The Hillsborough truth is getting nearer
The first House of Commons debate ever to be televised took place on 21st November 1989, a moment of history that meant members of the public could now see as well as hear the MPs they’d elected discuss the issues of the day. In years to come multi – channel TV became widely available and Parliament would get its own TV channel, allowing access even to the debates that would normally be held without even a mention on the main news programmes, let alone a column inch in a national newspaper.
That first televised debate occurred seven months after the Hillsborough disaster that had claimed 96 innocent lives. The House of Commons had discussed the disaster in the days immediately after it took place and it was there that the decision to appoint Lord Justice Taylor to hold an inquiry into it was announced. In years to come there would be sporadic mentions but time and again those mentions were lost in the midst of other discussions in the old – fashioned, at times outdated, procedures and protocol of the House.
There was much opposition to the idea of televising the proceedings of the House and a number of previous attempts to bring cameras into the midst of the MPs had been voted out. Cameras are of course now firmly established, no doubt a permanent fixture, and so there is no longer a need to persuade MPs of their benefit. But last night, a month or so short of the 22nd anniversary of that first televised debate, the necessity of having those cameras – and for their images to be broadcast live and uninterrupted for all voters who wish to see them – was proven to all but the bitterest of old – school political dinosaurs, the inhumane types who have for far too long ruled the roost or had the influence in British politics.
Last night we saw the human side of the House of Commons, a sight that it’s impossible to remember seeing in such intensity ever before. Politicians visit places of suffering, not always for the sake of being seen by the cameras, and are often visibly moved by what they see. But in their own place, in their own playground amidst those dark green seats, far too often the words and facial expressions come across as unfeeling and even callous.
Last night the politics went out of the window. Last night the loyalty to a party, a team, a social class or a city wasn’t part of the agenda. The people speaking didn’t sound like politicians, there wasn’t an ounce of disrespect, MP after MP spoke from the heart and many were visibly moved by what their colleagues were saying. BBC Parliament have to put the name of the party the MP represents in their caption as each member speaks – but for once those party names meant nothing. It was the towns they represented that mattered, the people they represented, the issue that they were speaking about.
The debate had made history before it even began, just for the fact it was going to happen. It was the first one to be held following on from an e – petition and the e – petition had attracted almost 140,000 signatures. But then the debate itself became a massive part of history.
Steve Rotheram opened the debate with some fine words. He then closed his own speech by reading out words that are familiar to many of us, the names and ages of all 96 victims. That was the first time those names had been read out in Parliament, the first time the names would be on the record alongside all the other debates held in the House in its long history.
It takes a long time to read out 96 names.
As the names are being read out – as they are each year at Anfield for the memorial service – the thought that each name was someone’s brother or sister, mother or father, best mate, partner or even just a similar soul to you or your own is inescapable. It brings up pictures in the mind of 96 funerals, of 96 sets of friends and family paying their respects back in an age that is so different to today yet still feels so recent as to be painfully raw. Those funerals didn’t allow the bereaved to move onto that next stage of the grieving process that somehow they usually do. Every year that those names are read out it brings about another layer of empathy and of understanding and of seeing it through older and different eyes.
The teenagers of 22 years ago who, thankfully, are still here today have in many cases got teenagers of their own now. 22 years on and the teenagers of the day now feel what their parents felt at the time, what their parents were thinking at the time, what their parents were imagining at the time, why their parents took them to Anfield to see the flowers and pay their respects and why their parents knew it was the right thing to do. They now know why those hugs were offered and they know what it was that went unsaid.
Every time those names are read out everyone listening feels it just a little bit more. And last night Parliament felt it.
Andy Burnham spoke yesterday of how his decision to attend and speak at the 20th anniversary service was “the best I have ever made. The reaction of the Kop reminded the rest of the country there was a deep, unresolved injustice.” In his speech last night he ensured that all three Hillsborough groups were acknowledged, a point that might seem small to outside observers but one that was massive to the members of the groups that have far too often felt unheard.
The families have suffered for 22 years and their stories are heartbreaking. The survivors have suffered too and their stories aren’t just heartbreaking but are horrifying, deeply moving and often the catalyst that drives people to fight so hard for the justice yet to be done.
Decent people can’t listen to those stories and then stand by and do nothing.
MP after MP spoke from the heart and time and again did so by pointing out how the disaster and the loss related to them. An MP from Nottingham pointed out how easily it could have been his constituents who suffered had it been the Nottingham Forest fans who were given the Leppings Lane end of the ground. Others spoke of friends they’d lost in the disaster, or other games they’d attended prior to Hillsborough which they now see could have had the same awful outcome.
Time and again the cameras showed MPs with that redness of the face that makes it clear they were holding back tears, time and again these people were trying to discretely dab their eyes and retain composure.
Perhaps the most moving point came with the speech from Alison McGovern, MP for Wirral South, who told the House the disaster had occurred when she was eight years old. She recalled how she was in the Lower Centenary with her family at Anfield for the twentieth anniversary service. That was the service that saw far more people attend than had been expected. In previous years the Kop was adequate to seat all who wanted to be there but for this service the Kop, the Lower Centenary, the lower Anfield Road and the Main Stand were filled as tens of thousands of people came to pay their respects, lining up in queues that snaked around the ground.
At the time Steve Rotheram was the lord mayor of Liverpool and he memorably spoke at the service. Mrs McGovern recalled: “I was taken aback then at his bravery in describing the impact of Hillsborough on his life, and I was deeply proud of him, although I did not know him. Little did I know that, just over a year later, we would both join this place and become friends – and I am really glad we have.”
Holding back tears she explained the importance of the debate and of the released of the documents: “The motion we are debating today is essentially about the truth. That is what we want. For all those affected by events on 15 April 1989, we want to get to the truth – the truth uncensored, the truth without redaction, the truth with no questions left to answer.
“I want to say on behalf of my constituents why the truth matters so very much. To answer that question, I need to go back to the day itself.
“As I said earlier, I was an eight-year-old girl at the time. It was about then that I started to go to football matches and, like many young children, I learned about the wonder of football – the atmosphere, the beauty, the skill on display – and I learned to stay close to my family and not get lost.”
She was at home on the day of the disaster: “Luckily, I was sat in our front room in our house in Bromborough with my dad – and I can still see the look on his face now, because he knew what was happening. Football fans all over Britain knew. They were watching on TV, listening on radios from other football grounds. Thousands and thousands were gripped with horror as bodies were pulled out of the pens in the Leppings Lane end of the Hillsborough ground, and thousands prayed for the safety of those being carried across the pitch on cheap advertising hoardings for stretchers.
“The awfulness of that day sunk in over the weeks and months afterwards. It was the worst possible shock. As Alan Hansen, on the pitch playing for Liverpool that day, has said of the disaster, ‘the number of broken hearts is incalculable’.
“Sadly, for many I have spoken to over the years, there has been a grim recognition of how this could have happened. In the 1980s, football fans were broadly deemed by some to be scum. The relationship between supporters and the police was frequently poisonous. There was a culture of disrespect for fans.” She quoted the interim Taylor report which talked of “an imbalance between the need to quell a minority of troublemakers and the need to secure the safety and comfort of the majority.”
She continued: “Yet this was something new in the scale of the horror. In the weeks that followed, people poured into Anfield to show their respects, and everyone wanted answers. Everyone wanted to know how on earth this could have happened.
“Well, from a practical perspective, we do know why 96 people died and hundreds and hundreds suffered. We know it because Members have said it, but I want to say it again for clarity.
“The interim report of the Taylor inquiry, immediately after the disaster, found that police error allowed too many fans into too small an area of the ground, and an absence of effective leadership exacerbated the suffering caused. Despite problems of ground safety, different decisions could have been taken on that day.”
She referred to something mentioned earlier by MP for Birkenhead Frank Field. “Because of two terrible processes that happened straight away, both in the immediate aftermath and in the years that followed, we are still frozen in those early stages of grief in the awful horror of it all, unable to come to terms with it.
“That is why we need the truth now.
“The first awful process was the appearance of stories in newspapers which took the good names of fans who were at Hillsborough on that day and threw them in the mud. One newspaper in particular made untrue allegations of specific behaviour by fans that had simply never happened.”
That paper was, of course, The Sun, a paper still boycotted on Merseyside and by many others. Its editor that day, the poisonous Kelvin MacKenzie, feels no regret for running the lies he did and in such a prominent manner yet he continues to be employed by heartless executives at other media outlets, executives who ignore the requests of their own staff not to employ the despicable embarrassment of an individual. Last night there were calls during the debate for him to be banned from other media outlets if he didn’t issue an apology today. Nobody expects such an apology to be made and the actions of those outlets in continuing to employ him will be damaging as the greater population connect their organisations to his lies. Even if an apology did come it’s unlikely it would be accepted, people want him out of the public eye and his vindictive voice to be belatedly silenced.
Mrs McGovern went on: “Those newspapers took people who were suffering in a manner that few of us here can imagine, let alone have experienced, and ripped apart their dignity. Not only did those affected have to suffer physical and mental injury; they had to witness their honour being attacked as though they were the lowest of the low.
“People may recall the pictures of newspapers being burnt in Liverpool at the time, but what they may not know is how those lies have echoed down through the years, and how they continue to be spread.
“I moved to London in 1999, fully 10 years after the disaster, and I was shocked then by how many people still believed the lies told about Hillsborough. They did not believe those lies out of malice, but no one had ever corrected them before. On many occasions I have had to explain what actually happened at Hillsborough, why the calls for justice still ring out, and why people will not ‘just let go’. Even today, we still see horrible claims repeated online, on websites. Those awful lies, which have been corrected any number of times, are still perpetuated.
“Often the people whom we correct are quite shocked, having simply assumed that football supporters were to blame.” This is something that happens time and time again – anyone presented with the facts can see it wasn’t the supporters to blame but it’s only relatively recently that many have actually been presented with the facts.
She then spoke about “the second awful process that has brought us here today. Our justice system did not deliver, and has not been seen to provide a just account, for the families of those who died at or because of the disaster. No prosecutions have been brought against those who were responsible, despite the conclusions of the Taylor inquiry. The inquest process was flawed by the provision of insubstantial representation for families, and by a large number of other factors that undermine the authority of the verdict.
“Most seriously, as others have said, no evidence was considered about events after 3.15 pm on the day, so the actions of the police in the rescue operation, and numerous other crucial details that should have featured in a proper account, were not examined. The scrutiny of the evidence which took place in 1998 was likewise flawed, and private prosecutions did not provide conclusive verdicts.
“The truth about Hillsborough has never been fully acknowledged. The truth about the causes of those deaths has not been put fully on the record in the way for which our legal system should allow. That is why, for 22 years, we have stood at Anfield and shouted for justice. It is why this campaign is supported by football fans from all teams, from all parts of Britain – as has has been clear from what Members have said today – and indeed across the world. It is why I am trying to explain today why the full truth is so important to so many.
“One of the most moving sights at the memorial service is the people who come wearing the colours of teams from far and wide to show their support. In every year that has gone by, our voices calling for justice have become louder. Each year, the numbers attending Anfield on the anniversary are larger.
“If there is anyone left in the country who thinks that the campaign for justice will just fade away over time, let me tell them that they are very wrong.
“The strength of our community, and our commitment to justice, will not fade.
“We have already waited 22 years for the truth about Hillsborough, and we cannot wait any longer.
“This is a straightforward matter of letting those affected know precisely what happened – of telling in respect of every locus where decisions were taken, what happened and why.
“Only then, when we know the truth, can we have justice, and can we hold up an account and say, ‘This is the truth. This is how our loved ones died. May such a thing never happen again. Their memory will never leave our hearts.’”
Applause rang out from the public gallery, the debate continued and four hours after it began the motion was carried without a single “no”.
One day we will look back on the 17th of October as a momentous day, a milestone in the battle for justice and perhaps most importantly of all the battle for the truth. The battle will go on until the families and survivors have what they want, the families and survivors know they have our support, that our numbers are growing and that never again will we allow them to be let down by the authorities.
Last night it was clear that we can include a good number of MPs amongst us.