Why Are People Comparing The Grenfell Tower Fire To The Hillsborough Disaster?
In the aftermath of the deadly fire in Grenfell Tower, parallels have been drawn to the deaths of 96 Liverpool fans at Hillsborough. Both disasters have their roots in institutional negligence and a lack of care for working-class citizens.
From almost the moment that images of the Grenfell Tower fire were first broadcast on televisions across the country, the scale of the institutional negligence involved started to become apparent. From accounts of the Grenfell residents warning of a "major disaster" if safety problems were not addressed to articles on restricted access ways, inadequate fire safety advice and flammable cladding bought on the cheap for the purpose of 'regeneration', the picture which began to come together was one of a local authority which cared more about making the area attractive for property developers than the wellbeing of its less wealthy constituents. Kensington and Chelsea council struggled to hide their ineptitude in the aftermath, with their relief efforts seeing some victims sleeping on the floor of a local leisure centre. Their chief executive resigned, protests erupted and the Conservative-dominated council was put under a spotlight, where its glaring failures are still being scrutinised today.
As well as the damning reports on the factors which contributed to the catastrophe at Grenfell, there were many who drew an unsettling comparison in the aftermath. With images of exhausted firefighters, angry bystanders and despairing residents still flooding in, the events unfolding were likened to the Hillsborough disaster on social media, in newspapers and by opposition politicians time and time again. Tottenham MP David Lammy tweeted: "Grenfell Tower: have we learnt nothing from Hillsborough? The rich and the powerful will do all they can to obfuscate, delay and cover up." Speaking in Parliament, Jeremy Corbyn said: "From Hillsborough to the child sex abuse scandal to Grenfell Tower, the pattern is consistent. Working-class people's voices are ignored, their concerns dismissed by those in power." Hillsborough campaigners themselves weighed in on Grenfell, with Margaret Aspinall, chair of the Hillsborough Families Support Group, telling The Liverpool Echo: "You've got to start demanding answers and have transparency and openness about everything, as the authorities will try and palm you off."
There was also a striking juxtaposition between two images made on Twitter, one of Theresa May standing well away from the public as she surveyed the remains of Grenfell, another of Margaret Thatcher, senior policemen and ministers standing on the terraces of the Leppings Lane end on the day after the crush which would eventually claim 96 lives. While Thatcher visited victims in hospital that day – a mixed blessing as far as many Liverpudlians were concerned – May was criticised for her slow response to the Grenfell fire, though it is the air of remoteness which has drawn parallels between the two pictures. Those in a forgiving mood might argue that this comparison is based on little more than the vague physical resemblance which saw The Telegraph, The Daily Mail and the like herald May as the new 'Iron Lady', despite all the evidence suggesting that she is a pale imitation of her predecessor. Then again, there are already those who are calling out an establishment cover-up at Grenfell, of the sort which has caused the Hillsborough families so much anger and anguish since 1989.
There are obvious differences between Grenfell and Hillsborough, not least the nature of the disaster. While the negligence at Grenfell relates to the council, their contractors and inadequately enforced safety regulations, the responsibility for the Hillsborough disaster fell on the shoulders of South Yorkshire police, with their shoddy preparation and lethal decision to open an exit gate at the Leppings Lane end ultimately leading to massive loss of life. The death of 96 Liverpool fans in the aftermath – Tony Bland, the last fatality of the disaster, died in hospital four years later – was finally determined to be unlawful in April 2016, with the design of the stadium and various other factors exacerbating the situation. The behaviour of the fans was categorically not one of those factors, however, despite the efforts of the police to blame them in collusion with elements of the media, most notably The Sun.
In stark contrast, the emergency services have been widely praised for their reaction to the Grenfell fire. If anything, it is the closure of fire stations and public service cuts which have now come under scrutiny, as opposed to the efforts of the emergency services themselves. Where the two acts of institutional negligence become comparable, however, is in the sense that the establishment and elements of the fourth estate are closing ranks in response to fatal errors. While defamation of the sort embodied by 'The Truth' headline has been avoided this time around, there still seem to have been subtle efforts to shift the blame for Grenfell away from the authorities and onto the victims.
Speaking on Newsnight in the aftermath of the fire, Nick Paget-Brown, Conservative leader of Kensington and Chelsea council, attempted to deflect blame for the absence of sprinklers in Grenfell onto residents, this despite them warning of inadequate fire safety several years before. In a letter to The Guardian, a local resident described a rebate from Paget-Brown and the council as "blood money", on account of them failing to spend it where it was so desperately needed. Commentary in other newspapers was not quite so reflective. The Mail didn't take long to publish pictures of "the mini-cab driver whose faulty fridge is alleged to have started the Grenfell Tower inferno", making sure to stress his Ethiopian heritage. The Sun soon followed suit, though their story seems to have been updated with a slightly more palatable angle. The Mail article elicited thousands of IPSO complaints and a petition in protest at coverage "blaming victims", which has gathered over 31,000 signatures to date.
It is no coincidence that, as with Hillsborough, the newspapers shifting responsibility on to victims are the usual suspects. While below-the-line comments complaining about the rehousing of Grenfell survivors in 'luxury' flats exposed a general dearth of empathy in the dark corners of the internet, The Mail and The Sun have an interest in blame being contained within Grenfell itself. It is not just the local Conservative council who have been castigated for their role in the disaster, but also a government beleaguered after a disastrous election, with criticisms ranging from those already mentioned – Theresa May's response, destructive public service cuts and so on – to a lack of care for working-class citizens which runs right to the heart of their policies. Ultimately, were these criticisms to stick they would serve as a crushing indictment of the government, which considering the editorial stance of The Sun and The Mail we can assume they are desperate to avoid.
This is surely why several of the Conservative-aligned newspapers seem adamant that onlookers should not "politicise" a tragedy, with even the incessant use of the term 'tragedy' making the disaster seem somehow arbitrary as opposed to negligent and criminal. For obvious reasons, they would prefer that the Grenfell fire not continue to damn the government by association, or even worse damn the dual philosophies of small government and austerity which elevate cutting red tape, minimising public expenditure, rolling back regulation and increasing private profit above the needs of ordinary people. In this sense, it is little wonder that some fear a cover-up, when tentative manoeuvres towards safeguarding those in power already seem to have been set in motion, and with some on the hard right even keen to shift the focus onto the immigration status of those who survived.
When it comes to a precedent for victim blaming, nothing is quite as evocative as the Hillsborough disaster. The Sun famously accused Liverpool supporters of urinating on policemen, drunkenly assaulting the emergency services and pickpocketing the dead, their report a combination of vicious slander and stereotyping a predominantly working-class fanbase with the tropes of eighties hooliganism. The Daily Mail initially went with the angle that fans "were drunk and violent and their actions were vile," but later changed tack and started to present the disaster as a 'tragedy', which should now feel rather familiar. Practically all the Conservative-aligned newspapers gave robust backing to the police, which was no doubt a factor in the initial inquests returning a verdict of accidental death for the victims, a decision which the families of those who died fought in the courts for over two and a half decades.
Once again, the interests of a Conservative government were at stake. As David Conn laid out in an article this March on the links between Hillsborough and the Battle of Orgreave, Margaret Thatcher and her government considered themselves indebted to South Yorkshire police for their role in violently suppressing the Miners' Strike of 1984-85. Thatcher personally hosted celebratory drinks for chief constables come the end of the dispute, including Peter Wright, who was still in charge of the force in South Yorkshire at the time of the Hillsborough disaster and was instrumental in the campaign to shield officers from blame. With the publication of the Taylor Report in 1990 and its findings about police failings, then home secretary Douglas Hurd intended to announce that the government welcomed "the broad thrust of the report." In response, Thatcher noted in a memo: "What do we mean by 'welcoming the broad thrust of the report'? The broad thrust is devastating criticism of the police. Is that for us to welcome? Surely we welcome the thoroughness of the report and its recommendations."
Several weeks after the Hillsborough disaster, Margaret Aspinall met Thatcher at Liverpool cathedral. Aspinall told The Liverpool Echo in 2016: "She said there were 750 police officers on duty on the day of the disaster. I asked her: 'Please, tell me what they were doing, then?' She said to me: 'Their job, my dear, their job.'" This attitude among those in power was no doubt one of the reasons that the Hillsborough families had to wait so long for justice. The establishment closed ranks, and as is now the case with the Grenfell fire there were elements of the media willing to aid them in that endeavour, even if a headline like 'The Truth' might not fly today.
At the time of publication, it has been several hours since it was announced that former police officers will face charges for their role in the Hillsborough disaster. It has taken decades for the truth to come out about the institutional negligence which caused 96 deaths to occur, as well as an enormous fightback against those who would rather have kept that truth hidden for sake of convenience. Now, with residents, commentators and politicians demanding accountability over the Grenfell fire, it has to be hoped that those in power can be pressured into full transparency, lest Grenfell become another example of justice being denied to citizens without the means and influence to manipulate findings. In the meantime, the shadow of Hillsborough looms large over Grenfell, a rebuke to those in power and a reminder that nobody should have to wait so long for justice again.