Friday, 28 July 2017

Unnecessary politics and division from disaster

Last week's council meeting at CWaC, for me was absolutely dreadful.

It was dreadful for me for many reasons.  It was very emotional, unnecessarily divisive and political, and ultimately a denial of democracy.

First and foremost it was dreadful because it touched several personal emotional raw nerves.  We debated the April 1989 Hillsborough disaster in the context of last years unlawful killing inquest verdicts, the decision to bring prosecutions and the Sun's newspaper coverage - both at the time of the disaster and subsequently.  The Labour motion put to the council recogised the extent of the disaster, the long fight for truth and justice and offered solidarity and support for the families and friends of the 96 who were killed.  However the motion then also challenged the entire notion of a free press.  Part of the motion that was put (and subsequently passed) was that the council had to:

'Ensure that elected members and staff do not advertise or give interviews to the S*n newspaper.'

We don't often discuss the wider ramifications of Hillsborough.  We rightly concentrate on the families and friends of the deceased.  For them the effects of the disaster were devastating.   Last night's debate forced me to re-live the day and its aftermath.  Like many, many thousands of people with connections to the area my family, the wider City area and region my family was touched.  My elder brother was at Hillsborough that day.  Fortuantely he had a seat.  He was sat overlooking the Lepping's Lane stand.  He was an eye witness to disaster.   These were the days before mobile phones and instant communication.  I well remember the family trauma of knowing that there had been a major disaster and that he was at the game.  For us the fear, the 'not knowing' only lasted the afternoon and evening - but that was bad enough.  He returned home near midnight.

In the days that followed the accounts of what happened to the people started to emerge.  A family friend was also at the game.  He was, and still is a medic.  He was involved in trying to save people on that day.

A fortnight after the disaster a memorial service was held at Liverpool Cathedral.  It was an emotionally raw affair.  I was (and still am) a member of Liverpool Cathedral Cross Guild.  The Cross Guild are all former Cathedral chorister who wear the processional robes and carry the crosses and maces in services.  I was one of three members of the Cross Guild asked to stand at the newly consecrated memorial stone as wreathes were laid.   April 1989 was hard, very very hard for many people.  It was hard for me.   It was far far harder for the families as were the months and years that followed.

But as is often said - time is a healer... or is it.

In the years that passed I remained interested in what had happened - but relieved not to be intimately involved.  Part of my legal career required me to give advice on the safety of sports grounds and the associated health and safety implications.  I also advise and undertake advocacy at Inquests.

And then, as an Evertonian I was at Goodison a couple of years ago when Everton commemorated the disaster.  Now I've been at Goodison and Anfield for the derby games.  I know just how 'tribal', just how challenging the atmosphere can be when both sets of fans are at 'full cry.'  That day at Goodison the crowd remembered the disaster in silence.  You could hear a 'pin drop.'  And then a young girl in Everton colours wearing '9' and younger lad in Liverpool colours wearing '6' walked onto the pitch.

I cried.

I have never cried in public before - and ideally I don't want to do it again.  I can't write these words without welling up.

I can't write these words without intense feelings regarding the stupidity and the gross negligence of the people involved in managing the game at Hillsborough.  It was a monumental failure.  But those feelings become intense anger when I contemplate the lies and the cover-up that followed.  All of us and especially the families were entitled to expect so much more, so much more compentence, capability and especially honesty and integrity.

Had the council given me a motion that would allow me to express all of these things and crucially absolute and unequivocal support and respect for the families of the 96 I would readily supported it. However unnecessary politics was brought into play.

Framing a motion that would require the council to ensure that councillors should not talk to a newspaper and effectively a motion that would require the council to police councillors over this was not just wrong - it was outrageous in my view.  It would inevitably blur everyone's solidarity with the families and friends of the 96 with questions of democracy and a free press.

There could have been unanimity in the Chamber had a motion been put to us expressing solidarity and support - however the political motion put to the council denied that opportunity.

I fully support everyone's individual right to choose what newspaper they buy if any.  I fully support private individuals lobbying others not to buy any particular newspaper.  However I do not believe it is the place of public bodies to have a view on these things when the newspaper in question is lawfully on sale.

The Sun published seriously damaging, false information after the disaster.  It took them 15 years to offer an apology that wasn't remotely good enough... They then allowed their former editor Kelvin McKenzie to return to the paper as a comment writer - and then he wrote an unnecessarily offensive piece.  I don't read the Sun.  Its unlikely I ever will.  I don't encourage anyone to read it either... but I respect everyone's right to choose.

The motion put to council was framed deliberately, in my view, to expose differences.  I deplore that.  However the debate did lead to some of the finest speeches I have ever heard in the council chamber.  If you are interested in watching them - they are available here.