As Michael Mansfield and former Lord Chancellor Charlie Falconer help the families of the victims of the Hillsborough tragedy search for justice, it appears likely that the Attorney General, Dominic Grieve, will make a request for the original inquest verdict of accidental death to be quashed. The prosecutions to follow could well be widespread.
Last Wednesday the truth about what really happened at Hillsborough at the FA Cup semi-final on 15 April 1989 was finally revealed. Some of the findings were already well known to the families and supporters of those who died but, even to those immersed in the quest for truth and justice, some disclosures were a shock. To summarise, those found culpable were as follows:
South Yorkshire Police – Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield, in charge of policing at the match, made a ‘blunder of the first magnitude’ according to the original Taylor report. He allowed hundreds of fans to pour through an exit gate opened on his orders. He almost immediately regretted this and attempted to shift the blame onto Liverpool supporters, who he later told FA chief Graham Kelly and Margaret Thatcher had stormed the gate in question. This was a lie. Out of 164 witness statements taken, 116 were subsequently amended or altered to remove unfavourable comments about police conduct. A ‘rock solid’ story was then concocted to blame ticketless, drunken and violent Liverpool fans. No evidence was found to support this. SYP even went as far as to test all blood alcohol levels in all the victims, including the children – all came back zero – and the criminal records of the victims were also researched in an attempt to find ways to place blame on the victims.
South Yorkshire Ambulance Service – Slow to react and overwhelmed with the situation that unfolded before them they went unscrutinised in the original inquest because the coroner, Dr Stefan Popper, controversially decided not to investigate anything that took place after 3.15pm. His assumption was that all victims were well beyond help by this time, despite considerable evidence to the contrary. The Hillsborough Independent Panel found that at least 41 victims could have been saved had the emergency services reacted quicker.
Sheffield City Council and Sheffield Wednesday Football Club – The safety certificate for the venue was eleven years out of date and invalid. Repeated warnings about the safety of the Leppings Lane end continued to go ignored, not least after a serious crush at the 1981 FA Cup semi-final between Tottenham Hotspur and Wolverhampton Wanderers, and concerned Liverpool fans had sent letters regarding this issue following a crush at the 1988 FA Cup semi-final, only a year earlier.
The Football Association – After the 1981 semi-final the FA stopped selecting Hillsborough as a venue for cup semi-finals. However, in 1987 it was once again selected after various ground modifications, even though it had not obtained a new safety certificate.
The media – The now infamous headline in the Sun newspaper, ‘The Truth’, had a huge impact on how the general public viewed the disaster. It caused untold hurt and needless distress on Merseyside and beyond. White’s news agency in Sheffield had been briefed with lies about Liverpool supporters by senior officers in SYP and former Conservative MP for Sheffield Hallam, Sir Irvine Patnick. Again the panel found absolutely no evidence to support the allegations of drunkenness, ticketlessness or violence. In 2010 Kelvin MacKenzie, then editor of the Sun and the man responsible for the infamous headline, appeared on BBC’s Question Time. He refused to apologise for the Sun‘s coverage of the disaster and even reportedly told a group of Newcastle businessmen at a private function: ‘I wasn’t sorry then and I’m not sorry now.’ As Kevin Sampson pointed out in Sunday’s edition of the Observer, his recent apology is completely worthless as he gave it because he had no choice!
It is also worth noting that whilst London Mayor, Boris Johnson, rides high in the opinion polls as – astonishingly – Britain’s most respected political leader, he too was forced to apologise. In 2004, when he was editor of the Spectator magazine, he wrote an editorial accusing ‘drunken fans at the back of the crowd who mindlessly tried to fight their way into the ground’, adding: ‘The police became a convenient scapegoat, and the Sun newspaper a whipping boy for daring, albeit in a tasteless fashion, to hint at wider causes of the incident.’ The recent YouGov poll also stated Johnson’s unpopularity though in Scotland, Wales, the Midlands and northern England. Certainly few on Merseyside find his antics very funny or buy into his bumbling, ‘loveable’ persona.
If we rewind to the polarised 1980s under a Thatcher government that asked ‘are they one of us?’ and spoke of the ‘enemy within’, the class war well underway with Militant in control of Liverpool City Council and ‘Boys from the Blackstuff’ on TV, it’s easy to identify the roots of the Hillsborough disaster.
The Miners’ Strike of 1984–5, in particular the Battle of Orgreave in the summer of 1984, saw South Yorkshire police used as an arm of state by Thatcher. Perhaps it was at this point at which they started to believe that they were above the law, as they falsely accused striking miners of violence and an unprovoked attack in the trial of over 70 miners at the end of the 1980s. All the miners were acquitted after using the police force’s own camera footage to prove in court that it was in fact South Yorkshire police who were the aggressors. This comes in the context of other monumental attempted cover-ups of police malpractice which have taken place over the years, from the false imprisonment of the Birmingham six and Guildford four to deception in the cases of the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes and the death of Ian Tomlinson.
However, it was also apparent that lessons had not been learned from the Bradford fire disaster, in which 56 people died on the final day of the 1984–85 season. In an era of declining attendances and football hooliganism, what saved potentially hundreds of lives at Valley Parade was the lack of draconian perimeter fencing, which allowed fans to spill onto the pitch to escape the fire. Martin Fletcher recalled in Sunday’s Observer that: ‘two days after the fire the then Home Secretary, Leon Brittan, promised Parliament “there is no question of putting up a fence that would act as a trap”.’ And yet talk soon drifted to an ID card scheme and even electrified fences. The safety of supporters seemed a low priority for government, the FA and clubs alike, and the prevalent mood of the time amongst the establishment was summed up by the Sunday Times comment on 19 May 1985 on the state of football in Britain after the Heysel disaster:
‘A slum game played in slum stadiums watched by slum people.’
Some were surprised by the Prime Minister’s profound apology last Wednesday, but it has become clear to everyone that a monstrous cover-up had taken place which had to be exposed at last.
We can only wish the families and survivors of the 96 well in their continued quest for justice now that the truth has been firmly established.