Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Telling Tales

On 15 April 1989, at the start of an FA Cup semi-final, a crush on the steel-fenced terraces of Sheffield Wednesday's stadium resulted in the death of 96 Liverpool fans and left hundreds more injured. The inquiry into the disaster, led by Lord Chief Justice Taylor, established the main cause as a failure of police crowd control. I remember seeing it on television, in our room at a guest house in Exeter. I had just been married the week before, and we were on our honeymoon. We'd come back from a day out, crashed out onto the sofa, and put the television on, to see the announcer and the clips tell the story of the tragedy.

In the Commons, David Cameron has now revealed that 164 police statements were significantly altered and that criminal checks were done to "impugn the reputations of the deceased". It is a tragic example of what I've been calling "exceptional justice", which the State does very badly, because it goes on the defensive, and may be prepared to go to extraordinary lengths to malign people and distort the truth. In this case, it was the police acting in defense of their own; there is no evidence of any government trying to conceal the truth. Margaret Thatcher was misinformed by senior officers in Merseyside Police in the immediate aftermath that a "tanked-up mob" were to blame.

It is said that everyone can remember where they were when President Kennedy was assassinated. I can't remember - I was only around 6 at the time. But I do remember Hillsborough. Now it emerges that victims' families were correct in their belief that some of the authorities attempted to create a "completely unjust" account of events that sought to blame the fans.

Locally, I think it is pretty clear that is what happened with Graham Power, with the extraordinary press conference and subsequent suspension. The conference said nothing basically now - Lennie Harper had said there would not be enough evidence for homicide - but it was the way it was spun to make it appear that it was something new, revoking the past. This was itself an attempt to create a "completely unjust" account of events that sought to blame the Power and Harper. But if you examine the statements of Lennie Harper, you see that nothing new was said by Mick Gradwell regarding the operation - what was new was the way the facts were spun, in contradiction to statements recorded on newspaper websites and the BBC. Yet the dominant narrative was so powerfully presented that the problems with contradictions between what was being said and existing historical sources of what had been said was overlooked.

The policeman at the heart of that, Mick Gradwell, later revealed himself to be a maverick, leaking information without any consideration of having taken an oath for official secrets. Andrew Lewis stated - or misspoke is the modern jargon - that he'd seen a report which he may well have not seen, and may have tipped the balance in an "in camera" debate.

It is the writing of the dominant narrative, that which passes as acceptable history, which we find in this case, as in Hillsborough. Lennie Harper was a maverick. There was a misidentified part of a coconut. Graham Power took a back seat. Expenses were out of control. Speculation was wild. Yet the real maverick was presenting the case against Lennie Harper, and the expenses should have been under control of the Chief Officer on accounts, who was cheerfully signing off expenses claims rather than taking any concerns to his superiors. Dr Timothy Brain was the well respected Chief Constable of Gloucestershire; he came over to Jersey and found the whole business of how the suspension was being conducted staggering.

But the dominant narrative become so widespread that I heard one member of the clergy, in a sermon, claim that "now we know what really happened" with historic child abuse, namely implying that it wasn't nearly so bad after all - and that was after convictions had been made of several of those charged with abusing children in States care. I couldn't believe my ears!

I feel that there is still an underhand resentment at there being an inquiry into historic child abuse at Haut de La Garenne and elsewhere, but the publication of the Verita report (leaked online by Rico Sorda) means that at least some of the documents are available, rather than being told what they say. I've been told, although I don't know how reliably, that having been commissioned to produce what they thought was a definitive report with recommendations, senior management at Verita are not too please with the States of Jersey.

The inability to question dominant narratives, and to look at any narrative critically, is a failure of governments everywhere. In the UK, in Jersey, if that narrative is so constructed to say what people want it to say, they will accept it without thinking. If blame is shifted from the State elsewhere, it is even more acceptable because it exonerates the State - it is what people in power want to hear. But Hillsborough shows that it is an uphill struggle to get those narratives reassessed, because most people take news more or less at face value, and don't learn to sift the narratives we hear through the media, through government reports and press releases. We shouldn't see conspiracies everywhere, but on the other hand, it is very human to want to protect reputations, to be defensive, to not admit blame, and governments and officials are just as human as the rest of us; it is just that the effects of their so doing causes a distortion of history. Hillsborough's false narrative probably started with a natural reaction against being held to blame, with police removal of key sentences in reports, but then it escalated.

"It will be the hint of something which is not quite in accordance with the technical rules of fair play: something which the public, the ignorant, romantic public, would never understand: something which even the outsiders in your own profession are apt to make a fuss about... And then, if you are drawn in, next week it will be something a little further from the rules, and next year something further still" (C.S. Lewis)

Perhaps the recent report on Hillsborough is a wake up call not to be complacent when we read the news and take it at face value.

Victims' families were correct in their belief that some of the authorities attempted to create a "completely unjust" account of events that sought to blame the fans

"Despicable untruths" about the behaviour of fans were part of police efforts "to develop and publicise a version of events that focused on allegations of drunkenness, ticketlessness and violence"


Póló said...

There were no alternative media at the time of Hillborough, nor at the time of Bloody Sunday in Derry. So it was very difficult for the public to effectively challenge the official line.

Happily, this is no longer the case. And Jersey is where it's happening. The emergence of alternative media via the Jersey bloggers is a heartening and explosive development.

They have completely undermined the faith of their readers in the current Oligarchy, and rightly so.

It is very hard going, in such a small community and where power is exercised vindictively and on a completely discretionary basis.

They deserve all the help and support they can get.

May ye keep up the good work and may it continue to bear fruit.

Anonymous said...

A most appropriate and timely posting.
I am pretty sure that many people here in Jersey will be horrified by the scandal that has just been exposed in the UK. I am equally sure that they will genuinely believe that nothing like that could ever happen here.
Well, I think I have news for them. It has happened here (as you so eloquently explain) and it continues to happen.
It took several attempts over a 20+ year period for the truth to emerge in the UK. People of Jersey must start accepting that we have the opportunity to get it right with our Committee of Inquiry. As things stand currently, the process being followed by our government seems depressingly like that of the UK in the past - i.e. if the truth comes out it will be extremely damaging to a lot of people and to hell with those who suffer in the meantime.