After 23 years, the real truth about the Hillsborough disaster has finally been told with the release of the Hillsborough Independent Panel report. Its verdict, on the police in particular, is damning.
It was a spring day in April 1989 and the sun was about to set on over a decade of Thatcher’s iron rule of Britain, a period of war, civil unrest and government openly hostile to the working class. Many people had already paid the price for this. Hundreds more would pay today, ninety-six of them with their lives.
Thatcher had signalled her intent almost immediately on coming to office, approving a 45% pay rise for police forces nationwide. This was, without doubt, a calculated attempt to bring the police onside before her assault on workers across the country. The riots of the early ‘80s only strengthened her determination when it came to assuring the loyalty of “Maggie’s bootboys”.
A culture of unaccountability was being fostered among police forces across the country and this was best and most publicly illustrated by South Yorkshire Police. They had clashed violently with striking miners at the Orgreave coking plant in 1984, charging with mounted units and short-shield squads. Police maintained they were attacked by striking miners and they retaliated in self-defence. 95 miners were charged with rioting. All 95 were acquitted as it became clear in court that police evidence was unreliable. But to Thatcher and the police, the miners were “the mob”.
The miners’ account of the events at Orgreave differed significantly from those of the police. The miners had been ushered into a field by the police and surrounded on three sides, with a railway line on the fourth side. Here they were attacked by mounted police units and police on foot wielding batons. Video footage of the day seems to support this version of events. The miners had been sitting or standing in small groups in that field in Orgreave. Some of them were playing a game to pass the time. The game was football.
Football was still essentially a working class game in Britain. Following a period in the game’s history littered with incidents of hooliganism, football fans were viewed with contempt by the country’s establishment and treated like animals by the establishment’s enforcers. And the supporters of Liverpool Football Club were considered to be the ultimate example.
English clubs had been banned from European competition four years earlier following the deaths of thirty-nine Juventus supporters during crowd trouble at the European Cup final against Liverpool. Following years of decline in the city, with soaring unemployment, militant industrial action and the Toxteth riots of 1981, along with unflattering portrayals of the city and its people in the media, an image of the work-shy, violent, criminal Scouser had built up. The city’s response was to elect a Labour council controlled by the Militant Tendency which signalled its intent to tackle the Thatcher government’s cuts by any means necessary.
And so it was against this background of demonization, class warfare and a police force that thought it could get away with anything, that an FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest turned first to disaster and then to unforgiveable scandal.
Leading up to the 1989 semi-final, concerns had been raised by Liverpool Football Club and the FA about the ticket allocation for the game. Liverpool, with a much larger following than Notts Forest, had been allocated the smaller West Stand and Leppings Lane terrace instead of the much larger Kop end. Police were in charge of the ticket allocation for the match and their decision seems to have primarily been based on the direction from which each club’s supporters would arrive.
We know that 96 people died as a result of the disaster. We know about The Sun’s “The Truth” headline. However, the Taylor report following the disaster identified the cause as “a failure of police control”. The Sun’s allegations were blown apart and the police narrative dismissed as falsehood.
Yet the police version of events persisted in the public consciousness. As the families fought through an inquest and subsequent private prosecutions of the police officers in charge on the day, they were always under enormous pressure to “move on”. But the campaign groups set up in the wake of the disaster knew that much more had happened behind the scenes. They felt the inquest was flawed and that, despite the Taylor report, the police had come out of the ordeal clean.
The Hillsborough Independent Panel report, which was released on 12th September this year, pulls no punches on the police involvement in the disaster and subsequent events. The panel, after scrutinizing previously sealed documents, found that warnings from previous disasters at Bolton’s Burnden Park, Glasgow Rangers’ Ibrox and the fire at Bradford’s Valley Parade had not been heeded. Hillsborough did not meet minimum safety requirements and did not have a valid safety certificate. Perhaps more damning, along with the police negligence on the day, the panel found that there had been a co-ordinated effort by South Yorkshire Police to deflect the blame onto Liverpool supporters.
The filtering system for fans outside the stadium which had been in place in 1988 was abandoned in 1989. As was acknowledged in the Taylor report, Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield, the officer in charge of policing the event, had ordered exit gate C opened to relieve congestion outside but nobody was in place to direct incoming fans away from the already full central pens on the terrace. Duckenfield had told FA representatives that this gate had been forced open by ticketless Liverpool supporters, a lie immediately relayed to the media and sent worldwide.
Ambulances were not allowed onto the pitch as police were convinced the problems in the Leppings Lane terrace were being caused by crowd disorder rather than overcrowding. While supporters were breaking down advertising hoardings to use as makeshift stretchers, the police and ambulance response inside the stadium was uncoordinated and chaotic. Families arriving to identify dead relatives were subjected to interrogation which focused on the amount of alcohol their dead relatives had consumed.
The report discovered that blood alcohol levels were taken from all of those who had died, including children, one as young as ten. Hospitals had also taken blood alcohol levels from survivors without recording the results in their medical files. Officers told local MP Irvine Patnick they had been attacked and urinated upon by fans. Within an hour of the disaster, the police had decided on a narrative and were doing their best to make sure the story was constructed and released.
The panel found that in the days and weeks following the disaster, South Yorkshire Police engaged in what has been termed a “black propaganda operation”. Senior officers and local Police Federation officials met and the need for the police to ensure their story was “rock solid” was discussed. A press release found its way to the White’s News Agency in Sheffield and the story was passed by them to papers nationwide. The sources for the story were senior South Yorkshire officers and Irvine Patnick MP. Officers’ statements were systematically edited to remove criticism of senior officers and the police operation.
The coroner at the inquest into the disaster which followed the Taylor report, based on evidence from pathologists, assumed that everyone who died was already critically injured by 3:15pm. A cut-off point for evidence was established for this time, meaning that a scrutiny of the emergency response and police actions in the immediate aftermath was not possible. The inquest soon became a forum for South Yorkshire police to reiterate their case against supporters and to respond to criticisms in the Taylor report. The panel found that the 3:15pm cut-off could not be justified and that as many as 41 of those who died were not critically injured by this point and could have been saved if the response had been better.
The Hillsborough Independent Panel report should now be the final vindication of the families’ and groups’ fight for justice over 23 long, difficult years. The report makes shocking reading for some. For others, like the Orgreave miners, the Guildford Four or Birmingham Six, or the families of Jean-Charles de Menezes, Ian Tomlinson and Mark Duggan, it will be depressingly familiar: a police force above the law acting in its own interests, hiding its own failings, corruption and abuse of power behind a curtain of lies. Hundreds of officers were on duty that day. Indeed, many are still employed by the force. But barely a single police officer spoke out over those 23 years despite knowing the real truth of Hillsborough.
The police nationwide had a free hand to act above the law as long as it was in the interests of Thatcher’s government. Tough on the IRA, tough on the unions, tough on football supporters. They were all “the enemy within”, the demons built up by the Tories and the right-wing media to justify government policy of the day. This is what the police exist to do. Football has changed since then. Little else has.