Raj Persaud and Ramón Spaaij
At the Hillsborough memorial service, Anfield 15th April 2009, a banner, with the names of the deceased written into the numeral 96, was headed by a version of a well-known pop song, ‘You Are Always On Our Mind’.
John Hughson and Ramón Spaaij, sociologists from the University of Central Lancashire and La Trobe University, Australia, argue in a recent study of the tragedy, that the singular word ‘mind’ over its plural ‘minds’, reveals a collective solidarity which is uniquely Liverpool.
This team spirit, has sustained the extended battle for justice, but was forged not just by the tragedy itself, but also by the opprobrium heaped on Liverpool FC supporters afterwards.
Ceaseless dignified camaraderie in the face of an unrelenting, united, venomous opposition in the media, raises the question, what is the psychology behind this widespread press desire for scapegoats amongst victims of tragedies?
In their study, recently published in the academic journal Acta Sociologica, Hughson and Spaaij quote The Observer Magazine which in 2009 reported the experience of one Hillsborough survivor: ‘[T]o experience something so terrible, to be accused of thieving and pissing on police officers when you were in the process of trying to save lives, or comforting people in their final moments, is an insult so deep in the psyche that honesty becomes the key not just to remembering but to anything that really matters in life. And it’s honesty that allows me to look other survivors in the eye and know that we did what we could.’
Hughson and Spaaij contend that anti-Liverpool sentiment widespread in the establishment, and the media, had driven a media mob kicking of the city. Such press hostility is now being conveniently forgotten, as the truth finally emerges.
Hughson and Spaaij uncovered a long history to the contemporary bias, linked to the city’s traditional reputation for poverty and Irish ancestry. The prior conviction by newspaper Editors that the Hillsborough tragedy was produced by endemic football hooliganism and drunken ticketless fans, has deeply buried roots. Such prejudice is even embedded in our language – the origin of the term ‘hooligan’ is reportedly traceable to a notorious Irish family named Hoolihan dwelling in Southwark, London in the late 1800s.
The Sun published on 19 April 1989, four days after the Hillsborough disaster, a banner heading ‘THE TRUTH’, under which appeared the claims: ‘Some fans picked pockets of victims’; ‘Some fans urinated on the brave cops’; ‘Some fans beat up PC giving kiss of life’.
Brian Clough, manager of Nottingham Forest, the Liverpool team’s opponents on the fateful afternoon, declared on national television, ‘Liverpool people had killed Liverpool people’. An almost identical claim is made in his autobiography. When Liverpool City Council called for a boycott of his book, Clough reportedly responded, ‘half of them can’t read and the other half are pinching hub caps’. The media seek out supposedly ‘independent’ ‘expert’ opinion to back their prejudice up. Having decided the story from their bunkers, they foray out briefly, focused on finding evidence for it.
Police deception involving CCTV camera surveillance of the ‘pens’ where the deaths had occurred at the Leppings Lane end, parallel an incessantly cavalier approach to inconvenient evidence by swathes of our authority figures. The South Yorkshire police force had claimed the relevant camera to be faulty, but a Sheffield Wednesday video technician employed at the ground – his original statement had not been presented to the Taylor Inquiry – subsequently contended the camera in question was in full working order.
Hughson and Spaaij’s study provides numerous examples of anti-Liverpool bigotry. Following the murder of two-year-old James Bulger by two ten-year-old boys in Liverpool in 1993, The Guardian (20 February 1993) ran the headline ‘HEYSEL, HILLSBOROUGH AND NOW THIS’. Ian Jack (Independent on Sunday, 28 February 1993) accused Liverpudlians of evoking a ‘peculiar kind of martyrdom [which] has become part of the municipal character’, whilst Jonathan Margolis (Sunday Times, 28 February 1993) referred to Liverpool as ‘self-pity city’ and claimed ‘Liverpool culture seems … to combine defeatism and hollow-cheeked depression with a cloying mawkishness’.
Following the execution by beheading of Liverpool-born hostage Ken Bigley in October 2004, The Spectator magazine, under the editorship of Boris Johnson, ran an editorial critical of ceremonies of reverence in respect of Mr Bigley. They were described as yet another expression of public ‘victimhood’ in Liverpool. The editorial claimed that Liverpudlians ‘see themselves whenever possible as victims … resent their victim status; yet at the same time they wallow in it’.
The editorial made explicit reference to the Hillsborough tragedy, rehearsing allegations about drunken supporters causing the deaths. Johnson later publicly apologized for the falsehoods and offensiveness of The Spectator editorial.
The recent revelations about the true causes of the Hillsborough disaster beg the question of how tough a time other groups beyond Liverpudlians fare when facing the double whammy of such a terrible tragedy and then a policy of ‘blame the victim’.
‘Scapegoating’ originally derives from the Old Testament – choosing a scapegoat involved discharging “all the sins of the Children of Israel” upon its head, escorting it amidst abuse from the gathering, into the desert, as described in the Book of Leviticus. Scapegoats have remained popular (or popularly unpopular) since the dawn of history because they provide an important psychological device. They help us avoid looking inwards and confronting our own difficulties.
Even as the press begins to finally report the truth about Hillsborough, instead of properly examining their catastrophic blunders, the ceaseless search for the next scapegoat continues.