Editorial: Finally, proof of the Hillsborough cover-up

Now the inquests must be re-opened and criminal proceedings brought

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The report of the independent panel into the Hillsborough disaster is a political, legal and social milestone. It has not only brought out the truth about the unnecessary deaths of 96 football fans which the victims' families have struggled for 23 long years to discover. It has also – finally – revealed the shocking reality that the police, politicians, coroner, local councils and even a full judicial inquiry failed to disclose.

The findings make chilling reading. In addition to the serious failures of the public authorities, the panel also exposes a massive cover-up to protect the institutional reputation of the police. It discloses flaws, too, in the competence of the ambulance and emergency services. And it shows that officials at both the football club and the local council knew that safety standards at the Sheffield stadium were inadequate and that lessons had not been learned from previous incidents at Hillsborough and also at other football grounds.

Taken together, then, the evidence lays bare if not a conspiracy then certainly a confluence of establishment interests in which some journalists enthusiastically peddled sensational lies to denigrate the deceased and suggest the fans were the authors of their own demise. It confirms as erroneous the decision by the coroner not to take evidence on the deaths past the time of 3.15pm on the day of the disaster – which would have revealed that as many as 41 of the 96 people might have been saved had the police and ambulance services done their jobs properly. And it raises questions about how key documents were withheld from the inquiry led by Lord Justice Taylor which neglected the shortcomings in the ambulance system and focused on the "failure of police control".

The Taylor report gave no sense of the systematic nature of the cover-up and the mud-slinging in which the police engaged. We now know that 164 police statements were "significantly amended" of which 116 were edited to "remove negative comments" about the operation. Officers ran checks on the police national computer to try to find information to impugn the reputations of those who had died. The coroner ordered alcohol checks on the dead in search of evidence for the false assertion that the tragedy had been caused by drunken fans arriving late without tickets.

And so a narrative of hooliganism was created, against a background of times when football was perceived as a national disease thanks to the behaviour of supporters who routinely invaded pitches or fought in the streets. Football fans were treated as second-class citizens and regarded by the police with hostility. Politicians concurred and stadium terraces were turned into wire-caged pens. It was against these that innocent fans were crushed to death.

Another shocking disclosure is that when the police mendacity began to emerge, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was briefed by her press secretary that the "close to deceitful" behaviour of senior officers was "depressingly familiar" – a phenomenon which has not since diminished, as the cases of Jean Charles de Menezes and Ian Tomlinson show. One MP told Parliament yesterday that the "criminal conspiracy" among the police was so shocking "it completely takes your breath away".

After truth should come justice, David Cameron told the Commons. That must mean re-opening the inquests into the Hillsborough deaths. It must mean criminal proceedings against senior police officers and others, for perverting the course of justice or misconduct in public office. But it also raises questions about why it took an independent panel to succeed, where police, lawyers, judges, journalists and politicians failed. What has been revealed is a stain on Britain's reputation that no amount of scrubbing can remove.