In response to Fandango’s Who Won the Week post, I have been looking at my own newsfeeds.
I’m going to take you back more than thirty years this week. Start there, anyhow. To Yorkshire, in the UK. A soccer event at a stadium called Hillsborough in Sheffield. This story begins in 1989, in the days before everybody sat down at soccer games. So, there were large areas of the stadium where people stood up to watch the match.
Consequently, the numbers being admitted were somewhat less precise.
Essentially, what happened was that they let too many people in all at once, there was a crush, and 96 people died. It remains the worst sporting disaster in the UK, and it was this disaster which precipitated the move to all-seater stadiums.
A tragic event, but here’s where it gets interesting. Straight away, the “official” story, the police’s version of events, was that drunken fans themselves had caused the crush, and were therefore responsible for the deaths. The PM at the time, Margaret Thatcher, was also quick to blame the fans.
But the families dug deeper, and eventually were able to dispute the police’s narrative. Rather than having been caused by the fans, the crush was caused by the police’s marshalling on the day. The police denied this, as you’d expect, and this situation rumbled on for twenty years.
It didn’t even start to be resolved until about ten years ago. A couple of high-profile court cases examined what was known, and determined that not only were the fans not responsible for the crush, that the police’s tactics on the day had caused the deaths, but also that they deliberately covered up the events. (It was even disclosed recently that they had doctored witness statements to make the police appear less culpable.) At that time (ten years ago), even the police held their hands up and admitted that they had lied.
This admission that things had been done wrongly was headline news here, although you can imagine that with such a big passage of time, the personnel involved were completely different.
After the verdicts, it went deeper. There were criminal cases against individual officers on duty on the day, but criminal convictions against individuals were unrealistic. The families had to settle for these police officers being very publicly disgraced.
So, the case fizzled out, in the criminal courts.
This week, however, news emerged of a successful claim in the civil courts. Plaintiffs had sued the police, focussing not on the crush itself, but on the years of anguish that their lies had caused the victims’ families. There wasn’t much doubt about the verdict, as the police had already admitted that they covered things up for a long time.
But the story broke this week, and the plaintiffs have agreed a compensation package.
But even there, the story isn’t quite finished, because the plaintiffs have taken it one last step, and thought about “how do we make sure this doesn’t happen again?” That’s the thing I miss most about living there – people’s usually-selfless attitudes. And the plaintifs are calling for a change in the law, to enshrine a “Duty of Candour” for public officials. As it sounds, that’s an obligation to be honest and open.
You’d think that was obvious, wouldn’t you? That a state’s apparatus should be open and honest with its citizens? But the very existence of this case proves that this is not so. Thinking that nobody could possibly question their authority, the police rode roughshod over the very people they are there to serve. So, for me, this notion wins the week.