On Hillsborough the Police and the Media
What does the Hillsborough ruling tell us about the police, the State, the law and the media? This week it was definitively agreed that the Hillsborough victims were “Unlawfully Killed” due to police negligence and the rejected claims that even in some small way the behaviour of Liverpool fans had contributed to the disaster. The episode feels like a lengthy extract from a David Peace novel, bleak, haunting, deeply sad. It reveals the dark side of British policing, unreformed, unaccountable, unacceptable. It shows that the militarised police force initiated by Thatcher to destroy the Miners has never been dismantled, it has instead been given more power and more weapons and now operates, hiding in plain sight.
Owen Jones has written that:
“At Orgreave, during the miners’ strike, in what the human rights organisation Liberty described as a “police riot”, there were mass wrongful arrests, for which South Yorkshire police (the same force responsible for the Hillsborough deaths) would later be forced to pay hundreds of thousands of pounds in compensation. Police statements were allegedly written under direction and altered, the victims were turned into aggressors, and the media echoed the police’s smear campaign. Sound familiar? The striking miners were, said Thatcher, the “enemy within”; Liverpool fans were thugs and scoundrels from a hated city. Hillsborough was the next stop from Orgreave.”
By 1991 South Yorkshire police had paid £425,000 compensation to 39 miners who had sued the force for assault, unlawful arrest or malicious prosecution. Still the police refused to admit any fault, and not a single police officer was ever disciplined or prosecuted. This is a pattern. Again and again the role of the media in failing to report, investigate or question official accounts is absolutely crucial. In the Orgreave police riot the BBC camera angles were crucial. Filming from behind police lines severely distorted both the sequence and the intent of striking miners making them out to be the aggressor.
That evening Margaret Thatcher said after Orgreave that there would be no “mob rule” by the miners.
The following year we had the Battle of the Beanfield, a violent police ambush in which women and children were attacked by baton-wielding officers who destroyed mobile homes:
So the events of Hillsborough need to be put into a wider historical contact of police brutality, state violence and media complicity. From the extraordinary role of the Met in the phone-hacking scandal, to the tragic deaths of Ian Tomlinson, Sheku Bayoh and others in police custody – and the illegal state activities of Mark Kennedy/Stone, we get an impression of police forces again and again out of control and operating beyond the law.
Trade Unionist Len McCluskey has said: “Terrible mistakes can be made, we know that. But what happened after that – the perjury and lies and perverting the course of justice among senior elements of the police force and senior elements of the government – it should all come out in the open.”
There is little previous experience to suggest that it will.
Joyce McMillan talks of the ‘the vicious, organised duplicity’ of the police. She writes:
“Let us not comfort ourselves with the belief that the demonisation of ordinary and vulnerable British citizens that happened after Hillsborough could not happen now. In fact, it happens every day, in ways that are less obviously catastrophic and more fragmented, but that still have the effect of destroying people’s lives while the rest of us stand by, read a few misleading headlines, and conclude that they must have deserved it. For in the end, we either found our politics on the idea of love and solidarity, and on a vision of humanity coming together to protect the weak and to solve common problems, or we found it on an idea of competition and cash, which permits the trampling and “othering” of the weak, and unbridled deference to the wealthy, whatever the content of their characters.”
Anyone who has not acquainted themselves with the realities and consequences of the ruling this week should watch this:
James Lawton has written that:
“The fight of the families has been extraordinary, but then who would easily let go of the fact that their loved ones had been wrenched away from them without cause. One memory that is particularly vivid is of a man in his shirt sleeves, torn – a bedraggled man who harangued a knot of journalists and kept insisting: “You have to tell the truth of what happened here today. Anyone who doesn’t should spend the rest of their lives feeling ashamed.” Yesterday shame could be measured against something that goes some way to redeeming a terrible story of broken trust and desperate self-preservation. The jury’s answers of yes to the charges of official guilt – and the emphatic no to the claims that even in some small way the behaviour of Liverpool fans had contributed to the disaster – carried us beyond a vindication of the families who refused to abandon the campaign for justice.”
What does Hillsborough tell us about the police, the State, the law and the media? It tells us that all are failing and in their failure they collude and connect to protect the powerful. There is a nexus of failure between police violence and and an unquestioning or complicit media.
The Justice for the 96 is welcome but it will be futile if it doesn’t aid to restore the complete collapse in faith in the rule of law and respect for the law-enforcement agencies.
Senior policemen should be prosecuted (the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) are investigating whether to bring manslaughter charges against David Duckenfield, the Chief Superintendent and match commander on the day) – and the system of overseeing and monitoring the police needs to be completely overhauled to breath life and restore credibility to a discredited system. That that is extremely unlikely to happen – and the amplified and continued demonisation of working people means that a Hillsborough or an Orgreave is very likely to happen again.