Timing counts for a lot, even if timing takes time. On the day a verdict was finally reached in the Hillsborough Inquest and the pitiful reputation of the South Yorkshire Police Force was dragged even deeper into the dirt, another law enforcement outfit with a similarly tarnished record, the Metropolitan Police Force, announced it was poised to wind down the investigation into the disappearance of Madeleine McCann. It was as far back as April 1989 when 96 football fans lost their lives at Sheffield Wednesday’s ground; it was in 2007 when the four-year-old vanished without a trace from her family’s holiday hotel in Portugal. Neither case shares much other than the amount of headlines they have generated and the fact that both have threatened to challenge ‘The Mousetrap’ for longevity – nine years for Madeleine McCann and a staggering 27 for Hillsborough.
The Taylor Report into Hillsborough appeared as early as January 1990, just nine months after the tragedy. However, whilst instigated to establish the causes of the 96 deaths, it also had a wider remit for English football in general, covering such areas as terracing, the sale of alcohol within grounds, and crush barriers. The Taylor Report’s influence was far-reaching for football in this country, leading to all-seater stadia and the end of fans being fenced in to prevent pitch invasions and contain hooliganism. Its conclusion regarding the deaths was that the prime cause of the disaster was inadequate policing. The actual inquest into the lives lost recorded a verdict of accidental death in 1991 rather than unlawful killing and didn’t recommend charges of manslaughter be brought against the police officers who were pivotal to events, much to the dismay of the families involved.
When 20 years had passed, the dissatisfaction of bereaved families with nobody being held to account for events that day, as well as their awareness that vital documentary evidence had not been released to Lord Justice Taylor in 1989, led to the formation of the Hillsborough Independent Panel; backed by government support, the panel accessed previously-unavailable information and in 2012 concluded that Liverpool supporters were not responsible for the tragedy, contrary to the Sun’s accusations at the time.
Despite the conclusions of the panel eliciting public apologies from the relevant parties, those regarded as guilty remained unpunished and fresh demands for prosecutions of police officers on a variety of charges surfaced in the wake of the 2012 inquiry. Shortly after, the High Court quashed the verdict of the original inquest and obtained permission for a fresh inquest that began two years ago last month; when the jury reached its verdict today, all 96 deaths were found to be unlawful killings. Revelations of doctored statements by the South Yorkshire Police that have emerged in recent years had cast considerable doubt upon the original verdict, though the new verdict isn’t the end of a story that has spanned two-and-a half decades. The next stage surely has to constitute prosecutions against individual officers or even a charge of corporate manslaughter against South Yorkshire Police itself.
As for the sad saga of Madeleine McCann, the future seems less conclusive. If she is still alive, Madeleine will turn 13 in just over a couple of weeks from now; but there remains a large section of the media, both professional and social, convinced she is dead and that her blood is on the hands of her parents, Gerry and Kate. Inconclusive investigations by both Portuguese and British police, as well as private detectives, have thrown up endless speculation and false leads that have failed to establish any truth in what has become one of the twenty-first century’s great mysteries. The absence of evidence as to whether Madeleine is dead or alive, let alone any plausible murder suspects being put forward, is bound to keep the rumour mill in business when even Hillsborough has finally been put to bed.
The McCann case seems to be more a story of our times than Hillsborough, which is essentially a lingering legacy of another era altogether, as was the equally drawn-out Bloody Sunday Inquiry before it. The patent lies that were pedalled by both certain tabloid papers and the South Yorkshire Police in 1989 seem mild in comparison to the hysterical obsession of Fleet Street and Twitter with Madeleine McCann. Again, timing played its part. Following the high-profile kidnapping and murder of eight-year-old Sarah Payne by a convicted child sex-offender in 2000, child abduction with the prospect of a paedophilic element was big news both for an industry desperate to combat plummeting sales and for the newest kid on the media block. Once Jimmy Savile became the Great British Bogeyman in 2012, the dead DJ could be linked to every child abduction or murder case of the past half-century, connecting individual and utterly unrelated stories to a bigger and far more salacious fantasy of institutionalised abuse allegedly stretching back decades.
The fake abduction of nine-year-old Shannon Matthews, staged less than a year after Madeleine McCann’s disappearance by her publicity-desperate mother, was symptomatic of an age in which the narcotic of fifteen-minute fame had polluted the thought processes of even the thickest people in the country and that this craving could encompass any beyond-the-pale stunt. Whereas Kate McCann was endlessly pilloried for not displaying her private grief in public – as has been compulsory ever since weeping Diana groupies besieged the gates of Kensington Palace in 1997– Karen Matthews shed the requisite tears; that hers were of the crocodile variety didn’t appear to alter the consensus that grief is no longer the province of those with a first-hand claim to it but is now something that has to be shared across the entire vicarious spectrum of contemporary communication.
The widespread belief that the public are being lied to by the powerful, whether police or politicians, can be attributed in part to the corruption and ineptitude of those institutions themselves, but it has become more entrenched in the national consciousness courtesy of social media, turning every cock-up or wilful deception into another conspiracy theory to occupy empty lives. Hillsborough may be on the brink of resolution at last, but Madeleine McCann is set to run and run, regardless of the damage done to those whose actual concern it still is.
© The Editor