The Bradford City Fire, the national press, and the need for balance

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By James Pieslak

(The following article is a response to this piece which appeared in The Independent on Thursday 12 November.)

FAO Ian Herbert, assorted members of the national press:

Yesterday I read the Independent article under the headline: ‘Bradford City stadium fire: Police were to blame for most life lost’. It ran a shiver down my spine.

My reach and influence is nothing compared to yours, but I hope this effort to at least put a brake against the wheels of the media bandwagon has some effect.

As someone who was there that day, I write from a position of personal sadness, but more importantly from one representing two virtues of reporting: fairness and balance.

I believe these two qualities have been missing from much reporting regarding the fallout from Martin Fletcher’s book. I believe this balance is missing entirely with this piece. I urge you to please consider the feelings of all sides affected by the tragedy. There is another side to the narrative which is being overlooked.

I accept that your job is to present the facts of the Leigh Day letter to the Home Secretary, but the avoidance of other readily-available comment, testimony and evidence typifies current reporting about the tragedy. It appears there is a narrative to subscribe to and conclusions to rush towards and nothing will stand in the way of that. Amidst this rush, a lot of people are getting hurt along the way. I urge you to consider and respect those people.

I am reminded of one newspaper’s reference to a ‘silent majority’ of people in Bradford who support the recent book which started all of this. A silent majority? What an inexcusable way of presenting one side of an argument, particularly in the face of sizeable and vocal opposition. The Lib Dems might state that a silent majority cost them an election they were bound to win. They would be labelled pitiful if they did.

However, if we are in the business of cherry-picking soundbites to support a theory, at least I have the benefit of actual data when I refer to a recent poll on the Bradford T&A website which showed that 79% oppose an inquiry. Again, I urge you to consider and respect those people.

Allow me to explain a few points in the interests of fairness and balance. The Leigh Day letter is a good place to start. In the Independent, their letter refers to: ‘affected sections of the stand being largely empty by the time officers began their evacuation’. Leigh Day then uses this ‘evidence’ as a means to accuse the police of lying about the behaviour of fans, a whitewash if you like. This is an absurd and ghoulish attempt to make comparisons to Hillsborough and to create battle lines where there are none.

It is hideous. In the interests of fairness and balance, even the video evidence demolishes the claim.

That old wooden stand, with its dark walkways and poor layout was clearly still full of people as the flames spread. The police are not to blame for that. When fire consumes a stand in minutes, and thick black smoke chokes the air of oxygen, the police are not to blame for that. Horrible circumstances are to blame for that. Watch the video. I saw it happen with my own eyes. Wisps of smoke transformed to a raging inferno in the terrible blink of an eye. The police are not to blame for that. Blame? Hardly. Many police officers were heroes that day.

At Hillsborough, terrible actions led to terrible events. At Bradford, terrible circumstances led to terrible events. The police are not to blame for that. Blame doesn’t belong here. The battle lines these reports attempt to create are false. The comparisons to Hillsborough are false. Like a poorly designed product which clumsily attempts to imitate a successful one, this story feels like a crudely constructed attempt to echo the Hillsborough campaign.

In addition to the video evidence I refer to, I’d also like to point out supporter testimony which contradicts Leigh Day and the narrative which you seemingly prescribe to.

I would urge you to read Paul Firth’s excellent but harrowing ‘Four Minutes to Hell’, a detailed eye-witness account, in which numerous people present in that stand cite a lack of urgency amongst the crowd when the fire begins to grow.

After reading the Independent piece I dug Firth’s book out, and in less time than it took for fire to destroy the stand that day, I found evidence on page 40 in which people try and continue watching the game and even order cups of coffee as the situation deteriorates. The smoke and heat and police interventions were at first considered insignificant.

In the same book, a man who recently passed away and who showed heroic levels of bravery rescuing people from the fire, describes continuing to watch the game even though flames were by that time above his head on the roof of the stand. Are the police to blame for these predicaments, or were they perhaps, awful unprecedented circumstances?

My own recollections of the day echo these testimonials. Smelling smoke and listening to songs about smoke in the stand turned to frantic running and ‘please god get me out of here’ in about the same time it took Chief Inspector Mawson to walk the length of the pitch to see what was happening. The same time it would have taken that man at the back of the stand to order and get his cup of coffee.

Yes, there was negligence. There is no doubt of that. It has been proven. The club, quite rightly, accepted it. The city accepted it. Rather than finger-pointing and looking for blame, we accepted it.

We continue to mourn what happened 30 years ago, and try to move on from that day with stoicism and dignity. Please don’t stomp all over that dignity. Just as you respect the views and opinions of some people in this argument, please consider and respect the other side too.

Thank you.

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Categories: Opinion

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16 replies

  1. Thank you James for putting the views of the “Silent Majority” across so well.

  2. Thank you James, you put that better than I could have done.

  3. I’m horrified by the parralells Ian Herbert has drawn in his article, along with the Leigh day letter between Hillsborough and Valley Parade. As you have surmised in your article “At Hillsborough, terrible actions led to terrible events. At Bradford, terrible circumstances led to terrible events.”

    I was born in 1990. I’m thankful I have no direct connection with the fire beyond understanding it’s significance for our club. As you state James, we have moved forward as a club with dignity and stoicism. It’s thirty years since the fire, to see our national press begin churning and embroiling Bradford’s tragedy in the same breath as Hillsborough and the child sex abuse investigations leaves me feeling physically sick.

    I cannot begin to understand how Ian Herberts article or the authors of the Leigh day letter will make those directly connected with that terrible day feel.

  4. Excellent article James, it will be interesting to see what reply you get from Ian Herbert and his cohorts.

  5. Well said,

  6. The lack of balance in the coverage by the Guardian and the Independent has become distasteful. Had it been red top tabloids I might not have been surprised. If comparisons with Hillsborough have to be made it will be recalled that The Sun did itself no favours with its coverage in 1989. By contrast, in 1985 there were few controversial or persistent scandalous headlines despite the number of investigative journalists in the city at the time.

    Fast forward to 2015 and we have two broadsheet titles who proclaim themselves to be ‘progressive’ giving credibility to conspiracy theories without even attempting to put some context or balance to their headlines. It feels as though the journalists concerned have their own agenda. The glib comment in the Indie that it is just ‘a section’ of City fans who refute Martin Fletcher’s allegations is contemptuous.

  7. Great piece thank you.
    But what makes me really upset is that you had to write it at all.

  8. Thank you for saying what a lot of us are thinking and believe but are unable to put into words

  9. Very well said. I too was at the game that day, lucky or unlucky enough to see what happened from the kop.
    Seeing and reading articles like that in the independent make me upset and angry. As I commented elsewhere, what happened at Valley Parade has absolutely nothing to compare with Hillsborough yet that is what they are trying to make it. I hope you have forwarded your article to the press complaints body

  10. One thing this has shown is that even ‘respected’ papers like the Guardian and the Independent cannot be trusted with fact.
    If they are factually incorrect on this issue what other stories are not to be trusted?
    I have it on good authority that one well known sports journalist covering England in Spain attended a press conference yesterday and had to restrain himself from ,in his words ‘blobbing’ Ian Herbert for this story.
    The Leverson enquiry cost millions and achieved nothing in terms press control, and an enquiry into the fire disaster would be equally expensive and achieve nothing.

  11. Sadly balance doesn’t sell newspapers, or books.

    When certain sections of our support were calling on the national media for more coverage of the 30th anniversary a number of us warned that we should be careful what we wished for.

    Now we have lots of coverage – doesn’t feel great does it ?

  12. I’ve always admired our quiet restrained dignity, as you say the blame game was not for us. This article I feel tries to create a furore when there really isn’t one to be found.
    I love this club with all my heart and I look to my right every time I take my seat in the Kop and think of those 56 souls, but the fire is ours to contemplate in our own way, not some mis-guided reporters crusade. CTID

  13. Excellent piece James which captures the feelings of 99.9% of Bradfordians

  14. Well said James. On a hot May day the stand was like a tinderbox and as I watched from the kop it was astonishing how quickly the fire went from smoke to flame to inferno. The club acknowledged that it was negligent before the match, but all I saw on the day itself either in uniform or not.

  15. Excellent piece.

    As a young lad in the Midland Road that day so wasn’t directly affected, it is difficult to put your thoughts into words.

    I just think these days we live in an incredibly politically correct world, where journalists and politicians will quite happily jump on a bandwagon under the perceived banner of “justice”, to make themselves appear a better person.

    Or maybe it is just simply a case of using a tragedy to further their career; either way I think it is pretty sick behaviour.

    Fletcher obviously has his reasons, but to imply that Stafford would risk the lives of thousands, is a conspiracy right up there with the Kennedy assassination.

    When you lose someone in any walk of life, particularly too soon it makes you angry and wanting someone to blame.

    I think the most telling factor, is that other than Fletcher, I am not aware that any of the other families who lost someone that day are calling for a review.

    If these journalists and MP’s are such supposedly fine citizens as they portray, then they should start respecting the wishes and feelings of these people.

    • Totally agree. That Naz Shah in particular should jump on the bandwagon in the way she has without any thought whatsoever for the views of the people she’s supposed to represent is utterly reprehensible.

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