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.