Controlling The Aftermath Of Hillsborough - 4. The Hillsborough Family Support Group
It is sad to have to locate this group under a heading of 'control', however, facts have to be faced and the fact is that the Hillsborough Family Support Group became one of the main vehicles for controlling families and survivors. For a start, survivors were excluded from the group - only the bereaved could be members. A lot of survivors have always been deeply distressed by this. Their exclusion served to exacerbate the guilt that so many of them felt for still being alive. It was in this way that a hierarchy of grief was created. The survivors however always acquiesced to the wishes of the families and constantly sought to assist them in their fight for justice.
The Hillsborough Disaster brought together many different people - socially, politically etc. The one thing they had in common was that they had lost their loved ones. For a time that was enough to keep them together but over time it was inevitable that differences would emerge.
It has been argued by some of the bereaved that they were not listened to in the HFSG and even if they disagreed with something they were ignored. Many felt it was undemocratic. Certainly there are bereaved families who have always been concerned by the fact that no minutes are kept of meetings and they have never seen the constitution of the group although they have requested it on many occasions. Outside observers have also commented on the hierarchy within the group which has led over time to the complete marginalisation of those families who dared to challenge the official view of the HFSG committee.
Those agencies involved in the aftermath of Hillsborough have in the main dealt exclusively with the Committee of the HFSG and have referred all queries from other bereaved families to the committee of the HFSG. Outsiders might argue that this is the most organised way of operating but this clearly removes the element of choice from the bereaved. What if they did not want to be part of a group as indeed some didn't? Or what if they were not receiving all the information from the group? Without doubt any family that challenged issues or pursued a different route to justice was and is considered a threat.
The HFSG has always worked within the acceptable parameters of Hillsborough. It has never rocked the boat. It has over time become part of the established order of Hillsborough. Eleven years on it is still operating within the same framework that has failed the bereaved and survivors since 1989. Families that challenged decisions made by the group were defined as 'maverick' and were expelled. These families were instrumental in forming the Hillsborough Justice Campaign which embraces survivors and general supporters of Hillsborough. The major criticism that these families level at the HFSG is that the group withholds information from its wider membership. Well we all know that knowledge is power and also that power corrupts.
One reaction of the HFSG to the broader base of the HJC, was that it began offering an 'Associate Membership' to supporters in 1999. A lot of survivors felt that this gesture was a mere sop to those who had also suffered as a result of Hillsborough. The Associate membership gave members no say in anything it merely served to prop up the HFSG.
From the inception of the HJC it tried to communicate with the HFSG and offered to work in the spirit of co-operation. The offer was repeatedly refused. This did not come as any surprise to some members of the Justice Campaign who believed that the ideological differences of the two groups were too distinct.
For more information on the HFSG see the sections in the HJC part of this website.
It is a sorry state of affairs that two groups have to exist and cannot co-exist. Criticisms have been levelled at the HJC which has been described as a 'splinter group'. It is no such thing. The HJC (as previously stated) is comprised of bereaved families, survivors and supporters - something that the HFSG is not. There are good people in the HFSG. All have suffered the most terrible losses. That is what makes it even sadder when those who should certainly be able to empathise have acted so callously at times to other bereaved families. One would think that organisations like the HFSG would somehow be atypical and outside of the usual framework of organisational politics yet actions such as expelling fellow bereaved families clearly place it within the paradigm of mainstream group dynamics where compassion has little or no place.