Today six people have been charged over the Hillsborough disaster. It’s taken nearly 30 years but finally there might be justice for the families who had to fight institutional prejudice as well as their immeasurable grief.
But the problem, and the advantage, with investigating crimes from decades ago is that behaviour, which at the time, to those charged, will have seemed acceptable to them, defending actions 30 years later to a society that’s changed will make their actions and choices even more reprehensible. We are all hostage to the societal attitudes of our times.
The Hillsborough disaster happened during a toxic environment fuelled by the football violence in the 1980s that saw British clubs banned from playing in Europe, and a media that fanned the fear of hooliganism and unruly behaviour among its readers.
We seem to have in-built thought processes that encourage us to see one act or one person and extrapolate from that that they stand for all people, so, one Muslim terrorist means all Muslims are terrorists, one greedy banker means anyone who works in the financial industry is corrupt, and all benefits claimants are fraudulent, and so it goes on. This toxic one-stands-for-all thinking came to a head in Hillsborough, when entrenched attitudes towards football fans meant that wrong decisions were made, which were later obfuscated to cover up what had happened. Fans were blamed for the disaster rather than bad decisions by the authorities. The legal proceedings to come will hold a mirror to our society and I doubt many of us will like the reflection.
The Sun newspaper was complicit with blaming the Liverpool fans with its notorious headline ‘The Truth’ suggesting that fans had urinated on dead policemen and stole from bodies. That the editor at the time, Kelvin McKenzie has gone on to have a long career in the media and journalism since then, despite many in Liverpool refusing to buy the paper in Liverpool in the years since, shows that prevailing attitudes take a long time to change. Because that’s the nature of institutionalised attitudes; it’s only often the passage of time that illuminates their wrongness.
We think to ourselves when we look at events like this that times and attitudes have changed and we congratulate ourselves that they have. However, in terms of the media I’m not so sure. The role of responsible press in a functioning democracy should be to inform, educate and raise awareness. We only have to look back to last summer’s febrile atmosphere surrounding the EU referendum and the whipping up of inaccuracies, misinformation and anti-immigration rhetoric to see how it reached its ugly conclusion in the murder of MP Jo Cox. Not to mention the downright lies and propaganda printed in the right-wing media before this month’s election.
Grenfell may go on to be our Hillsborough. Labour is being accused of politicising the deaths of the 79 and counting and today’s PMQs saw Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn trading blows on whose watch the decisions about the cladding and the building’s repairs actually happened. But that is to miss the point. Just as the Hillsborough disaster was a symptom of prevailing attitudes that have only become obvious in the mainstream since the event, so Grenfell and the way it has been handled both before and after the devastating fire will come to reflect contemporary attitudes to immigrants and the poor. And once again the mainstream media should be held to account for the ‘benefit scrounger’ ‘terrorist sympathiser’ and profoundly anti-immigration cant that encourages and condones the creation of ‘other’ in the minds of readers. Once you create an image of ‘otherness’ it becomes easier to treat people as less than human.
I just hope that it won’t take 30 years for the Grenfell families to get justice.