Hillsborough 24 years on: The voices of the victims will be heard

It is now 14 years since I revealed how the South Yorkshire Police initiated the alteration of officers’ statements to divert responsibility onto fans

Phil Scraton@indyvoices
Sunday 14 April 2013 19:51
96 fans lost their lives during the 1989 disaster
96 fans lost their lives during the 1989 disaster

Four years ago we stood on the Anfield Kop for the 20th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster in which 96 men, women and children were killed. As always, it was a dignified service, memorialising the dead and the lives of others who have suffered the pains of bereavement or survival, dying prematurely. An estimated 30,000 attended, in recognition of the deep, institutionalised injustices of the disaster and its aftermath.

Invited by the families, Andy Burnham, then Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, rose to speak. Spontaneously, thousands rose to their feet, chanting “Justice for the 96”. Faltering but solemn, Burnham was unambiguous – the disaster was “man-made”, its “wounds” were “deep”, and would “never be healed”. Families and survivors had shown great “dignity”, “resolve” and “remarkable courage”.

Faced with public opprobrium, their unity, community and solidarity had guaranteed that the 96 would “forever leave their mark on this city and this country”. Submitting a comprehensive proposal to the Home Office, the families wanted answers personal to themselves; but they also wanted to increase public awareness and understanding of the circumstances and immediate aftermath of the disaster. The “right to truth” and the “right to remedy” would, it was clear, require the co-operation of all statutory and non-statutory agencies.

The Hillsborough Independent Panel was established, delivering its report on 12 September 2012. Building on what was already in the public domain, in twelve comprehensive chapters the report presented the evidence behind 153 key findings and their contribution to public understanding.

Getting to the truth

The research, which I led, identified egregious institutional failings: the known, dangerous condition of the stadium; negligence and complacency in planning and preparation; high-level failures in policing and emergency response; incomplete criminal investigations; the review and alteration of police and ambulance-service statements; and insufficiency of inquiry in the conduct of the inquests.

Dr Bill Kirkup’s analysis of the medical pathology showed that, contrary to the conclusions drawn from pathologists’ evidence to the inquests, over 40 of the deceased might have lived had they received swift and appropriate medical intervention. Their deaths were not inevitable. His careful analysis dispelled commonly-held assumptions that alcohol had played any part in the disaster.

The research also focused on the relationship between journalists, press agencies, politicians and the senior police officers. While The Sun’s banner headline ‘THE TRUTH’, accompanied by scurrilous, unsubstantiated allegations, retains notoriety, Kelvin MacKenzie believed he could stand up a story covered by others with less venom. It had been fed by senior South Yorkshire Police officers and the Police Federation.

Instructively, the Report carries a photograph of Margaret Thatcher and Douglas Hurd at Hillsborough in animated conversation – an unrecorded briefing – with senior officers and club officials. Sir Bernard Ingham has since noted they “learnt on the day” that a “tanked-up mob” had stormed the terrace. While Mrs Thatcher’s public face displayed empathy, behind the scenes her earlier condemnation of the “enemy within” was revitalised – a “spectrum” aligning football “hooligans” with “militant” trades unionists and “terrorists within our borders”.

Disclosed documents show how South Yorkshire Police officers, supported by their Chief Constable, Peter Wright, successfully extended a damage limitation exercise to orchestrated manipulation. Fabricating a story of drunk, ticketless, abusive fans arriving late, forcing entry and causing the fatal crush on the terraces, they sought to shift blame from the actions or inactions of senior officers.

How they succeeded: 14 years ago I revealed how the South Yorkshire Police initiated the review and alteration of officers’ statements diverting responsibility onto fans. Known to Lord Justice Taylor’s inquiry and accepted by the police investigators, this institutionalised breach of professional standards was endemic.

Cases to answer

Apparently the mindset lingered. Days before the release of the Panel’s report the current South Yorkshire Chief Constable, Colin Crompton, proposed the launch of a website that would “amount to the case for the defence”, challenging the families’ version of certain events that had “become the truth even though it isn’t”. The “media machine now favours the families and not us”. They would need to be “innovative” to “have a fighting chance – otherwise we will just be roadkill”.

In content, language, presentation and style his comments reflected the defensive, disingenuous damage-limitation that typified senior officers’ responses following the disaster. His eventual apology was too late. Like his predecessors, his concern was geared exclusively to preserving what was left of his force’s besmirched reputation.

I have researched Hillsborough over two decades, co-authored two extensive reports and written Hillsborough: The Truth. I argued the primary evidence demonstrated that the South Yorkshire Police and all authorities involved had cases to answer – from the known dangers of the stadium, the immediate causes of the fatal crush, and the inadequate emergency response through to the investigations and inquests.

From the undeniable truth recovered and revealed by the Panel’s Report, apologies flowed. Justice is anticipated by bereaved families and survivors. The IPCC and criminal investigations, and new inquests and possible civil actions constitute an unprecedented response. This afternoon, as we stand together with the families, survivors and many thousands of other people, my profound thoughts will be with all who have worked selflessly, with restraint and at immense personal cost, to reclaim the truth.

Phil Scraton is Professor of Criminology at Queen’s University Belfast, and primary author of the Hillsborough Independent Panel’s report

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