Hillsborough. It must be tempting to stop reading at the mention of the word. After all, 32 years have passed since 96 Liverpool fans died at the FA Cup semi-final against Nottingham Forest. Surely it’s time to move on?
Even Margaret Aspinall, the best-known campaigner, used those words this week when she announced that the Hillsborough Family Support Group has folded.
“Move on” is a triggering phrase for anyone involved in the fight for justice. Family members, survivors and witnesses have been repeatedly told to “move on,” and “get over it” ever since that awful April day in Sheffield in 1989.
Richard Green, a friend, cannot move on. The 56-year-old died earlier this month. He always said he was lucky to emerge alive from the Leppings Lane terraces. Like so many supporters who were demonised by the media and the authorities in the wake of the disaster, Green went on to make a huge contribution to society. He became Liverpool’s lawyer and was deeply involved in the battle for the club’s soul during the malign ownership of George Gillett and Tom Hicks. After leaving Anfield he continued working in football and plenty of people within the game – not least Phil Foden - have cause to thank him. He was a huge advocate of the sport, his city and the fight for truth. After surviving one national disaster he is a casualty of the pandemic.
There are many like him; men and women scarred by Hillsborough who have not lived to see justice. Today is a time to remember them, too. A longstanding friend, Colin Turnbull, succumbed to the virus in December. We travelled together but were in separate parts of the stadium on that ill-fated day. The experience changed everyone who was there.
Deaths like these have amplified the misery and grinding, repressed anger we have lived with on a day-to-day basis. It is bad enough when old age or chronic illnesses take their toll, but the number of preventable, needless deaths of the past year have made the despair worse.
No one expects resolution for Hillsborough any more. There are three men still facing trial on charges of perverting the course of justice but all the major participants in the disaster have been acquitted or never brought to court. Even among hardened campaigners, there is little interest in the outstanding cases.
From the start, the public were presented with a skewed view of Hillsborough. It should never have been about football. It should have been about civic safety and the consequences of the breakdown of emergency services. The main question should have been how to respond when those charged with protecting public safety fail in a catastrophic manner. Or even worse, make critical mistakes and try to wriggle out of accepting any blame. Making sure procedures were put in place to ensure the errors could not happen again was never a priority. That was an obscene approach that threatens us all.
It matters more than ever in the pandemic. There are parallels with Hillsborough, despite the difference in scale of the body counts. My friends were two of more than 120,000 avoidable deaths that came as a consequence of the botched response to coronavirus. The relaxation of the lockdown over Christmas was a gruesome miscalculation that cost countless lives. It was a metaphorical opening of a gate to mass death on an unimaginable scale.
Those who took the decisions that resulted in the carnage do not want to take responsibility for their actions. The callous disregard for people’s lives is now deeply ingrained in the highest levels of British life.
In 1989 it was different. Politicians still resigned for what are – in today's terms – minor indiscretions. But Hillsborough was a watershed. David Duckenfield, the match commander, brazenly pointed the finger at fans even though he made the fatal error in ordering the entrances to be unlocked and supporters allowed into the ground without going through the turnstiles. Duckenfield admits he lied when he blamed fans for breaking into the stadium. Many media outlets – The Sun in particular – repeated this bald-faced accusation. Instead of a proper investigation that would allow the authorities to learn from the horrific event, a false narrative meant that core problems were never addressed. The disconnect between the various agencies of the emergency services after the Manchester Arena bombing four years ago had sickening echoes of 1989. Solving the obvious logistical and communication problems between the ambulance, fire and police services was barely on the agenda after Hillsborough.
Evading responsibility has become the political norm. Boris Johnson’s government are already positioning themselves to deflect blame for the pathetic initial response to the pandemic and the deadly decisions of December. But unless these mistakes are investigated, detailed and culpability properly outlined, the country runs the risk of repeating flawed decision-making in the event of a similar outbreak of disease in the future. The only good that comes from monstrous, destructive calamities is if you learn from them. No one learns from lies, or errors that are ignored. Truth and responsibility are the only teachers.
Hillsborough set a new tone in public life. It exposed the myth of duty. It reinforced the value of the great lie and underlined the dangers of pliable, exploitative journalism. Even after the untruths were comprehensively debunked by the Hillsborough Independent Panel nine years ago, the initial fallacies remain so deeply entrenched in some sections of society that they are almost impossible to eradicate. The same sort of logic cannot be allowed to define the pandemic.
The point of getting to the bottom of events like Hillsborough, the Manchester bombing or even the pandemic is not to honour or memorialise the dead. It is to protect the living - and the unborn. A failure to do this echoes down the decades. When evading responsibility becomes acceptable and normal, it threatens everyone.
There is no official service to mark the anniversary today. The Hillsborough Justice Campaign is holding a virtual event on their Facebook page but most of those affected by the disaster will spend the afternoon in quiet contemplation. They will also reflect on the horror of the past year and the tragedies that have swept the nation.
The answer to the pandemic is not to give the rest of Britain the treatment suffered by everyone connected with Hillsborough. Trust, responsibility and transparency are crucial to healing a society that has endured widespread trauma.
There are lessons to learn. The country cannot be denied, derided and gaslighted over coronavirus. It is vital in the pandemic that people in positions of authority tell the truth and take responsibility for their actions. No should have to fight for these basic decencies.
Even if you do not care about Hillsborough, you should care about what it represents. It is a symbol of a flaw in our society, an underlying rupture that is widening by the year. It represents a template for prevarication and evasion. Truth is the only way forward after any catastrophe, especially one as huge as the pandemic. There is no moving on without it.