Hillsborough: Front pages which make you proud to be a regional journalist

David Higgerson

To be in Liverpool yesterday was to witness something remarkable. The most outrageous wrong righted after 23 years. The truth revealed, but justice still to be done. Proof that if you believe in what you’re doing, you should keep fighting, even when the whole world appears to be against you, determined to keep secrets under wraps.

Seeing people standing around TV screens in cafes which are normally just background noise, nodding, wiping tears from their eyes as David Cameron issued a national apology. Seeing a city stop for two minutes at 3.06pm to remember the 96 who died.

I was lucky enough to work in the Liverpool Echo and Daily Post newsroom for three years, and still work closely with the digital team there. There was never any doubt that the newsroom would do a brilliant job in print and online – covering the latest chapter in arguably the biggest…

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Death, Where is Thy Sting?

My death waits like an old roue’

So confident, I’ll go his way

Whistle to him and the passing time

My death waits like a Bible truth

At the funeral of my youth

Are we proud for that and the passing time?

My death waits like a witch at night

As surely as our love is right

Let’s not think about the passing time

But whatever lies behind the door

There is nothing much to do

Angel or devil, I don’t care

For in front of that door there is you

 

My death waits there among the leaves

In magician’s mysterious sleeves

Rabbits and dogs and the passing time

My death waits there among the flowers

Where the blackest shadows, blackest shadows cowers

Let’s pick lilacs for the passing time

My death waits there in a double bed

Sails of oblivion and my head

So pull up your sheets against the passing time

But whatever lies behind the door

There is nothing much to do

Angel or devil, I don’t care

For in front of that door there is You

(Jacques Brel)

 

THE death of my father hit me hard.

I held his hand and gazed into his eyes as he drew his last breath.

It is a moment in time that I will never forget.

It is now more than seven years since that moment.

My dad was part of me and I part of him in every way. He is never far from my thoughts and often inhabits my dreams.

He was not the perfect man, but he was my father and the best there ever was. He taught me so much about optimism, overcoming setbacks and being myself… and much more about living.

He left his mark on this Earth and, yes, he lived.

And then there was Andrea.

At 21, she was the sweetest and most funny girl I had ever met and we quickly became inseparable soul mates, while we both battled cancer together during the winter of 1987.

Racked in pain, with Ewing’s Sarcoma, a bone cancer – diagnosed while she was on a walking holiday in France – she knew her chances of survival were slim.

“But I’m going to fight it,” she urged, willing me to do the same. “I haven’t yet got my degree, I haven’t learned to drive… and I’m still a virgin.

“I want to live a bit before I die.”

She did.

But that did not dull the agony when three years later, in May 1990, our mutual friend David and I stood together and shared heart wrenching tears at her funeral.

For me, my memories of Andrea always remain, and has often been my driving force to live.

Her smile and her laughter as she beat me in a physiotherapy game of football in the hospital gym, where she was only allowed to use her right leg and I only my arm. At the end of the game we collapsed side by side on the floor guffawing at how silly all this was.

Then there was the Wednesday night visit to the local rugby club for a game of bingo and a half pint of beer. We walked slowly back to the hospital hostel at 10pm. She rested her head on my shoulder as we walked and suddenly whispered: “I love you Nic… we are going to win, aren’t we?”

I kissed her forehead and answered: “Of course we will.”

A year before her death I visited Andrea again in a hospital in Birmingham, where she had undergone a hip replacement operation in a last attempt by surgeons to remove the seat of her cancer.

I sat and clenched her right hand and looked into her sparkling eyes.

I giggled: “Hey, you’ve got freckles and hair!”

“Yes,” she answered, “I have been off chemotherapy for three months now to build up my strength for the op’.”

I had only known Andrea as a tall, underweight, pale-faced girl stooped under a horrendous NHS wig, which at times made her look like an extra in the Addams Family.

But now, holding her hand, this was how I was going to remember her.

I have faced the death of family and close friends quite a few times over the years.

The grief is always immeasurable, and in recent years some of those deaths were untimely and shocking.

And as I look at my ageing mum – still an inspiration at 85 years old – and in the mirror at myself, I realise that time never stands still.

I could have died a few times – twice from cancer, once in a high speed car crash and more recently from a vicious assault which left me minutes from the end.

But I am still here and age defines me.

As it does for all of us.

So we live our lives as constructively as we can, seeking happiness and pleasure, loving and caring, and at times grieving.

But always knowing that our own time is limited.

I recall two sets of lines from that wonderful movie Dead Poets Society.

The late Robin Williams, playing the role of school teacher John Keating, teaches his charges of the essence of life: “We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race.

“And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for… that you are here – that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse.

“That the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?”

And later, turning to fading sepia school photos of students taken decades earlier, he reminds them of the passing time and the brevity of life: “They’re not that different from you, are they? Same haircuts. Full of hormones, just like you. Invincible, just like you feel.

“The world is their oyster. They believe they’re destined for great things, just like many of you, their eyes are full of hope, just like you. Did they wait until it was too late to make from their lives even one iota of what they were capable?

“Because, you see gentlemen, these boys are now fertilizing daffodils. But if you listen real close, you can hear them whisper their legacy to you. Go on, lean in. Listen, you hear it? Carpe – hear it? Carpe, carpe diem, seize the day boys, make your lives extraordinary.”

We should all make our own lives extraordinary.

But death is shocking.

And somehow when someone famous dies we immerse ourselves in a communal grief which is sometimes shared across the globe.

Yesterday, another celebrity and amazing musician,  Prince suddenly died. His body was found in a lift at his home in the Paisley Park Estate in the USA.

He was only 57 years-old, and the world began to mourn.

Some 20 years ago, I remember feeling a deep sadness when two of my musical heroes died.

Mick Ronson was a guitar virtuoso who succumbed to liver cancer in 1993, aged just 47. And former Small Faces bass player and singer songwriter Ronnie Lane died from MS in 1997, aged 51.

But these were the days before the internet, so my grief for them was private and personal.

But that was to change.

The death of pioneering rock musician Lou Reed in October 2013, hit me harder than I might have expected.

But this time I was able to share my grief through Facebook, Twitter and email.

And that grief was world-wide and genuine.

At 16 years-old I came to Lou Reed via David Bowie, or to be more exact, his 1971 album, Hunky Dory and the track Queen Bitch with its overt references to his former band The Velvet Underground.

So when his album Transformer was released in November that year I rushed out to buy it, without ever hearing a track.

Two weeks later I was the proud owner of a compilation LP called The Best of the Velvet Underground.

I became a lifetime fan of Lou Reed and rate his 1973 album Berlin and his 1989 album New York as two of the greatest rock albums ever produced by anyone. His later album Magic and Loss is, in my opinion, one of the most moving single pieces of music and poetry ever produced.

I mourned his death with real tears.

Tears shared by millions across the globe.

Just five months later, in March 2014, the death of my political hero Tony Benn, hit me even harder.

At the time he was the last truly great parliamentary socialist, and a man of courtesy, decency, principle, integrity and vision.

And he was a true hero of mine.

During my years as a newspaper journalist I was fortunate enough to interview Tony three times, and each interview was a joy.

And I have another reason for loving Tony Benn.

In 1994, 43 MPs signed an Early Day Motion in the House of Commons praising my year-long investigation into the link between the test firing of depleted uranium tank shells and local clusters of cancer.

The same tank shells provided a link to Gulf War Syndrome in the first Gulf War.

Some of my political heroes signed that EDM including Alan Simpson, Ken Livingstone and Dennis Skinner. But the sixth signature on that motion was Tony Benn. His name next to mine was like a personal shield of honour.

A treasure I will keep till my own grave.

Tony was true fighter for ordinary working people from the moment he was elected an MP in 1950.

Later in life he became a folk hero as well as a campaigner for a number of causes, particularly opposition to UK military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan and for the liberation of Palestine.

My grief for his passing was deep and I still often dig out YouTube videos of some of his amazing parliamentary speeches.

But I guess nothing prepared me for the morning of Monday 11 January this year.

I woke as usual at 6am and like millions of others across the world I was presented with news I never expected to happen: my musical hero David Bowie was dead.

I was stunned, heartbroken and gutted. I honestly thought David Bowie was immortal… he had been part of my life for 44 years.

He wasn’t just the Man Who Sold the World, he was an Earthling who pulled every one of us into the Quicksand of his thoughts and music.

Actor Simon Pegg tried to put his death into perspective, saying: “If you’re sad today, just remember the world is over 4 billion years old and you somehow managed to exist at the same time as David Bowie.”

Three months have now passed and a passing thought is just how many of Bowie’s sidemen and close musicians have also died: the aforementioned Mick Ronson, Trevor Bolder, Lou Reed, Luther Vandross, Ralph MacDonald, Sean Mayes and Steve Strange… what a heavenly band.

It now seems rare for a week to pass without a significant celebrity death being reported – from David Bowie in the second week of January, to actor Alan Rickman a week later, to comedian Victoria Wood and now Prince.

So is this wave of celebrity deaths the new normal?

The BBC’s obituary editor Nick Serpell today said that the number of significant deaths this year has been “phenomenal”.

Nick prepares obituaries for BBC television, radio and online, that run once a notable person’s death is confirmed.

The number of his obituaries used across BBC outlets in recent years has leaped considerably.

It’s a jump from only five between January and late March 2012 to a staggering 24 in the same period this year – an almost five-fold increase.

And that’s before counting some of the notable deaths in April, including American singer Merle Haggard, the former drug smuggler Howard Marks and this week’s two notable departures.

Here in the UK, the Daily Telegraph maintains a gallery of famous people who have died, and updates it throughout the year.

Up to this time in 2014, the number of those in the gallery was 38. By this time last year, the number of people in the gallery was 30. This year, the number is already 75.

At the beginning of every year, the website deathlist.net lists 50 celebrities it believes may pass away that year. In six of the last 10 years, two or fewer of its predictions had come true by this time – this year, five names have died so far.

So why has death’s sting become so much sharper?

There are a few reasons, explains Nick Serpell.

“People who started becoming famous in the 1960s are now entering their 70s and are starting to die,” he says.

“There are also more famous people than there used to be,” he says. “In my father or grandfather’s generation, the only famous people really were from cinema – there was no television.

“Then, if anybody wasn’t on TV, they weren’t famous.”

Many of those now dying belonged to the so-called baby-boom generation, born between 1946 and 1964, that saw a huge growth in population. In the US for example, the census bureau said that 76 million people in 2014 belonged to the baby boomer generation – some 23% of the population.

Here in the UK, people aged 65 or older make up almost 18% of the population – a 47% increase on forty years ago.

With more babies born into the baby-boom generation, it meant more went on to eventually become famous.

Now, those famous former babies, aged between 70 and 82, are dying.

The age-bracket 65 to 69 is the one, in England and Wales for example, where death rates really start to increase – some 14.2 per 1,000 men in that age bracket died in 2014, compared with 9.4 per 1,000 in the 60 to 64 age bracket.

Among the major deaths this year, many – including Prince (57), Alan Rickman (69), David Bowie (69) and Victoria Wood (62) – were baby-boomers.

Another factor that may play into the impression that more celebrities are dying is that we have heard of more celebrities than before.

“Over the past 10 years, social media has played a big part,” says Nick Serpell.

These days, it is far easier to hear news of whether anyone has died than at any time in the past.

“Over the next 10 years, these people will get into their 80s and it is going to continue at this level,” adds Nick Serpell.

“And that doesn’t count the surprise deaths, when people die that shouldn’t.”

My death waits like a Bible truth…

So pull up your sheets against the passing time

For whatever lies behind the door

There is nothing much to do

Angel or devil, I don’t care

For in front of that door there is You

 

Charlton Athletic Need Our Support

Very important piece for any real football fan

Arcticterntalk.org

As Brentford fans we recall the days of Noades and Webb , with anguish. If anyone is free and not travelling to MK Dons on saturday, they might consider supporting Charlton here. The Brighton fans already are doing so and I wish them well. For Tarkowski and Transfer related reasons most Brentford fans would welcome Brighton gaining promotion at the expense of Burnley.

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Following the team’s relegation to League One on Tuesday night, the Coalition Against Roland Duchatelet (CARD) is calling on all Charlton fans who want the owner to sell the club to march on The Valley from Charlton Church Lane at 2.15pm on Saturday.

CARD is planning another massive pre-match protest, along similar lines to the funeral procession before the Middlesbrough game last month, which will assemble outside the Charlton Liberal Club, opposite the junction with Sundorne Road, from 2pm.

And we need the help of volunteers to…

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Suppression of the Truth: Depleted Uranium – The Deadly Killer

DU tank

IT all began in September 1992, when as a newly ensconced chief reporter at the Galloway Gazette – a weekly newspaper in South West Scotland – I began investigating a report into high levels of radiation in the local waters of the Solway Firth.

At the time, the worrying measurements of Caesium 137 and Americium 241 – a decay product of Plutonium – were ascribed to radioactive waste from the Sellafield Nuclear Reprocessing Plant across the Firth in Cumbria.

Over the winter of 1992-93 I ran a small campaign in our newspaper to investigate these high levels of radioactivity in our sea water.

Then in February 1993 I stumbled across a report to Dumfries and Galloway Regional Council which claimed that the radiation from Sellafield could be responsible for “excess” incidences of leukaemia in our local area.

The report by medical consultant Dr James Chalmers said radiation exposure was of ‘particular concern’ to people in the region, because of the proximity of Sellafield and a nuclear power station at Chapelcross, near Dumfries.

“The main conclusion is that there appears to be a higher than expected incidence of acute leukaemia in Dumfries and Galloway,” he said.

“And some areas have markedly higher than expected incidences. These include areas where there is concern about high exposure to radiation – Kirkcudbright and Chapelcross. In some areas recorded incidences are twice the expected level for those areas.”

While the local Conservative MP Ian Lang gave public assurances that the “levels of radiation on the Galloway coast pose no threat to public health”, both the regional council and the four district councils demanded a closer investigation.

Like a terrier with a bone my journalistic mind kicked in, and I could scent an ongoing newspaper campaign.

By the end of the month, nuclear experts and spokespeople for Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace claimed that both BNFL (the operators of Sellafield) and the Government were “covering up” the true levels of local radiation and the risks to public health.

Dr Patrick Green – who had conducted detailed research for Friends of the Earth – said the Government testing of critical groups of local fish eaters had underplayed the levels of radiation uptake by more than half.

By April 1993, Alex Smith, the Labour Euro MP for South West Scotland was calling on Ian Lang (who was also the Secretary of State for Scotland) to speak out on the contamination from Sellafield.

My campaign into shedding light on the radiation threat to the Galloway coast ran and rumbled throughout the spring and summer of 1993 and by August it was receiving attention from local radio and Scottish national newspapers.

But nothing prepared me for what was to happen next.

Local resident Teresa Spurling, who was worried about the radiation levels in her local sands at Cumstoun, near Kirkcudbright, was one of many who contacted me.

Teresa, who lost her four-year-old daughter Alix with a rare combination of cancers 16 months earlier, was campaigning vigorously for more attention to be paid to the high levels of radiation in the area where her daughter once played.

She pointed accusingly at the contamination from Sellafield but also at the test firing of depleted uranium (DU) artillery shells into the sea from the MoD base at Dundrennan – some eight miles from her home.

“I have come to know so many children who have cancer along this stretch of coast,” she said, before showing me a list of local children who had died from cancer within the previous eight years.

My senses were heightened. Not only did I not realise that there was at MoD base at Dundrennan, but what the hell were they doing firing radioactive shells into the local coastal waters?

Quickly my campaign into a link between radioactive contamination of our coastline and cancer clusters took on a new dimension as we gradually managed to expose years of test firing of these DU shells into the Solway Firth and their link to local cancer clusters – particularly childhood leukaemia.

Public anger over what was perceived as a Government cover-up of the test firing grew by the week and fuelled dozens of questions in the House of Commons plus reports by the national press and BBC’s Panorama TV programme.

By late October the MoD had invited me and other journalists to visit the Dundrennan firing range. In an effort to placate the feral press we were briefed by smartly uniformed senior ranks that the DU shells posed no threat to health and everything was “above board”.

But this sugar-coated PR attempt was ruined in the afternoon when at a public briefing by Secretary of State for Defence Jonathan Aitken and his PPS Stephen Milligan, the public concern and blame was wholly turned on the “local press” (ie me). Mr Aitken said we were spinning lies and “No-one should believe the reports from this backwoods gutter press”.

In 1999, the same Jonathan Aitken was jailed for 18 months for perjury and lying about his arms dealing with Saudi Arabia. Stephen Milligan was found dead in his London flat in 1994. He was naked except for a pair of stockings and suspenders, with an electrical flex tied around his neck and a black bin liner over his head, with an orange in his mouth.

You couldn’t make it up!

My newspaper campaign accelerated in the New Year when a report for the magazine Red Act revealed that 10 per cent of US servicemen who served in the Gulf War had qualified for disability compensation after suffering medical symptoms attributed to exposure to depleted uranium (DU) tank and artillery shells. More than 1,600 American Gulf veterans had also died from similar symptoms.

The report stated: “Of 600,000 American soldiers sent to the Middle East to confront Saddam Hussein, more than 54,000 have qualified for disability compensation.”

Their symptoms included chronic fatigue, rashes, eye and ear infections, bleeding gums, facial paralysis, headaches, memory loss, muscle and joint pains, liver problems and cancer.

The report also referred to the MoD base at Dundrennan, where it said an estimated 4,000 DU shells had been fired into the Solway Firth.

It concluded: “The MoD plans to develop and fire new DU shells there, which will increase local toxic and radioactive contamination.”

The report “Depleted Uranium, Sick Soldiers and Dead Children” came just two weeks after a parliamentary statement by Defence Minister Jeremy Hanley confirmed that sizeable stocks of DU shells were held at the Dundrennan firing range.

“On 15th December 1993, 111 DU rounds were held at the Dundrennan range in anticipation of a number of trials,” he said.

His statement completely contradicted an earlier parliamentary answer by Mr Aitken, who in June 1993 said there were no stocks of Depleted Uranium shells at Dundrennan, “nor any future arisings expected”.

But, I was in for another shock.

Suddenly, and without any warning, I was given two major press awards for my work into the DU shell firings – the first was a Judges’ Special Award for Investigative Journalism.

Then I was informed that 41 MPs had signed an Early Day Motion (EDM) in the House of Commons praising my investigation (and that of a dear and late colleague at the Sunday Mail) into the link between DU shell firing and the serious risks to health – including cancer.

The EDM read: “That this House congratulates Nic Outterside, chief reporter of the Galloway Gazette, for his special award of the year ‘for his investigative journalism and individual tenacity’, and Angus Macleod of the Sunday Mail, for his ‘talent for disclosing stories in an aggressive and attacking writing style’ in winning the journalist and reporter of the year award in the Scottish Press Awards made on 26th April; notes that both reporters revealed the hidden dangers of depleted uranium shell tests at Ministry of Defence test ranges, and unveiled the links between vapourised depleted uranium dust and the Gulf War or Desert Storm syndrome; believes these Scottish reporters have properly publicised a problem of national and international importance as recognised by investigations in the United States Congress and the United Nations Compensation Committee; and reiterates its call for an urgent public inquiry.”

Some of my political heroes signed that EDM including Tony Benn, Alan Simpson, Ken Livingstone and Dennis Skinner. These names next to mine were like a personal shield of honour, and a vindication of 18 months of sometimes painstaking investigation.

In June 1994 I moved to Edinburgh and left my investigations into the Dundrennan cover-up behind.

But the story did not die.

Studies since 1994 showed that exposure to depleted uranium leads to cancers, birth defects, memory loss, damage to the immune system and neuro-psychotic disorders.

Yet the MoD still steadfastly claimed sine the first Gulf war that “DU does not pose a risk to health or the environment”.

This claim was undone when in 2004 it was revealed that the British Army told soldiers in Iraq that DU can cause ill-health.

An MoD card handed to troops on active service in the second Gulf War, in 2003-2005, read: “You have been deployed to a theatre where depleted uranium (DU) munitions have been used. DU is a weakly radioactive heavy metal which has the potential to cause ill-health. You may have been exposed to dust containing DU during your deployment.

“You are eligible for a urine test to measure uranium. If you wish to know more about having this test, you should consult your unit medical officer on return to your home base. Your medical officer can provide information about the health effects of DU.”

A UN sub-commission ruled that the use of DU breaches the Geneva Convention and the Genocide Convention. DU has also been blamed for the effects of Gulf War Syndrome among some 200,000 US troops.

It has led to birth defects in the children of veterans and Iraqis and is believed to be the cause of the “worrying number” of anophthalmos cases – babies born without eyes – in Iraq. A study of veterans showed 67% had children with severe illnesses, missing eyes, blood infections, respiratory problems and fused fingers.

Professor Doug Rokke, the ex-director of the Pentagon’s DU project and a former US Army colonel who was tasked by the US defence department to deal with DU after the first Gulf War, said: “The MoD card acknowledges the risks. It contradicts the position it has taken publicly – that there was no risk – in order to sustain the use of DU rounds and avoid liability.”

Dr Rokke attacked the US and UK for “contaminating the world” with DU munitions and said the issuing of the card meant that they had “a moral obligation to provide care for all those affected” and to clean up the environment in Iraq.

“DU is in residential areas in Iraq, troops are going by sites contaminated with it with no protective clothing or respiratory protection, and kids are playing in the same areas.”

He added: “What right does anyone have to throw radioactive poison around and then not clean it up or offer people medical care?” Dr Rokke said that the use of DU in Iraq should be deemed a war crime.

“This war was about weapons of mass destruction, but the US and UK were the only people using WMD – in the form of DU shells.”

Ray Bristow, trustee of the UK’s National Gulf Veterans and Families Association, said the MoD card “confirms what independent scientists have said for years”. Mr Bristow, 45, suffers from chromosomal abnormalities and conditions similar to those who survived the nuclear bomb in Hiroshima.

A former warrant officer in the medical corps in the first Gulf war, he is now only able to walk short distances with a walking frame and often has to use a wheelchair.

“While the card may have been issued to British troops we have to ask, ‘what about the Iraqi people?’ They are living among DU contamination. And what about the people in Dundrennan?

“The MoD line has always been that DU is safe – it has been caught out in a lie.”

Mr Bristow said some 29,000 British troops could be contaminated. He was found to have uranium in his system more than 100 times the safety limit. “I put on a uniform because I believe in democracy and freedom,” he said. “Now I can’t believe a word my government says.”

He also believed the discovery of the DU card will help affected troops sue for compensation. “Globally, this discovery is of huge significance.”

Chris Ballance, the Green MSP for the area, added: “DU is a weapon of mass destruction that must be banned.”

He said the MoD must remove the shells that had been fired into the Solway Firth and tell the people of Dundrennan about the risks.

Malcolm Hooper, emeritus professor of medicinal chemistry at Sunderland University and an expert on DU, said it was “administrative deception” for the MoD to claim DU was not a risk to health while issuing warnings to troops.

Dr Hooper, a Government adviser on DU, described the government’s behaviour as “a dreadful experiment … an obscenity … and a war crime against our own troops”.