I didn't want to blog about this on the day of publication. The Hillsborough disaster was one of those pivotal moments, when everyone knows where they were. Actually, I'm not exactly sure what I was doing the evening of Saturday April 15th 1989, when I heard the news, but I remember the Monday morning afterwards vividly.
At the time I was a schoolteacher in Ashton-under-Lyne – one of the “satellite” cities to the east of Manchester, England. Readers need to understand the cultural importance of football (which my American friends call soccer) to English people – particularly the working class youth of the North of England, who were my students. The semi-final match of the F.A. Cup between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest – England's most important football competition – had had to be abandoned on the Saturday, when it became clear that Liverpool fans were dying at their end of the Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield. Due to a series of blunders, stupidity and unforced errors by the police and emergency services, large numbers of fans were trying to enter the stadium, while fans nearest the pitch were being crushed against the fences and barriers that used to encircle English football pitches.The big cities of Manchester and Liverpool are not far apart, and the class contained not a few children who supported the Merseyside club. In any case, every child in that class was affected. They had watched the sports programs on TV horrified as children of their own age died before their eyes. It was truly the most sombre day of my teaching career, as I led the class in standing in dignified silence, while watching those macho teenage boys quietly wipe away the tears.
On September 12th this year, the independent report into the events concluded what we basically all knew. Not only were the events badly mismanaged by the South Yorkshire Police, but there were inexcusable delays in getting emergency services to the fans and, to compound the problems, police documents after the event were altered and falsified to cover up their mismanagement.
The Sun “newspaper” in Britain published a notorious headline – “The Truth” – in which they alleged that the deaths were caused by Liverpool fans, and alleged all sorts of untrue statements about supposed appalling behavior by fans. Now nobody – not even the Liverpool Supporters' Club – will pretend that their fans were perfect, but we all SAW the events on TV! We know that the overwhelming majority of fans were trying to help each other. We saw fans being lifted to safety to balconies. It is a pity that the emergency services didn't have the sense of urgency that the ordinary football fans had.Even today, many people in Liverpool – even fans of rival club Everton – refuse to buy the Sun. So, last week, on September 13th 2012, the newspaper's current editor apologized. Sincere apologies are always welcomed. Everybody seems to have been apologizing this week – South Yorkshire Police, the Mayor of London, the Prime Minister etc. etc. But it is difficult to take an apology from a rag of a newspaper that comes 23 years too late. Not impossible – but difficult. Remember that in 23 years the Sun has not really changed its output of salacious material with semi-pornographic content.
I have a terrible confession to make. I once bought a copy of the Sun. It was 1990. I was driving from Manchester to South Wales. In a service station on the M5 motorway, on returning to my car from the rest room, I found that the oil sump plug had come loose on my car and oil had spilled over the parking lot. This was an easy problem to fix, and I even had oil to refill the sump. But what could I mop up the oil with? Old newspaper would be the best thing, but I had no old newspaper. So I decided to buy a new newspaper. I bought a copy of the Sun for the first and only time in my life, and I think that even the most ardent Liverpool fan might approve of my reasons. It was the only newspaper that I considered low enough to purchase for the sole purpose of mopping up a spill of dirty oil.
The sadness of that weekend is still haunting, and this week's publication of the independent report brings it all back. I am glad that the independent panel was chaired by Jim Jones, the Bishop of Liverpool – one of the few genuinely born-again bishops in the Church of England. Genuine peace from anguish is only to be found in the Gospel that Bishop Jones proclaims, and the forgiveness from sin which Jesus grants to us, even 23 years after an event – even after a lifetime.