The facts can be briefly stated: 96 Liverpool fans died, crushed behind steel fences at Sheffield’s Hillsborough stadium. Many died from asphyxia where they stood. The list of victims reads like a war memorial with 37 teenagers, 60 under 25.
Most football grounds then had high fences barring pitch access and more fences cordoning off terrace enclosures. Hillsborough was a regular venue for semi-finals and a regular scene of potential disaster. A crush in 1981 left 38 injured. There was serious overcrowding in 1987 and a crush again in 1988.
Ten minutes before the semi-final kick-off in 1989 the two enclosures at the Leppings Lane end were full of Liverpool fans, with more queuing to enter. The official capacity of the pens was 1,600, cut from 2,200 because crush barriers did not meet safety standards. Indeed, the ground lacked a valid safety certificate.
Police ordered an exit gate opened. They subsequently claimed fans forced the gate, but a senior officer issued the order and mounted police drove 2,000 through. Most headed for the already full pens. The crush forced people to scale the fences to escape. Others were pulled to safety from above by people in the upper tier.
The police tried to stop people spilling onto the pitch. The match began. Crush barriers gave way under pressure and people spilled out. The police reported “crowd trouble”, stopped the game and deployed across the pitch.
When fans sought to ferry the dying to waiting ambulances on makeshift stretchers torn from advertising hoardings, they were turned back. Police prevented all but one of 44 ambulances from entering the ground.
Four days after the disaster, the Sun declared, “The Truth: Fans picked pockets of victims. Fans urinated on brave cops. Fans beat up PC giving kiss of life.”
The panel which reported last month concluded rather differently: that crowd safety was “compromised at every level”, that 41 of the dead had the potential to survive, that police altered witness statements to blame fans, that the sources of the Sun’s smear were South Yorkshire Police, the local Police Federation and a Tory MP.
The findings are stark, but not new. An inquiry by Lord Justice Taylor in 1989-90 criticised the police and those responsible for the stadium, describing the quality of senior officers’ evidence as “in inverse proportion to their rank”. No charges resulted.
Inquests returned verdicts of accidental death after the coroner limited the scope of inquiry. The Police Complaints Authority (PCA) recommended disciplinary charges against senior officers. Nothing came of this.
The families fought for justice. A TV dramatisation in 1996 reawakened interest. In 1997 the new Labour government appointed another Lord Justice to review “new” evidence. He concluded this added nothing and dismissed police doctoring of statements as “an error of judgement”. Then Labour home secretary Jack Straw accepted the findings, though last month he called that “a matter of deep regret”.
The Family Support Group brought a private manslaughter case against officers identified by the PCA. Alun Jones QC, who led it, said, “We furnished the Director of Public Prosecutions and attorney general with analysis demonstrating the conspiracy, proving critical evidence had been withheld…how [police] tampering was organised.” It came to nothing.
The mother of one victim took a case to the European Court of Human Rights: it was ruled out on technical grounds.
It was 2009 before Labour home secretary Jacqui Smith requested South Yorkshire Police to release files on Hillsborough. Labour had been in government 12 years. Smith’s successor Alan Johnson set up the Independent Panel, chaired by the Bishop of Liverpool, to oversee “full public disclosure”.
The panel pulled the evidence together and exposed it in a way the authorities had resisted. It found the “deficiencies [of Hillsborough] were well known” and compounded by “a policing mindset concerned with crowd disorder” and that “116 of 164 statements were amended to remove or alter unfavourable comments”.
The findings are so damning that the present chief constable of South Yorkshire felt compelled to acknowledge police “felt it was something they could get away with”. London mayor Boris Johnson had to apologise for smearing Liverpool fans in an article he ran as editor of the Spectator in 2004. Former Sun editor Kelvin MacKenzie even apologised, although he is only sorry the truth came out. As late as November 2006, MacKenzie insisted, “I was not sorry then and I’m not sorry now.”
Yet the truth was clear from the first moment. Three days after the disaster, Socialist Worker quoted spectator Martin Keenan: “People were screaming at the police to open the gates. They did, but only to shove lads who had got over the fence back into the ground.” Barry Devenside, whose son died, described “police kicking the fence as people tried to get out” and asked, “Why are we treated like that?”
South Yorkshire’s chief constable at the time, Peter Wright, gave one answer in a slip of the tongue to reporters: “The accident was caused by the crowd at the Lemming Lane end.” It was Wright who had led police against striking miners at the Orgreave coke depot in 1984.
It’s shocking, but sometimes the level of collusion between police, government and the law can be that naked.
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