Hillsborough: The Documentary That Got To The Truth

by | May 9, 2016

After the 26th April ruling that the 96 people who died at the 15th April 1989 FA Cup semi-final were killed unlawfully, anyone wanting “to find out what really happened at Hillsborough” has a choice of impeccable sources, past and present. Her interest piqued by last week’s events, my mother asked to borrow my “20th-anniversary edition” of Phil Scraton’s book Hillsborough: The Truth. With the caveat that the huge majority of its 260 pages were written long before the actual truth was fully acknowledged, I unhesitatingly recommended the book for the required task. I also suggested she watch the Hillsborough documentary on BBC2 yesterday (which was surely worth a BBC1 slot), in which Scraton, a criminology professor at Belfast’s Queens University, also featured heavily.

They are essential reading and viewing. For my Mum and others like her. And for Hillsborough deniers such as “Tony from Hanwell,” about whom I wrote last week, and whoever made a “Freedom of Information” request for the cost of the “Truth and Justice” banner at Liverpool’s St. George’s Hall, as if researching a complaint about his taxes paying for such things. In 1995, Scraton, alongside Ann Jemphrey and Sheila Coleman, co-authored No Last Rights: The Denial of Justice and the Promotion of Myth in the aftermath of the Hillsborough disaster. It was produced by the Hillsborough Project, a research initiative co-funded by Liverpool City Council and Edge Hill University, where Scraton professed for 13 years.

No Last Rights is extensively quoted in The Truth. But while it was highly readable for an academic study, it still was an academic study. The Truth is highly readable for a book. It covers events up to the failed private prosecutions in 2000 of match day commander Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield and his match day deputy, Superintendent Bernard Murray. Its tone often veers towards the downbeat frustration and despair of times when the fight for “justice for the 96” looked lost. However, Scruton’s calm but comprehensive evisceration of the UK legal system was as compelling and convincing then as now.

The book chronicles the disaster, the maltreatment of the bereaved families’ and their fights for justice. And Scraton provides a jarring background with a page-long account of “English football’s worst crowd disaster” at “a major cup match between a team from the Midlands and a team from the North-West…on an early spring afternoon at one of England’s premier football grounds.” which “was not Hillsborough in 1989. It was Burnden Park on 9 March 1946.” This resonates profoundly when, 200 pages later, Scraton quotes claims in court that Hillsborough came “out of the blue.” An entire chapter, The Pain of Death, is devoted to families’ and survivors’ harrowing experiences of the day; and the callous-beyond-words processes they endured once they’d identified the dead; the South Yorkshire Police interviews which focused on alcohol consumption (“the accusatory statement-taking procedure”) and the still-chilling description of their loved ones: “the property of the coroner.”

Inevitably, given the length and intensity of his campaigning, Scraton’s account is occasionally emotive. No harm there, though. For example, legalistically, the judge Mr Justice Hooper was not wrong to describe the 96 deaths as a “mere fact” at the private prosecution. But Scraton recognises that his “casual remark…caused the most offence and deepest hurt to the families.” His in-depth knowledge of each aspects of the legal system as they enter the narrative add perspective and balance…and greater weight and authenticity to his criticisms; he is neither knee-jerk reactionary nor “naïve conspiracy theorist.”

Particular disdain is reserved for the original inquests and the “independent scrutiny” announced by the newly-elected Labour government in 1997. Scraton viewed the inquest procedure as “an anachronistic, inadequate and dishonest forum,” and claimed the Hillsborough inquests as “seriously disadvantaged the bereaved.” 43 families, denied legal aid, were represented by one barrister. Survivors were unrepresented. But 12 other interested parties, including six “police interests” had discrete legal teams, some funded from the public purse. Scraton savages the decision not to take evidence concerning events after 3.15 on the day of the disaster, which ruled out the entire emergency services response, such as it was. The coroner believed “those who (lived or) died did so regardless of medical attention, received or denied,” which Scraton calls “a defiant logic which defied reason.” And victims’ blood alcohol levels were stated at the start of each victim’s “mini-inquest,” despite there being no medical evidence linking alcohol consumption to any death and despite Lord Justice Taylor’s report into the disaster dismissing it as a factor.

Scraton concludes that the inquests were “a procedure to provide information on the death of loved ones (which) ended in confusion and disillusionment… a distorted and half-told account of each death; accounts derived in the opinions, interpretations and vocabulary of investigating police officers, interwoven with edited witness statements.” And he is as cynical about the independent scrutiny. “What on earth was an independent scrutiny?” he asks, failing to find an answer. He was more informative on the unsuccessful private prosecutions of Duckenfield and Murray, which were still fresh in the memory when he wrote the 2000 update. He notes “the problems associated with prosecutions for manslaughter” and the “necessarily complex and stringent” tests “applied to securing” such a conviction. And such perspectives provide lessons/warnings for those in the fight now underway to make those responsible for Hillsborough and its aftermath properly accountable under the law.

The media coverage of the disaster and its aftermaths is a more obvious target for Scraton’s ire, although no less genuine for that. He details the uglier aspects of the coverage, of which there are many, many. From the tabloids, and Sun editor Kelvin Mackenzie’s Truth headline (first draft; You Scum). And from the more “intellectual” broadsheet journalists such as the then Independent on Sunday editor Ian Jack raking the muck as eagerly as any red-top hack. Another chapter is devoted to the “review and alteration” of police officers’ statements about the disaster. Scraton was alerted to the practice by an interview, in a programme about post-traumatic stress, with a South Yorkshire policeman who was on duty at Hillsborough. He gave Scraton his heavily-amended statement when they eventually met. And after Home Secretary Jack Straw revealed that all material considered by the independent scrutiny would be placed in the Commons Library, Scraton discovered hundreds of similarly-altered statements, as if the process was organised to, in the officer’s words, make April 15th 1989 “more of a hygienic day for all concerned.”

Small details throughout the book catch the eye, a pattern of oddities which, taken together, also hint at something approaching an organised attitude and strategy. Police were allowed to take the written statements they’d submitted to the coroner 18 months earlier into the first inquest witness box. Bereaved family members and survivors were not. At the inquest, coroner Mr Justice Popper said: “…traumatic and crush asphyxia – the terms are synonymous” which was simply false and misdirected the inquest jury. And having painstakingly instructed the private prosecution juries to focus solely on the evidence produced in court, Mr Justice Hopper then asked them “if a criminal conviction would ‘send out the wrong message’ to those who have to react to an emergency and take decisions” in the future. Contradictory instructions which were “seen by the families to defy the juries to return guilty verdicts.”

It is easy to detect a conspiratorial pattern, although how much of that is inspired by hindsight is difficult to assess. The 20th-anniversary edition was completed in February 2009, two months before the 20th-anniversary memorial service famously provided a turning point in the tale. So Scraton’s conclusions are grim. He writes of “a system that privileges the interests of the powerful over the rights of the powerless (and) sacrifices, rather than realises, the principles of natural justice.” But that does not detract from a magnificent book. Indeed, knowing that justice awaited and that the system was at least partly defeated makes every word of it more worthwhile.

In May 2013, BBC flagship current affairs programme Panorama marked the quashing of the first inquest verdicts with an hour-long documentary Hillsborough: How They Buried the Truth, presented by Peter Marshall, who sat in Hillsborough’s South Stand on 15th April. It was proper investigative journalism, taking considerable advantage of the material, in particular video evidence from the BBC and others, unearthed by the Hillsborough Independent Panel which sat from 2010 to 2012 and was set up by the government in response to the outpouring of anger towards Labour minister Andy Burnham at the 20th-anniversary memorial at Anfield.

ESPN’s 2014 film Hillsborough was directed by Sheffield Wednesday season-ticket holder Richard Gordon for the “30 for 30” documentary series commemorating ESPN’s 30th anniversary, which covered “events that transformed the sporting landscape from 1979 to 2009. And much as The Truth was a literary advance on No Last Rights, Hillsborough will surely prove the seminal visual work. The Truth was due another edition in 2014 until coroner, Sir John Goldring, imposed publication and broadcast restrictions for the duration of the new inquests.  Hillsborough faced similar legal restrictions but surfaced on YouTube when they were lifted by the announcement of the inquest verdicts. And the BBC transmitted a version lengthened and updated to include said verdicts and extra personal testimony.

Indeed, the strength of Hillsborough lay in its exemplary choice of interviewees. Panorama had interviewed a number of the better-known campaigners from among the bereaved, including the remarkable Margaret Aspinall. They also spoke to Doreen and Les Jones and their daughter Stephanie who survived the disaster and was caught on camera immediately after her escape. Hillsborough featured them too, in the greater depth afforded by the longer running time (122 minutes against 59). It also featured survivors such as Brian Anderson and Tony Evans. Evans produced the angriest individual testimony, an original slant on the infamous Sun newspaper allegations that fans had urinated on policemen trying to resuscitate fans on the pitch. He said: “I’ve always asked people, when they’ve asked me about urinating on the police, ‘would you do it?’ And no-one has ever said ‘yeah,’ they’ve always gone ‘no.’” And he shouted: “Then why would you believe I did it?” before suggesting, correctly, that “If you’re a journalist, the first question you’ve got to ask is ‘would I do it?’ ‘No.’

John Motson’s BBC commentary and off-camera observations demonstrated a proper awareness of the crowd situation. He spotted the half-empty side pens at 2.46. And when the game was stopped he stated: “It doesn’t look to me to be any sort of misbehaviour.” Both were observations seemingly yet to be made by the senior police officers in their control box overlooking the Leppings Lane end. Sheffield Star newspaper crime reporter Bob Westerdale covered the circumstances of the inexperienced Duckenfield replacing experienced matchday commander Chief Superintendent Brian Mole. At his first press briefing, Duckenfield said Liverpool were playing “Nottinghamshire.” Westerdale noted: “Maybe he isn’t a football person,” adding that “he came across as an academic.”

The Health and Safety Executive’s Graham Games said the “thousands of ticketless Liverpool fans” initially blamed for the deaths were mythical. “Our total count, through Gate C and the turnstiles,” Games said, “was not dissimilar to the capacity of the Western Terraces.” South Yorkshire Police Federation representative Paul Middup made numerous filmed appearances in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, which were all personifications of the word “crazed.” Most powerful, though, were the South Yorkshire policemen themselves; Special Constable John Taylor, Detective Constable Steven Titterton and Constables Douglas Earls, Martin McLoughlin. All remained deeply affected by their Hillsborough experiences, with their tales of failed life-saving efforts particularly anguished.

You should not be unmoved when Taylor stares despairingly towards the camera after one such recollection. Nor by McLoughlin’s recounting of his “mental breakdown” three weeks after Hillsborough: “I felt wet down in my crotch…I’d pissed in my pants. A big roughie toughie ex-para, a Sheffield copper…I’d pissed in my pants and I was crying.”  Indeed, all the police testimony was a timely reminder of a too-often forgotten story of Hillsborough trauma and injustice. McLoughlin also provided the most startling police testimony. While still at Hillsborough “one of the lads” asked a Chief Inspector what he should write in his pocket-book and was told: “You don’t need to put anything in your pocket-book. It will all be covered in the disaster log.”

He explained the “enormity” of this statement. A policeman’s pocket-book is “sacred,” he said, and officers wrote everything in it, however trivial, in case it could provide key evidence (a sergeant colleague of McLoughlin’s advised that their entire Hillsborough experiences should be in the pocket-book, “you even put in what time you went for a piss”). The cover-up, it seemed, had already started. McLoughlin discovered how fundamentally his post-match criticisms of the police operation were “reviewed and altered” when the Independent Panel published its findings in 2012.  And his anger had barely abated over time.

Of his “Hillsborough statement” he said: “Well, there were two…everything that had been removed…(was)…where I’d been critical of the police command…the statement that had been submitted under my name had been completely sanitised” (“Sanitising Hillsborough” was The Truth’s chapter on the subject). “Unless I forget my law,” he continued, “altering a person’s statement is a criminal offence, without their knowledge or consent. If you get a group of people doing that, as part of a policy…or a strategy…well, I might be an old washed-up bobby but to me that is still conspiracy to pervert the course of justice, which is a criminal offence. And I don’t like criminals.”

The original documentary had a tentatively upbeat ending, with a caption which read: “In December 2012, as a direct result of the Independent Panel’s work, the original verdicts of 96 accidental deaths were quashed by the High Court.” There was nothing tentative about the ending to the BBC’s version. Many of the original interviewees returned to the screen, looking two years older, yet somehow younger after the “unlawful killing” verdict and the all-encompassing clearing of the fans’ collective name. “It was nice to get exonerated,” survivor Brian Anderson understated wildly – this the man who proclaimed “got the bastards” after the Panel’s findings were announced.

Anderson had never let it be forgotten that police had opened the exit gate at Hillsborough. He told South Yorkshire Police interviewers on the day. And the BBC version of the documentary included footage of Anderson saying similar to a TV reporter in 1989. Scraton was as expert, informative and measured an interviewee as he was an author, an obvious and obviously damned good professor. He only got angry on-camera when lambasting the legal processes and the absence of an “emergency plan” on the day (“fans became the emergency helpers, along with some police officers”). But even he was irked by the adversarial attitude of the “institutions” at the new inquests: “another attempt to deny the justice.” And he feared the “worst-case scenario” of an “unlawful killing verdict with the fans having made some contribution.” His fears, as we all now know, were just the produce of years of justice being repeatedly denied.

Nevertheless, Gordon has been asked to help police with their enquiries (literally not euphemistically) by handing over the documentary film and interview transcripts to “Operation Resolve,” the criminal investigation into Hillsborough. McLoughlin’s pocket-book testimony, excluded from the ESPN broadcast, might attract particular attention, alongside his allusions to justice-perverting conspiracies. Gordon said: “The interviews were conducted purely for the documentary, not to suddenly become evidence in a potential criminal prosecution. But he “had to inform people who we spoke to, about that situation.” And while Gordon had agreed with the BBC not to share the film and transcripts with third parties, he was “warned that police will serve me with a court order…which is an uncomfortable feeling considering this is an investigation into the police to start with.” However, the documentary let the families’ triumphalism shine through. Doreen Jones said: “Today is for the 96, tomorrow is for accountability.” And Aspinall said: “I knew it was going to be a cover-up and it was. We’ve proved it.” I suspect my Mum will agree. And the “Tony from Hanwell’s” of this world should too.


Viewers in the UK can watch this documentary on Iplayer for the next four weeks by clicking here.