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The class contempt that killed 96

This article is over 9 years, 10 months old
A new report completely vindicates Liverpool fans and the victims of the Hillsborough disaster, 23 years after they were slandered by politicians, police and media. Sadie Robinson looks at what the scandal reveals and how the police tried to cover up a
Issue 2321

Liverpool football fans died because government and police refused to treat them as human beings.” That’s what Socialist Worker said after the disaster at Hillsborough, Sheffield Wednesday’s football ground, in April 1989—and that was the truth.

Now an independent panel has confirmed that the police caused the disaster. Then, with the help of the media and the Tories, they lied about it and blamed fans for the deaths. The scandal shows the utter contempt that the entire establishment has for working class people.

Campaigning by families and supporters led to the release of thousands of pages of official documents. At the time the main concern of both the cops and the Tories was “football hooliganism”. This affected how the disaster unfolded and the response to it.

The original coroner refused to assess evidence from after 3.15pm. He said that it would have been impossible for a victim to survive after that time. The new panel says this was not true. It concludes that at least 41 people could potentially have been saved if they had been given proper medical attention.

At the heart of the cover-up sat politicians, the media and the cops. The lies began as fans were dying. Chief superintendent David Duckenfield was in overall command of the policing on the day.

As desperate fans were helping the injured he told the Football Association that fans had broken down a gate to enter the ground and caused the crush.

Pointing to Gate C on a CCTV camera he said, “That’s the gate that’s been forced.” In fact he had ordered the gate to be opened himself. The lie was broadcast around the world. More followed.

Officers were told to write their “recollections” on plain paper which were then edited, rather than following the standard procedure of writing events down immediately in a notebook. Their legal counsel, Bill Woodward QC, said “They can put all the things in that they want and we will sort them out.”

Peter Metcalf, a senior partner in the solicitors representing the local South Yorkshire Police (SYP), said the advantage of not using notebooks is that when there is an inquiry, “notebook entries can be called for and must be produced”.


Statements made by SYP officers went through an “unprecedented” process of review and alteration. Nearly 200 were amended. The panel found that, “Some 116 of the 164 substantially amended statements removed or altered comments unfavourable to SYP.”

The police claimed they were simply removing “opinion”. Yet officers’ opinions on the hostility of the crowd “remained as statement of fact”.

PC Burkinshaw wrote that, “The general feeling is that the fans arrived too late, and a lot of them under the influence of drink.” It was edited to remove the first five words—turning opinion into fact.

Some revisions covered up police contempt for fans. PC Hemsworth had said, “One could not communicate with these animals.” The word “animals” was changed to “people”. But the scorn for fans was obvious.

Superintendent Roger Greenwood briefed officers before the match. He told them that if matches didn’t go Liverpool’s way, fans “had proved extremely difficult to contain and moods would easily change”.

Such was the contempt that everyone who died was tested for blood alcohol levels­—including children. Those who had alcohol in their blood were then checked for criminal records. The panel calls this “an attempt to impugn personal reputations” that was “possibly unlawful”.

The media reported the inaccurate police version of events as fact. BBC Radio 4 said it was “clear” that many fans had no tickets. The Manchester Evening News wrote that fans “kicked and hammered” on the gates.

Four days later allegations emerged about fans’ behaviour. Sheffield newspapers said many Liverpool fans deliberately arrived at the match late. They portrayed supporters as “predominantly ticketless, drunk, aggressive and determined to force entry”.

Police claimed fans had attacked them and urinated on them. They said fans stole from the dead. And they said fans threatened an unconscious woman with rape.

But the panel said there was “no evidence” for any of the allegations. CCTV footage refutes them. Yet the lies were repeated across the media—most notoriously in the Sun.


Margaret Thatcher’s Tory government was in the process of bringing in regulations to deal with “hooliganism”. The idea that fans were little more than animals came from the top. The fact that fans were packed into pens at matches speaks volumes.

The Health and Safety Executive found that Sheffield Wednesday’s football ground was “structurally unsafe”. Yet the government cared so little for the safety of fans that regulations relating to ground safety were only voluntary.

The panel found that “the principal concern in Whitehall following the Hillsborough disaster was its potential impact on the Football Spectators Bill”.

Thatcher was especially concerned about the criticism of the police in the Taylor Interim Report published in August 1989. She described it as “flawed in a number of respects”.

Today everyone from David Cameron to the disgraced former Sun editor Kelvin MacKenzie has lined up to apologise to the families of the dead. All claim to see that the disaster showed terrible things about a past society that must never happen again.

In truth they show terrible things about society that remain to this day. There was and is an establishment view of working class people as untrustworthy scum—especially when they are in crowds. That’s why the cops were confident that their denigration of fans would find a hearing.

Those who defend this rotten system feign sympathy with the victims because they are desperate to draw a line under the disaster. But the fight for the whole truth, and for justice, is not over.

Filthy lies that blamed the Liverpool fans

The original source of the baseless allegations against Liverpool fans, enthusiastically taken up by Rupert Murdoch’s News International, was White’s news agency on 18 April.

White’s got its information from the cops. It described a “chance” meeting between one of its reporters and a senior police officer “he has known for many years”.

Remarkably, “the following day there was another chance meeting with second officer”. And the next day, “another reporter met a third officer who volunteered information and reiterated similar stories”.

White’s did more than simply report allegations. Later that year it forwarded Tory MP Irvine Patnick extracts from six sworn statements made by witnesses to the Taylor Inquiry—a month before its interim report was published.

White’s does not explain how it came to possess the statements, which had originally been taken as part of a West Midlands Police investigation into the day.

Members of the South Yorkshire Police Federation met on 19 April, four days after the disaster. Branch secretary PC Middup declared he had been “proud” to put the cops’ case to the media. He said chief constable Peter Wright had given him “a totally free hand and supported him”.

Wright told officers they had “to prepare a rock solid story” and that it was important to “present our case to the inquiry team”.

He is referring to the West Midlands Police investigation. A leading officer involved with this investigation, Norman Bettison, met other South Yorkshire officers just a month later. They discussed the Taylor Interim Report, which criticised the police.


Bettison told officers that they had “the opportunity to present more balance”. He described the “heroics” of the police at Hillsborough.

Also at the meeting was Tory MP Michael Shersby, who represented the Police Federation’s interests in parliament. He wanted to “bring out that the police did behave magnificently”.

Tony Judge, editor of federation journal Police, said, “The idea that a peaceful crowd went into a trap created by the South Yorkshire Police should not go down in history.”

Shersby told home secretary Douglas Hurd that police testimonies had been altered to take out negative descriptions of fans’ behaviour. The panel “has not found evidence of such material being excluded from police statements”.

Shersby then invited Bettison (now a superintendent) to address a group of MPs in London. Bettison records that one Tory MP “confided that in his view Taylor had got it all wrong and, as far as he was concerned, he intended to put the record straight”.

Patnick had already intervened to prop up the cops. He wrote to Lord Justice Taylor within five days of the disaster. He recounted allegations officers had made, and told Taylor they would “have to be considered”.

Now he intervened again. He sent an officer in the West Midlands investigation a transcript of the Police Federation meeting with Shersby and his correspondence with White’s. Patnick wrote that police officers’ evidence “was not fully taken into account at the inquiry” and that he hoped “something can be done to rectify this”.

Desperate attempt to keep cover-up going

The crush at the Hillsborough football stadium in Sheffield, south Yorkshire, killed 96 Liverpool football fans on 15 April 1989.

Police caused the tragedy. They opened an extra gate which flooded extra fans into already full pens, and failed to divert people into empty pens.

As fans tried to escape, police pushed them back in. The cops delayed calling for emergency help as they assumed they were dealing with a pitch invasion. Instead they called for backup—including dog handlers.

It was fans who tore down advertising boards to use as stretchers to carry the injured to get help.

No officer has been disciplined as a result. The chief superintendent in charge, David Duckenfield, retired on a full pension.

The Taylor Inquiry into the disaster blamed the deaths on a failure of police control. Yet inquests returned verdicts of “accidental death”.

Labour set up the Stuart-Smith Scrutiny when it came to office in 1997. It backed up the coroner’s ruling that all those who died were beyond help by 3.15pm.

Private prosecutions against two officers failed to secure any convictions. Yet some 16 officers have received £1.5 million in compensation following the disaster. That dwarfs what families and victims received.

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