Why The Beeb's Hillsborough Documentary Failed To Explain The Struggle For Justice

With the findings of the Hillsborough Independent Campaign released this week, the BBC documentary fell short. And why was it only shown in the North-West and Yorkshire?
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With the findings of the Hillsborough Independent Campaign released this week, the BBC documentary fell short. And why was it only shown in the North-West and Yorkshire?

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This week, the results of a near three-year long inquiry by the Hillsborough Independent Panel are publically released. The panel, chaired by James Jones, the Bishop of Liverpool, was set up in 2010 to examine all of the evidence relating to the events of the disaster on April 15th, 1989, with the remit of bringing 'full public disclosure' of all relevant documentation and to report how 'the information adds to public understanding of the tragedy and its aftermath.' After going over more than 450,000 previously unseen documents released by as many as 80 different organisations including the South Yorkshire Police, emergency services, the coroner and Sheffield City Council, will deliver a presentation at Liverpool's Anglican Cathedral on Wednesday morning with their findings.

After 23 years of relentless campaigning and many false dawns, the results of the inquiry will hopefully finally reveal, in unprecedented detail, the truth about what actually happened on that fateful day. The Hillsborough Justice Campaign and the families of the 96 Liverpool supporters who died at Hillsborough have had to fight vehemently, undeterred by the previous failings of the judicial system and government for over two decades, to get to this point, and it is hoped that the truth – which is all that they have asked for – will be disclosed, and those responsible for the disaster will be held accountable for their actions.

Ahead of the results of the inquiry being made public, the BBC broadcasted a half-hour documentary called ‘Hillsborough – Searching For The Truth’ last night on BBC1 – although it was only shown regionally on BBC1 North West and Yorkshire – the two regions that know the most about the tragedy; everywhere else, BBC1 showed a re-run of Michael McIntyre’s Comedy Roadshow, which, I’m sure you’ll agree, is certainly a more important programme to be televised to the entire nation. This was a half-hearted attempt from the BBC1, who didn’t focus on reporting the truth, or indeed the extent that the HJC have had to fight in the search for it. They themselves were, at times, guilty of misrepresenting the facts, starting with the synopsis of the documentary:

Edwardson was a direct victim of the crush and gave a particularly harrowing account of the disaster and how he fortunately survived, speaking of how a stranger who he was pressed up against essentially saved his life by warning him not to try and squeeze in to a pocket of space below him as he wouldn't come back up.

“For more than two decades, the families of the 96 Liverpool fans who died in the Hillsborough disaster have claimed that South Yorkshire Police covered up the full story of what happened on 15th April 1989. Now, Lucy Hester speaks to police officers, Hillsborough victims' family members and the author of an infamous article in the Sun newspaper which blamed Liverpool fans for the disaster.”

For starters, it is not just the families of those who perished who claim that the police have covered up what really happened. The Hillsborough Stadium Disaster Inquiry Report, more commonly known as the Taylor Report, was an independent judicial enquiry that investigated the cause of the disaster and what happened in the aftermath of Hillsborough, and, as Lucy Hester says in the documentary, the report found that the disaster was a direct result of terrible mistakes made by senior police officers. David Duckenfield, who was the officer in charge that day, ordered a gate to be opened, which led to fans entering the stadium through a narrow tunnel in to the two pens, which led to the crush, later lied to a senior official from the FA, saying it was the Liverpool fans who had forced their way in gate open and claimed they were drunk and did not have tickets. The BBC did, to their credit, admit that they were one of the media outlets who reported this erroneous version of events.

The documentary primarily focussed on a few individuals who were directly affected by the tragedy (not that there aren’t plenty of others who also were, of course). Three of those interviewed witnessed the disaster first hand from the Leppings Lane end and gave their account of what transpired: Dave Kirkby, a well-known Liverpool writer; Mark Edwardson, a reporter for BBC North West Tonight; and John Wilson, a police officer who was on duty at Hillsborough when the events of 15 of the disaster unfolded. It also featured Margaret Aspinall, chairman of the Hillsborough Family Support Group whose son James died at Hillsborough, and documented her battle in attempting to find out exactly what happened to her son and when he actually died.

Harry Arnold, the Sun journalist who wrote the infamous story alleging that drunken Liverpool fans had, amongst other things, stolen from the dead, urinated and abused victims and police during the Hillsborough disaster, spoke for the first time on camera.

Edwardson was a direct victim of the crush and gave a particularly harrowing account of the disaster and how he fortunately survived, speaking of how a stranger who he was pressed up against essentially saved his life by warning him not to try and squeeze in to a pocket of space below him as he wouldn't come back up. Wilson told the programme he understood the anger of people in the ground at the time. The officer said he had been at the scene and the fans did not behave in ways described by The Sun's front page headline or strap-lines. He said: "I didn't see any Liverpool fans urinating on a police officer, or any police officers, and I didn't see any Liverpool fans steal money, steal money from dead people or pick money up that had fallen out of people's pockets. It is abundantly clear, though, that he, like many, was visibly affected by the disaster.

Harry Arnold, the Sun journalist who wrote the infamous story alleging that drunken Liverpool fans had, amongst other things, stolen from the dead, urinated and abused victims and police during the Hillsborough disaster, spoke for the first time on camera. The source of this ‘information,’ he claimed, came from a news agency. Arnold said he was "aghast" when he saw the headline, and that his story had been written in a "fair and balanced way," and that it was editor Kelvin MacKenzie who wrote the headline "The Truth". He claims to have confronted McKenzie over the headline, as he was unhappy that it misinterpreted the content article, but attempted to vindicate what had happened by saying "but the fact is reporters don't argue with an editor – and, in particular, you don't argue with an editor like Kelvin MacKenzie." Ah, that makes it OK then, I suppose.

I understand the need for balance, but it was wholly unnecessary to waste time that could – and should – have been spent on highlighting the obstacles that those who have campaigned for justice have faced, rather than giving those who have attempted to cover up and spin lies about the disaster the facts a chance to defend themselves. The BBC tried to contact Kelvin Mackenzie – a regular guest on a variety of their shows who, despite being shown to be a poisonous, vile man with no integrity whatsoever, will no doubt continue to be given airtime – to get his response to Arnold’s claims, but he, for perhaps the first time in his life, declined to comment. McKenzie, of course, was forced to apologise for the headline by Rupert Murdoch, but more than a decade later retracted his apology, claiming that all he did was report the truth.

The documentary did a decent job of portraying the horror of the tragedy and how it has affected those involved, but it failed to accurately explain the struggles of the campaign for the truth over the past two decades.

The programme ended with Margaret Aspinall, a truly remarkable woman who spoke eloquently and fairly on the fight for the truth and just what constitutes justice – but anyone who has followed the fight for justice will know this already. Her sentiments merely echo what the majority of other people feel. She spoke of how although she has complete trust in the panel to scrutinise all of the evidence and come to a decision, she cannot have complete trust in the authorities to have handed them all of the evidence – and after all she and the rest of the campaigners have been through, how could you blame them? She spoke of how the black propaganda against both the city and the fans still cuts deep, and the need to unequivocally clear the fans of any blame is of paramount importance.

She is also right when she says it is not about vengeance or an eye-for-an-eye, but merely accountability – those who were responsible are yet to be held to account for their mistakes; not a single member of the South Yorkshire Police has ever been convicted of any crime. Senior officers responsible for policing the game, David Duckenfield and Bernard Murray, both faced disciplinary proceedings and left the force, but Murray was cleared of two counts of manslaughter and the jury could not reach a verdict on Duckenfield at a private prosecution in 2000.

The documentary did a decent job of portraying the horror of the tragedy and how it has affected those involved, but it failed to accurately explain the struggles of the campaign for the truth over the past two decades. It is impossible for me, and pretty much anyone else with any connection to Liverpool as a city or club, to be anything other than subjective when discussing Hillsborough and what has followed. Those who have looked at it objectively, however, have come to the same conclusion as us: this was a disaster caused by lack of preparation and gross incompetence, and it could – and should – have been avoided completely. This has never just been a matter that only concerns Liverpool and its fans, either; it transcends teams, rivalries, football and even cities. This is about injustice, and uncovering what really happened to those 96 people who went to watch a football match but never came home. This is what the families and the fans have been fighting for 23 years.

The truth.

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