Liverpool & Hillsborough: The Truth, At Last
Sometimes the right words can be so difficult to find. As the inquest into the Hillsborough disaster reached its damning verdict this morning, there was little happiness to be had in the understanding that, more than twenty-seven years after the event, it should even have been necessary to be poring over details of the unnecessary deaths of ninety-six innocent people after this amount of time. There was, however, also a degree of relief in knowing that, after everything that the families had been put through, they may finally be able to get a little peace and closure over the deaths of their loved ones. And there was anger, justifiable anger, at the fact that they were forced through this by bodies, individuals and news organisations more concerned with saving their own hides after the event than they seemed to be with saving the lives of those that died on their watch.
The cry of “Justice” went up this morning, but we are only at the beginning of that process. Indeed, we only need look at the reaction of the Crown Prosecution Service, which has erred conspicuously on the side of caution with its initial statement regarding when (or even whether) charges will ever be brought against any individuals considered personally liable for that loss of life, to see this. The truth may now have undeniably outed itself, but whether this comes to be acted upon may yet turn out to be a different matter, to which there may well be no easy answers. The fact, fir example, that a majority verdict was reached on the matter of unlawful killing could arguably impact on any decision to try for prosecutions. We shall see.
There are, of course, three stories relating to the Hillsborough disaster – that of the culture of football support in the 1980s, the challenges that this culture presented and the failure of all bodies to make going to watch football matches safe, that of the fifteenth of April 1989 itself, and that of what happened afterwards, of the cover-up that smeared the names of those who died that day as well as football supporters in a more general sense. If Hillsborough has taken on a totemic importance for supporters of a certain age from clubs other than Liverpool, much of this has come about because we are fully aware that it might have been us. There was a dangerous crush on the same terrace during an FA Cup semi-final between Tottenham Hotspur and Wolverhampton Wanderers eight years earlier. Anybody who went to matches during the 1980s has their own stories to tell concerning getting squeezed a little too tightly to our neighbours for comfort. We went along with it, naively – perhaps even blithely – assuming there to be some sort of failsafe plan in place for eventualities which could result in something going wrong. We were mistaken.
Hillsborough at that time was not fit for use. Even by the more lax standards of the day, its safety certificates had not been renewed for some time. The Football Association, for its part, largely ignored complaints regarding overcrowding at a match between the same two clubs at the same venue just a year earlier and scheduled a repeat, with Liverpool supporters again given the smaller of the stadium’s two terraces. Several years earlier in 1984, one of the best grounds in the country, Arsenal’s Highbury, had been rendered ineligible for such matches because the directors of the club refused to put fences around the pitch, fences that would seal the fate of those caught on the death-trap terraces of Leppings Lane in 1989. These is just two examples of the culture of containment before safety had become endemic in English football for some years before this tragedy occurred at all levels.
On the day of the disaster itself, a colossal failure on the part of just about everybody charged with the job of securing spectator safety resulted in the needless deaths of ninety-six people. From the replacement of Chief Superintendent Brian Mole as the police officer in charge on the day by the severely limited Chief Superintendent David Duckinfield, through Duckinfield’s decisions that day and his lies to the Football Association’s Graham Kelly, and the failure of the ambulance services to even understand what exactly was going so terribly wrong right through to the lies that started to be disseminated that evening, that the Liverpool supporters had somehow been responsible for their own deaths or the deaths of their own. While the bodies were still warm, relatives of those that had died were being repeatedly asked about their deceased relatives’ alcohol consumption that day.
On top of the fact that this disaster was almost predictable, on top of the failure of police control, came the cover-up. National daily newspapers – and if nothing else, this is the day that the Hillsborough campaigners have definitively reclaimed the words “The Truth” from the odious Sun on this subject – the police themselves and even a Member of Parliament banded together with a litany of lies intended to besmirch the reputations of those who died, those that survived, the city of Liverpool and football supporters of all hues in order to seek to protect the reputation of the establishment. Sir Bernard Ingham, press secretary to prime minister Margaret Thatcher, described those involved as “tanked up yobs.” This morning, he refused to comment on the matter when requested to. The Sun, meanwhile, stated that, “Drunken Liverpool fans viciously attacked rescue workers as they tried to revive victims of the Hillsborough soccer disaster.” Sheffield MP Irvine Patnick was almost certainly the source of these unfounded allegations, which were used repeatedly and without corroboration and with breathless excitement by newspapers in the days following the disaster.
Few have ever believed that these lies were repeated from positions of ignorance, and they continued for years and years. As recently as 2004, Boris Johnson editorially approved an editorial article written by Simon Heffer in the Spectator about “Liverpool’s failure to acknowledge, even to this day, the part played in the disaster by drunken fans at the back of the crowd who mindlessly tried to fight their way into the ground that Saturday afternoon.” A mealy-mouthed apology, forced upon him by Michael Howard, then the leader of the Conservative party, didn’t exonerate him, and may these words follow him, as may all the bile hurled by so many at so many, to his grave like a bad odour.
Yet from all of this, it’s still possible to take some positives. We should consider, for example, the Guardian’s David Conn, who, in an age during which the stock of the journalist has never been lower in the public consciousness, has been meticulous to the point of exhaustion over this case and has tirelessly argued the case that the original inquests into the deaths that occurred at Hillsborough were fundamentally flawed. Eclipsing anybody else, though, the families of those who died at Hillsborough have shown superhuman resolve in the face of what must have felt like near-insurmountable odds, at times. Their fortitude in the face of such a task – and we must never forget that this was a position into which they should never have found themselves – has been an inspiration. Naturally, it is to be hoped that they can take some peace from today’s verdict.
The events that occurred at Hillsborough on the fifteenth April 1989 were not brought about by any one particular cause. They were a conflation of cultures of neglect, complacency and containment, which were exposed in all their inglory by a police force who combined contempt for the very people whose protection they were charged with overseeing with basic incompetence and a pathological inability to confess to its mistakes, preferring to victim-blame instead. They had powerful allies in covering this all up, from individuals and bodies that should report truth but seldom do and that should act with integrity but are all too happy let their prejudices obscure this. Eventually, however, the truth has outed itself and it is to be hoped that culpability will finally be established through the courts. For those who lost family and friends that day, may there be a little more peace this evening. Justice for the ninety-six hasn’t quite been served yet, but the truth is now finally beyond dispute.