Monday, 31 March 2014

The Hillsborough disaster

The new inquests into the Hillsborough disaster began today in Warrington.  They might just mark the beginning of the end of the process of uncovering the truth about an episode which has been obscured by deceit and disinformation for a quarter of a century.

The tragedy of 15 April 1989 was the worst sporting disaster in British history.  It resulted in the deaths of 96 men, women and children (not counting several suicides attributable to psychiatric trauma); a further 300 people required hospital treatment.  The circumstances in which the disaster took place, and attempts by some to shift the blame for causing it onto innocent football supporters, have led to a bitter and long-running controversy.

Hillsborough Stadium was literally a death trap.  As early as 1978, inspections by safety engineers had revealed problems, and previous crowd crushes had occurred in 1981, 1987 and 1988.  At the time of the disaster, the stadium did not hold a current safety certificate.  This might not have mattered so much if South Yorkshire Police (SYP) had done their job properly.  The fateful order to open a large exit gate to relieve crushing outside the stadium was given by the senior officer on duty, Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield, a man with almost no previous experience of policing football matches.  Within an hour of giving the order, Duckenfield was denying to FA officials that he had done so and claiming that fans had forced the gate open.  It wasn't just Duckenfield, either - the police as a whole responded inadequately as the disaster unfolded (as did the ambulance service).

In the aftermath of the disaster, then, SYP were on the back foot, for the simple reason that it was in large part their fault.  This was a responsibility, however, which they were unwilling to accept.  From the immediate aftermath of the tragedy onwards, police officers attempted to fix the blame for the disaster on the Liverpool fans, claiming that they had been drunken and violent.  They also made sure to cover their own tracks: when individual officers made statements for the purposes of the official investigations, their accounts were vetted by other officers and by SYP's solicitors, who removed wording which reflected unfavourably on SYP.

The allegations against the fans were untrue, but they were plausible enough to gain traction.  Hooliganism had been endemic in English football for years, and Liverpool supporters had famously been involved in a serious riot at the Heysel stadium in Belgium in 1985.  The claims made by the police duly found their way, via a local news agency and an MP, into the press.  A narrative took hold in which the disaster was caused by drunk, ticketless hooligans who had deliberately turned up at the last minute and swamped the stadium.  On 19 April, Kelvin MacKenzie's Sun newspaper published its infamous front page splash "THE TRUTH", accusing Liverpool fans of behaviour such as urinating on police officers and robbing the dead.  (Other newspapers, including one in Liverpool, also reported the allegations, but the crudeness and sensationalism of the Sun's coverage was unique.)

This narrative was a travesty of the real truth.  The supposed ticketless hooligans who allegedly turned up late and besieged the stadium were for the most part law-abiding, ticket-holding football supporters who had been left stranded outside the ground due to the inadequacies of the turnstiles.  As for drunkenness, a football match is not a teetotal event, but the general level of alcohol consumption was modest: tests showed that 68 of the 95 individuals who died on the day had minimal or zero blood alcohol, while only 6 were intoxicated in any meaningful sense.  There were some inevitable incidents of inappropriate crowd behaviour - including traumatised fans losing their temper at the police as the disaster unfolded - but the worst Sun-style claims proved to have little or no foundation once the mountain of evidence had been sorted through.  It is also worth noting that numerous fans who found themselves caught up in the mayhem responded by stepping up and assisting with the rescue effort.

Even at the time, not everyone believed SYP's take on things.  In August 1989, an inquiry led by Lord Justice Taylor largely exonerated the fans and found that SYP, and Duckenfield in particular, were mostly to blame for what had happened.  He expressly criticised the claims reported in the Sun.  Yet justice for the victims and their families proved elusive.  The CPS decided that no-one would be prosecuted, and Duckenfield was allowed to retire on full pension without facing disciplinary proceedings.  Civil lawsuits encountered mixed success.  When the original inquests were held, the coroner failed to follow the Coroners' Rules, and made unwarranted suggestions to the jury about the role of alcohol in the disaster.  For its part, SYP used the inquests as an opportunity to attack the Taylor Report.  One particular bone of contention was that the inquests, like the Taylor inquiry, were told that the dead were all irreversibly injured in the initial crush; the coroner accordingly refused to admit evidence from after 3.15pm.  It subsequently emerged that a large minority of the victims might still have been saved after this point.

The jury eventually returned verdicts of accidental death.  In other words, no-one was going to be held accountable.  The families were devastated, but attempts to get the inquests re-opened came to nothing.

By the late 1990s, it looked like the families and survivors had hit a brick wall.  It seemed that the Liverpool fans had been saddled, in the minds of many, with the blame for the disaster while those who were truly responsible had got off scot free.  In 1997, the incoming Labour government appointed a senior judge to conduct a review of the affair, but his terms of reference were narrowly circumscribed and he recommended no further action.  In 2000, the families brought a private prosecution against Duckenfield for manslaughter, but the trial collapsed when the jury proved unable to reach a verdict.

Not until 2012 did the Hillsborough Independent Panel, after an exhaustive inquiry making use of vast amounts of new evidence, finally put onto the public record the conclusion that Lord Justice Taylor had been right all along.  The Liverpool fans were the victims of the tragedy, not the perpetrators.  The HIP report elicited a formal apology from the Prime Minister and resulted in new inquests being ordered, along with new investigations by the police, the Director of Public Prosecutions and the Independent Police Complaints Commission.  Even MacKenzie issued a weaselly half-apology.

There was, of course, a bigger picture.  At the time of Hillsborough, Liverpool was a city in decline, suffering from high unemployment, poor economic prospects and social unrest.  Liverpudlians were accused by outsiders of a propensity for self-pity, but in 1980s Liverpool - the place where I grew up - there was a lot to be pitiful about.  At any rate, the local community was in no mood to be fitted up by the police for causing a major tragedy.  Some people are irritated by the attitude of Liverpudlians to the disaster and the fans' dogged pursuit of official vindication - but it surely can't be that difficult to empathise with the indignation at the injustices perpetrated on the victims and the lazy way in which Hillsborough is still attributed to drunken hooliganism and used to promote half-baked stereotypes about the city.  The families and survivors would not be seeking "endless further inquiries", as the retired judge Sir Oliver Popplewell put it, if the original inquiries had not been compromised by smears and cover-ups.

It remains to be seen what findings the new inquests will make.  The truly astonishing thing is that it has taken so long for the process to reach this point.