Bitter truth

The revelations about what happened when 96 football fans died at the start of an FA Cup semifinal between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest at Hillsborough, home of Sheffield Wednesday, in 1989, has made most Englishmen pause for thought, writes Ted Corbett.

This week, for the first time in a long life, I was forced to question my love for the country I live in.

It may seem strange coming so soon after I wrote in The Hindu that it was great to be a British sportsperson — after all our recent triumphs — but the revelations about what happened when 96 football fans died at the start of an FA Cup semifinal between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest at Hillsborough, home of Sheffield Wednesday, has made most Englishmen pause for thought.

If it had happened in a third world country, we would have laughed, and said it could never happen here.

The truth — the distressing, horrible, wretched truth — is that the worst offenders in this nasty business were the people we have always trusted, the men and women in the front line of the fight for justice, the men in blue we thought stood between us and the criminals were at the centre of the Hillsborough cover-up.

In other words: the police.

Of course we guessed the police could be naughty. In the book Games People Play there is a chapter devoted to the idea that a policeman was just as likely to be a crook. They sometimes bend the truth but in Hillsborough they invented the very idea of the cover-up and their devil’s work went right to the top.

Prosecutions threaten all those who changed their own officers’ statements, briefed the press wrongly to cover their own mistakes and even blood-tested the bodies of small children caught up in the disaster for alcohol.

It is not just the police though. The Football Association who staged the match, who ran that famous cup competition, booked Hillsborough for that match even though it had no safety certificate and had not had one for 10 years. There had been crowd accidents on the ground before; no one took any notice.

Those errors resulted in 96 bodies of the victims all over the pitch. Now we know that simple treatment would have saved around 40. It’s heartbreaking but it’s not the first crime of recent times.

Bankers with huge salaries have bent their own rules and one has had his knighthood taken away. My profession has hacked into the phones of celebrities, Royalty, sportsmen and anyone in the news. Some are already charged and will be in court before long.

Priests have abused children given into their care and some have gone to jail. Cricketers have bowled no balls to fill the pockets of bookmakers and only kindly officials have left similar stones unturned. MPs cannot be trusted to claim their expenses honestly and three of them have served jail sentences.

It is not supposed to happen in Britain. We are, so our politicians tell us, a democracy, with judges who cannot be bribed, emergency services to help when accidents happen, justice for all, and an active, caring press to ride shotgun lest someone acts improperly.

Now we have discovered that all our treasured and honourable servants are open to pressure from beyond their normal boundaries and will act dishonourably to fix the problem.

There are plenty of men who are rich, some not so wealthy and even some who are poor who are all too willing to bend rules if it will save their own skins.

You can often detect them by the use of a simple word: “punters.” They are very fond of using this abusive word to describe their customers.

Originally a punter was a man who bet. That grew to “mug punters” to describe those who could be persuaded to bet on any horse with three or four legs, often because it had a similar name to a wife, or a white blaze on its forehead or was ridden by a favourite jockey. Of course jockeys have fault lines too.

Now the term “punter” describes anyone who buys goods or services.

Punters are often associated with another expression of contempt. “Bums on seats” always belong to “punters” who pay for the services they receive “through the nose” with “bits of plastic.”

Before long this contempt for the man who wishes to be entertained changes to downright cheating. The goods on offer fall short of their expected standard, old people are pestered day and night by hard-sell phone salesmen and are forced to pay out to have those calls intercepted.

It is, I know, a long way from those 96 Liverpool fans who went out to enjoy a day in the sunshine at Hillsborough but it is all part of the general assumption that the gullible public — the “punters” — can be kidded, manipulated, duped and led by the nose.

That worked for 23 years after the Hillsborough incident partly because we followed the common practice of believing the police, trusting those nice guys from the ambulance service and relaying their lies as facts.

We should have known better but even I heard whispers of the tragedy being caused by drunken Liverpool fans who burst through locked gates after the kick-off, stampeded into an already overcrowded stand and then committed gross acts even as the death toll mounted.

None of that is true. The problem is that the truth revealed recently is even worse. Enough to make a man wish he had stayed in some third world country where punters are rare and policemen can be trusted.

Well, to a point.