Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Hillsborough 1989 (& Football Fans not Criminals 2016)

Earlier this month the BBC broadcast Daniel Gordon's moving documentary 'Hillsborough' about the terrible events of 15 April 1989  at the Liverpool vs. Nottingham Forest FA Cup semi-final which led to the death of 96 people. The film - minus its updated conclusion - was actually made a couple of years ago, and had been shown in the US, but could not be shown on British TV because of new inquests into the deaths after the High Court quashed the original verdicts in 2012.

In April 2016  the jury in the new inquest ruled that the 96 Liverpool fans had been 'unlawfully killed' in Sheffield, in effect confirming the verdict of the documentary that the police and the stadium's owners were responsible for the tragedy, not the actions of the fans.

This is what the Hillsborough Justice campaign has been arguing since day one, and in that respect the documentary was not surprizing.  That senior police officers, the Police Federation, and much of the press seem to have deliberately mis-represented what happened on that day to try and shift the blame on to the victims is nothing new either.  Out of respect for the dead some of the footage had been pixrlated so viewers were not exposed to the full horror of some of the images I recall from the time. But still I was shocked by details of the level of callous treatment meted out to relatives of the dead on the weekend of the disaster and for many years afterwards.

 The focus was very much on specific decisions made by senior local officers on the day, but it is also important to consider the broader picture. It is quite right that individuals should be held accountable for their actions, but the simple fact is that however clueless these decisions may have been, 96 people wouldn't have died if they hadn't have been penned in by fences at the side and in front that made it impossible for people to move away from overcrowded areas. It was the punitive official culture of treating football fans as dangerous animals that helped created this danger, and this was fed into by senior politicians and sports administrators. 

In the lead up to the disaster, for instance, a major focus of Margaret Thatcher's government was on trying to bring in a compulsory Football Membership Scheme ('football ID cards' to opponents) despite warnings about the risks of bottlenecks of fans building up around entry points to grounds (Hansard, 25 January 1989). Sports minister Colin Moynihan was widely criticised by fans for spearheading this policy (he went on to be a key figure in the athletics establishment, chairing the British Olympic Association from 2005 to 2012).  

Prime Mnister Margaret Thatcher at Hillsborough immediately after the tragedy
with Home Secretary Douglas Hurd and Sports Minister Colin Moynihan
I went to Hillsborough in that fateful season, to see Luton Town play away at  Sheffield Wednesday in August 1988 - an uneventful match, with only 16,000 present.  Like most football fans in the aftermath of the disaster I found it both unbelievable that something so terrible could happen in such a place, but also not entirely surprizing in a period when people's safety seemed to be a low priority. This was the era of the Bradford City stadium fire (56 dead in 1985), the Kings Cross station fire (31 dead in 1987), the Herald of Free Enterprise ferry disaster (131 people unlawfully killed in 1987) and the Clapham Rail crash (35 deaths in 1988), among others.

When Saturday Comes 1989

I write this not with the benefit of nearly 30 years of hindsight. While it might have taken the BBC and much of the press many years to catch up, football fans were making these same points at the time of the Hillsborough disaster. Here's a few extracts of an article from football zine 'When Saturday Comes' in June 1989:

The Football Association, police and Prime Minister all agree 'it wasn't our fault'.
The fans respond 'Oh well it must be our fault again'
'Like you, we have read a hell of a lot about Hillsborough over the last couple of weeks. We quickly reached saturation point, partly because there are a limited number of ways in which the same points can be made without becoming repetitious and partly because so many stupid things have been said. One thing deserves to be re-iterated, however. The deaths of ninety people at a football ground in Sheffield were not just another tragic accident. Instead, they were a predictable consequence of the fact that the people who run English football have stumbled from one crisis to another without evolving a coherent, consistent, policy to deal with any specific problem.

...the attitudes are as entrenched as ever. The same policemen adopt the same aggressive attitude to football, insisting that it should be treated as a public order problem rather than a form of entertainment. The same prejudice is attached to all football fans, deemed to be passive accomplices to the sociopathic minority. The police see us as a mass entity, fuelled by drink and a single-minded resolve to wreak havoc by destroying property and attacking one another with murderous intent. Containment and damage limitation is at the core of the police strategy. Fans are treated with the utmost disrespect. We are herded, cajoled, pushed, and corralled into cramped spaces, and expected to submit passively to every new indignity.

The implication is that 'normal' people need to be protected from the football fan. But we are normal people. The Football Fan' is not an easily defined social stereotype, whatever the tabloid cartoonists may choose to believe. All manner of people go to football matches. A few of them are intent on unleashing aggressive instincts which are also manifested in wine bars on a Saturday night or in tourist hotels on the Costa Del Sol. Thuggish behaviour is rarely reported in any detail when it can't be directly linked to a football match. Football is being made the scapegoat for a society brutalised over the last decade...

Complaints about safety and comfort were ignored because they were being made by supporters. Official action will be taken now, because the same points previously raised by fans are now being made by the government and the media. Their stupidity and cowardice over a long period of time allowed Hillsborough to happen. Symptomatic of their paralysis is the frequency with which a certain phrase crops up in their public pronouncements. We are informed, with wearying regularity, that football needs to 'put its house in order'. This is, of course, a laughably imprecise phrase, intended to imply a commitment to resolute action. Needless to say, it means absolutely nothing. Clubs have to accept a proportion of the blame. They own the fences and turnstiles that helped to cause the disaster. Sheffield Wednesday officials seemed to believe that, in an emergency, it would be possible to evacuate a large number of people thorough a tiny gate in the perimeter fencing. They and their colleagues at other League grounds across the country insult loyal, put-upon customers with the pathetic standard of amenities on offer. They have failed to develop long term strategies that rely on anything beyond glib slogans about families and the importance of sponsors. The executive box holders get central heating and smoked glass but the huddled majority don't deserve even an unobstructed view and a roof. 

There is very little commonsense applied to football. In no other area of life is the victim treated with as much disrespect as the perpetrator, nor the majority held to be guilty of the crimes perpetrated by a minority. But, ultimately, what happens to us doesn't matter. It is our own fault for being football fans. That is why MPs always ignored pleas from supporters' organisations seeking to prevent the sort of disaster which has become a reality. Whatever they may say, few politicians gave any indication that they cared about football fans before Hillsborough happened. Suddenly everyone knows the answer. A fortnight ago, they didn't even hear the question. It didn't take very long for Hillsborough to become our fault. Indeed, initial reports pinned blame on supporters who were believed to have broken down a gate. Later, as the analysts set to work, blame was heaped upon the large number of fans who arrived without tickets. Then the police's press department piped up, revealing that many were drunk and generally doing all the things that fans are famous for. Had the television cameras not been present to record the disaster as it unfolded, many people would have unquestioningly accepted the garbage that has been pumped out by some of the tabloid hacks. Fans have been both the prophesiers and the victims of Hillsborough, but who believes that they will be invited to play an active part in solving the problems which it highlighted? We will be obliged to meekly accept the remedy offered.

....Identification of the real culprits is lost amid desperate, scurrying attempts to avoid blame. The same people who indignantly call for the fences to be torn down now are the same ones who demanded that they should be put up in the first place. Thanks were duly said for there not having been any perimeter fences at Bradford, but no long-term lessons were learned from that fire' ('Surveying the Damage', When Saturday Comes, June 1989)

Football Fans not Criminals 2016

Football has changed so much since 1989, but many argue that one thing that hasn't changed is how fans can be treated. In fact this week a new campaign 'Football Fans not Criminals' is being launched which argues:

'ordinary law-abiding football fans are being treated like criminals. For merely attending a match and supporting their team, fans are subject to a series of special controls and restrictions which do not apply to supporters of other sports. There are 11 laws which apply only to football fans, creating offences which would not be an offence in a rugby or cricket stadium.

It is an offence to carry alcohol into a football stadium, to drink in view of the pitch, to sell or give away tickets, or to throw any item in the air, however innocuous. Football fans are also subject to special powers. Under Football Banning Orders, they can be banned from attending matches or asked to surrender their passports when club and country play abroad. Police forces can control fans’ travel to away matches, in some cases creating ‘bubble’ match restrictions, which ban independent travel on public transport or in cars. This regulation exists at a time when football-related violence and disruption is at an all-time low'.

The new campaign will be launched on Thursday 2 June 2016  from 7 pm upstairs at the Yorkshire Grey, 2 Theobalds Road, London WC1X 8PN. Speakers will include Ken Meech (Grimsby fan ludicrously prosecuted for assault with an inflatable shark), Martin Cloake (Tottenham Hotspur Supporters' Trust), Amanda Jacks (Football Supporters Federation), Duleep Allirajah (Palace-loving Spiked columnist), Peter Lloyd (author of 'Criminalising Football Fans') and solicitor Sarah Ricca.

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