonstrating that you haven’t taken on board a single thing I’ve said and I might just tell you to fuck off.
Now that we’ve settled how this is going to work, let me start by saying I agree wholeheartedly with one of the last things Mr Bettison said on Newsnight. We live in a society that’s too eager to jump down people’s throats and rush to judgment. The world of Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat and all of the other social media platforms that lead us to spending our days alternating between staring at little black boxes in our hands and bigger black boxes on our desks have done nothing to alleviate our desire to swing wildly between black and white judgments of our fellow humans. Football gives us some of the best examples of this, with managers either afforded God-like status or demands being made that they be sacked after a few games, with very little allowance for the huge middle ground of “he’s ok really and probably just needs a bit more time”.
We need to take a long hard look at ourselves when it comes to the rush to judgment that we all partake in.
Mr Bettison also said in his interview, without a hint of irony, that “the idea of the presumption of innocence is dead”.
Just let that sink in for a second. When talking about the way in which he has been blamed for any part in Hillsborough or its subsequent cover up he bemoans the fact that the presumption of innocence, which is one of the bedrocks of our legal system, is dead, yet he was a key part of a police force that purposefully and systematically created a smear campaign against football supporters who actually died at a football match, giving them, their fellow supporters, their families and a whole city no chance of being presumed innocent by the rest of the country.
The now infamous S*n headline, discussed at length in the podcast, together with the stories written by other newspapers in the aftermath of Hillsborough informed the rest of the country that the fans were to blame for the disaster and the death of their fellow supporters. Worse still, supporters were depicted as animals who would steal from and urinate on dead bodies.
I’ve heard people say that they can’t understand how people could swallow such unbelievably horrible things said about other humans. I’ve also heard people question how something as atrocious as the Holocaust could ever be allowed to happen. Whenever I hear those things now I am absolutely dumbfounded, because the same thing is happening around us at this very moment, and around 50 per cent of Great Britain and America can’t see it.
People ask how The S*n could get away with the headline it wrote. I say not only could it get away with the headline with ease, but that people lapped it up. There was no outcry at the way in which the story was depicted other than in the city that heard the first-hand accounts of the people who were at Hillsborough that fateful day and knew the truth of the events that unfolded.
The rest of the country was left to believe that what they were told by the biggest “newspaper” of the time must have been true.
And why wouldn’t they?
To put that headline in context, we didn’t have the football supporting landscape in 1989 that we see today. Hooliganism had been a problem amongst a section of football supporters for many years and some Liverpool fans had been involved in the Heysel disaster that had been the final straw in English football clubs being banned from European competition just a few years earlier.
At the same time, the country was being led by a right-wing Conservative party (not quite “radical populist”, “alt-right” or whatever other modern phrase you want to use instead of the word “fascists”, but more that way inclined than the right of centre Tories who have largely knocked around since), who were quite happy to let the narrative run that all football supporters were working-class scum and should be treated accordingly. Liverpool itself was in a terrible state at the time and in the throes of a proposed “managed decline” having been abandoned by the government.
If I’d have carried out research in 1989 of the general population in Britain and asked for their immediate reaction to words like “football supporter”, “Scousers” or “Liverpool”, what do you think would have been the outcome? I would hazard a guess that the words “scum”, “thieves” and “hooligans” might have played a significant part.
Can we blame the rest of the country for having those views? Can we blame the rest of the country for believing what they read in the “newspapers”? Can we blame them for judging our city and believing those despicable stories?
My biggest concern about all of this is that nothing has changed since 1989.
The families of those who were killed at Hillsborough have spent 27 years fighting for truth and justice and, thankfully, have finally found some level of peace through the inquest verdicts.
As Gareth Roberts said on the S*n boycott podcast, though, we all knew the truth anyway. We’ve known it since that day when our dads, brothers, mums, sisters, aunties, uncles and cousins came back from Hillsborough traumatised by the horrendous scenes they had witnessed. All that has happened since the inquests is that most of the rest of the country now believes us.
I have to say that when I see supporters of other teams holding up banners in support of the justice campaign, I can’t help but think it’s all a bit after the Lord Mayor’s show. We now have national “newspapers”, some of the same “newspapers” that helped to smear the reputations of the dead and their families, jumping on the justice bandwagon whilst at the very same time smearing the reputations of other groups, again without a hint of irony.
To highlight what I mean, think about what immediately jumps into your head when you hear the following words:
Muslim. Refugee. Immigrant.
Your reaction is likely to depend on the “newspapers” that you read or the other sources from which you obtain whatever you deem as news. I once heard Barack Obama answer a question about what he thought his legacy would be by saying something like “it depends whether you’re asking about the Obama on Fox News or the Obama on CNN”.
Take a look at these headlines and tell me whether you think they are slowly changing what people think when the words above are mentioned.
If what The S*n could get away with in 1989 seems bad, the ‘clickbait’ world in which we now all live is much, much worse.
It means that the vast majority of the “news” we consume is, by design, shocking, intriguing or funny, because those are the emotions which are most likely to tempt us to click. My issue with all of this is that there is a general assumption among us that if we read something somewhere it must be based on truth. If a national newspaper publishes a story, we can believe it as being accurate and rely on the information to disseminate to our friends.
The problem is that that wasn’t the case in 1989 and it isn’t the case now. We are all too eager to believe everything we read and there seems to be very little regulating what we read to enable us to know what is true and what isn’t.
The families of the 96 and the wider city of Liverpool might have found truth and be on a road to a form of justice, but think about the groups above and who’s fighting for truth and justice for them. I often think, as perverse as it may sound, that at least there were 96 families who could lean on and support each other for the past 27 years following Hillsborough, and at least they came from a city like Liverpool that looks after its own. Imagine if just a handful of Liverpool supporters had died that day. Whilst that would have been undoubtedly better than 96 people losing their lives, do we really think that 27 years later the lies that had been spread for so long would have been shown to be just that?
It has taken a gargantuan amount of strength, desire and, ultimately, love, that has carried those families for that long and, at times, it has needed different people to lead the charge and carry the baton because there’s only so much one human can do before breaking down. Think about everything that’s happened to you in the past 27 years. You might not have even been alive that long. Yet during that entire time, those families have had to endure an unimaginable battle.
Imagine if the rest of the country had known back then what they do now and had been able to lend support to the fight rather than telling the families to ‘get over it’ and ‘move on’. Maybe then those who had died at Hillsborough and their loved ones wouldn’t have had to wait 27 years for the truth to be widely accepted.
And what about you? Are you reading this article nodding along at the disgusting way in which those who died at Hillsborough, their families and the wider city as a whole were portrayed by the media, while simultaneously believing everything you now read about those other groups I mentioned? If so, you’re no better than the people who believed Liverpool supporters urinated on and stole from dead bodies without any proof other than what the “newspapers” said.
If I am describing you, the best suggestion I can make is that you start consuming your news from a balanced selection of resources. Do you regularly read the Daily Mail? Maybe start taking a look at The Guardian’s point of view on the story you’ve just read about refugees, Muslims or immigrants. Check whether your news sources have a left or right-wing bias and seek out the alternative view before forming your own opinion.
Picture the subject of each story as the individual human being that they are.
Picture how each of the victims of the Hillsborough disaster and their fellow supporters were depicted by the media not as individual humans but as part of a block of pond life who deserved nothing from anyone else.
Think about if that was you, your mum, dad, brother or sister. There are people close to me who are disgusted about the media’s treatment of Hillsborough yet still lap up everything they are told about the other groups I’ve referred to. Some of them don’t even realise that the “newspapers” they are reading are right-wing biased.
Did these quotes and memes appear on your timeline during the election?
They were shared thousands of times– but they’re not all they appear pic.twitter.com/Rr0ynGQN1w
— Channel 4 News (@Channel4News) November 15, 2016
And now we have Norman Bettison releasing a book with the title Untold. Quite how he can deem anything to be untold after the inquests is shocking in itself and might warrant further investigation.
In the interests of full disclosure, though, I will read his book (I might not pay to read it, I’m not so liberal that I will give him money for the privilege).
— The Wrong Kennedy (@wrong_kennedy) November 16, 2016
I truly believe that the only way in which we can repair our broken societies is to start listening to each other more in a reasoned way and not rush to judgment before considering all of the available information. On that I appear to agree with Mr Bettison (although he didn’t seem to have that opinion 27 years ago).
I was searching earlier this week for positive stories about Steve Bannon (I’ve since been hoping that it won’t lead to me being arrested for some of the things I found), I’ve previously searched why, if I was American, I should vote for Donald Trump and I spent a good amount of time during the lead up to Brexit looking into why I should vote to leave the EU.
Too many of us have formed opinions based on snippets of information fed to us by the unwieldy, basically unregulated media that now exists, not actually knowing what is true and what isn’t — many of us not even concerning ourselves with that question. We mostly live in our own echo chambers on social media, never challenging our own views and assuming those with different views are simply wrong or, worse, stupid. We need to start facing the reality that unless we engage with those with different opinions to our own we can never hear the other side of the argument and seek to learn about our differences.
These are things that we can all do and we should start doing straight away. We don’t need the so called leaders of our countries, our police forces or our “newspapers” to start doing it before we do it for ourselves.
We all need to start taking responsibility for our own actions, but we also need to start forcing those responsible for leading our countries and informing us of “news” to take responsibility for their actions. The idea of a no blame culture is a great one, but it needs to be replaced by a “take responsibility for your actions” culture, and taking responsibility for your actions takes courage, especially in the event of disasters like Hillsborough when people have lost their lives and terrible mistakes have been made.
We live in an age where you can win referendums and be elected as President of the USA based on lies and mis-truths, with seemingly no responsibility being taken in the aftermath by those who lied and no consequences for doing so. If we want to see lasting justice for those who lost their lives at Hillsborough and groups like them, our task now should be to ensure that those who lead us and those who report the “news” to us do so in a more responsible manner.
Mr Bettison opens the preface of his book with the line “This account is offered in the spirit of openness and transparency”. I have to admit I read that opening line and had to close the book, leaving the rest of it for another time.
Maybe if Mr Bettison and his colleagues had the courage to offer their accounts in the spirit of openness and transparency 27 years ago, and the national press had been made to be more responsible about the way they reported the tragic events, we would be living in a very different world today.
- For more on Bettison’s book, this is well worth a read.