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Finally vindication for the families of the 96

2012 September 12

The report of the independent panel into the Hillsborough football disaster stadium will be looked back upon as an important political, legal and social milestone. For it has not just brought out the truth about the unnecessary deaths of 96 football fans which the victims’ families have struggled for 23 long years to discover. It has uncovered a shocking reality which the police, politicians, coroner, local councils and a full judicial inquiry failed to disclose. And that raises questions about the adequacy of a range of key British institutions.

What it has exposed is chilling. On top of a grave failure by the public authorities to help protect their citizens the panel, by studying some 400,000 documents, has made public a massive cover-up to protect the institutional reputation of the police. But it discloses flaws too in the competence of the ambulance and emergency services. It shows that officials at football club and local council knew that safety standards at the Sheffield stadium were inadequate and that lessons had not been learned from previous incidents both at Hillsborough and other football grounds.

It lays bare, if not a conspiracy, then certainly a confluence of establishment interests in which some journalists enthusiastically peddled sensational lies to denigrate the deceased and suggest the fans were the authors of their own demise.  It betrays as erroneous the decision by the coroner not to take evidence on the deaths past the time of 3.15pm on the day of the disaster – which would have revealed that as many as 41 of the 96 people might have been saved had the police and ambulance services done their jobs properly. And it raises questions about how key documents were withheld from the inquiry led by Lord Justice Taylor which neglected the shortcomings in the ambulance system and focused on the “failure of police control”.

The Taylor report gave no idea of the systematic nature of the cover-up and mud-slinging in which the police engaged. We now know that 164 police statements were “significantly amended” and 116 more edited to “remove negative comments” about the policing operation. Officers ran checks on the police national computer to try to find information to impugn the reputations of those who had died. The coroner ordered alcohol checks on all the dead in search of evidence for the false police assertion that the tragedy had been caused by drunken fans arriving late without tickets.

A narrative about hooliganism on that day was created against a background of times when football was perceived as a national disease thanks to the behaviour of supporters who routinely invaded pitches or fought in the streets before and after matches. Working-class football fans were then treated as second-class citizens and regarded by the police with hostility. Politicians concurred and football terraces were turned into wire caged pens. It was against these that innocent fans were crushed to death.

Another shocking disclosure is that when the police mendacity began to emerge in Downing St, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was briefed that the “close to deceitful” behaviour of senior officers was “depressingly familiar” – a phenomenon which has not since diminished as the cases of Jean Charles de Menezes and Ian Tomlinson show. One MP said yesterday in parliament that the level of criminal conspiracy among the police was so shocking “it completely takes your breath away”.

After truth should come justice, the prime minister David Cameron told the Commons. That must mean reopening the inquests into the Hillsborough deaths. It must mean criminal proceedings against senior police officers, and possibly others, for perverting the course of justice or misconduct in public office. But it also raises questions about how only an independent panel could succeed where police, lawyers, judges, journalists and politicians failed.  For what has been exposed is a stain on Britain’ reputation as a nation in which the rule of law is upheld. Instead the rule of law has been manipulated and the moral authority of the state compromised.

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