Ian Jack writes:
In April 1989 I was about to fly home from Delhi after several months in India, some of them spent travelling along the banks of the Ganges in Bihar and Bengal.
News from home had been nearly always bad.
It had been a winter of British disasters: crowded trains came off the tracks at Clapham and Purley in south London; a over Lockerbie; another plane crash-landed on the M1 at Kegworth in the east Midlands.
In these four episodes between mid-December and early March, a total of 357 people died, having their lives taken from them by faulty railway signalling, aero-engine malfunction and a terrorist bomb.
Indian television was then a state monopoly that tended to present national affairs through a formal prism in which men in suits and women in saris met each other and exchanged garlands.
Now these local items were interspersed with footage from Britain of shiny wreckage and rescuers working under arc lights; as though Britain, not India, was where questions of life and death were at their starkest, and chaos most likely to break out. Hillsborough happened the night before I left.
Watching the news on TV, my old landlord in Delhi remarked that football in England must have what he called “a religious dimension” and I knew exactly what he meant.
The colours, the scarves, the chants, the devotion to a particular rather than a general deity: a similar fervour could be found in India’s religious crowds.
In fact, I’d gone to the Ganges partly because of such a crowd.
An overcrowded ferry had overturned downstream of Patna the previous year, drowning 400 or 14 (estimates varied wildly) of the Hindu pilgrims on board who, dressed in saffron robes and chanting, were travelling to a shrine across the river.
This kind of accident was – and is – a common enough event in eastern India and Bangladesh, and I thought it would be interesting to find out what the causes were – whether it was the ill-discipline and panic of the crowd, the mistake of the skipper, the frailty of the craft or the sloppy regulation of the police.
Similar questions began to be asked of Hillsborough, but not just yet. Changing planes in Paris the next day, I bought a newspaper and read the statement by Jacques Georges, the French president of , that Liverpool supporters seemed to have “a particularly aggressive mentality … I have the impression – I am distressed to use the expression – but it was like wild beasts who wanted to charge into an arena”.
Georges’ words caused a storm in England and later he apologised for them. But at the time his description stood out only because it came from a foreigner.
According to , the then Tory MP for Sheffield Hallam, the police at the stadium had been “hampered, harassed, punched, kicked and urinated on”.
Patnick apologised ; Middup has said he was simply repeating what police officers present at the ground had told him.
We know now that their descriptions are untrue – that the reasons 96 people died lay in many directions, but not with the dead themselves.
From the beginning, the police version of events was contentious. Why was it so widely believed? In the face of so much contrary evidence, what gave the police the confidence to lie?
Part of the answer is that in 1989 the public was less doubting of authority, and the legal establishment less doubting of the police: the big verdicts – the , the – had still to be overturned.,
A bigger reason is that by 1989 many people were prepared to believe almost anything of the English football fan. The game’s reputation had never been lower.
A famous definition appeared in a Sunday Times editorial published after theon 11 May 1985, in which 56 people died.
Football was “a slum sport played in slum stadiums increasingly watched by slum people, who deter decent folk from turning up”.
A little over a fortnight later, this general repugnance found a particular focus at the when, just before play began in the European Cup final, Liverpool fans attacked Juventus fans and 39 people, none of them Liverpool supporters, died in the crush.
The game went ahead for reasons of public safety; it was Jacques Georges who presented Juventus with the trophy.
Fourteen Liverpool fans were jailed for manslaughter and English teams banned from European competitions – a ban that had still to be lifted at the time of Hillsborough.
were singled out for special punishment with an extra year’s exclusion.
The victims of the disasters in Bihar and Hillsborough had more in common than the habits of devotion.
There is this thing called class.
The ferry passengers who died tended to be described by the local elites as “uneducated … ignorant … backward”.
According to the ferry owner’s son, they’d drowned because of their “panic and stupidity”.
Nobody quite said this of the Hillsborough dead, but the feeling of “them” and “us” existed, encouraged by recent footballing history and the fact that they had died behind wire fences in areas described as pens, the same as to hold sheep.
“All of it would have been familiar to a citizen of Bihar,” I wrote a few weeks later.
“An underclass which, in the view of the overclass, did not know how to behave … An antique and ill-designed public facility. A police force which made serious mistakes. Clamorous cross-currents of blame.”
I rather regret that piece now.
By acknowledging confusion, it ducked the need to decide what had happened. It was tone-deaf to grief.
“The lessons Hillsborough has taught us” is now a media trope.
What it taught me – or rather confirmed in me – is the belief that good reporters matter in the media above all else, because without them we can never get near to confidently knowing the truth of an event; unless, of course, we ourselves have been the unfortunate witnesses.