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How the victims of Hillsborough were betrayed again and again and again – all across the institutions of the British state

2012 September 15
by Paul Vallely

“I felt a sense for the first time,” wrote a man called Adrian Tempany after the publication of the independent panel’s report into the Hillsborough disaster, “that this tragedy was no longer mine – it belongs now to the nation”. Tempany was one of those who survived the human crush in Pen 3 of the Sheffield football stadium that day so long ago in 1989. Many of the 96 died in front of him.

“Unable to move for over half an hour, I was condemned to watch them cry for help, throw up, plead for their lives and die,” he wrote. “When the police finally opened the gate in the fence and the crush abated, around a dozen of them simply keeled over and hit the concrete. A heap of corpses piled up in front of me.”

Over 700 others were injured. Thousands more were scarred emotionally to this day.

Yet in the face of such horror the authorities of the British state failed, egregiously and comprehensively, at level after level after level. Police, ambulance services, football authorities, local council, coroner, prosecuting authorities, two judges and politicians all failed and failed again. Civil, criminal and European law all fell short in the delivery of justice. Some in authority, we now know, were not just defective; they deliberately, or unreflectively, set out to obstruct that justice.

The moral of this sorry tale is that when the truth finally emerged – like the sweet silver song of the lark, as the poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy put it, masterfully borrowing from Liverpool Football Club’s anthem – it did so because a small group of activists, burning with a sense of injustice, refused to give up.

The driving motor was the bereaved families but there were others too. One was the academic criminologist Phil Scraton who spent decade after decade diligently compiling the detailed evidence which so shocked the nation in recent days. In that time he has produced two major reports and a book painstakingly cataloguing the incident itself, the scurrilous allegations made by the police and press in the days that followed and the appalling treatment of the bereaved and survivors by the political and legal establishment in the years since.

Another was the playwright Jimmy McGovern whose investigations so frightened the police that he was tailed constantly as he prepared his documentary-drama Hillsborough. Seven years after the disaster that tv film re-awakened the nation to the scandal which had never gone away in Liverpool, a city where solidarity has survived singularly better than in the rest of post-Thatcher Britain. Another was James Jones, bishop of the city, whose self-evident impartiality and pastoral commitment to his people, oversaw the panel which tirelessly processed almost half a million official documents relating to the disaster.

In parliament last week the prime minister apologised for what he called the “double injustice” of Hillsborough. But the truth is that in the injustice done was ten or twelve-fold. The failure of the authorities to help protect their people began with poor planning and a paralysis of police leadership on the day: the officer in charge, Chief Supt David Duckenfield, panicked and then froze, making what Lord Justice Taylor later called “a blunder of the first magnitude”.

But the panel’s report has now revealed for the first time grave shortcomings in the emergency ambulance service. The Football Association was negligent too, deciding there was no risk despite being told fans had been crushed at the same ground in the previous year’s semi-final. The local council failed too, in not insisting on safety improvements in the decrepit turnstiles, terraces and safety barriers despite overcrowding problems in three previous years.  The stadium’s owners, Sheffield Wednesday Football Club, made only minor modifications, insufficient to earn new safety certificates. Their priority was saving money rather than, as it turned out, lives. All that was despite an internal police memo warning of the very situation that occurred.

Within six minutes of the tragedy beginning, a senior policeman told the first lie about what happened. Liverpool fans, he said, had turned up late, drunk and without tickets, and caused the crush. It was a calumny which was to ripple round the world, amplified by unreflective self-righteous hearsay. It was to persist for 23 years – and still persists, if you look on Twitter, in the teeth of the evidence.

But it got worse as police ran national computer checks in search of anything they could find that might denigrate the good names of the dead. Then came the wide-ranging corporate operation, led by five senior officers and police lawyers, to doctor the statements of 164 junior officers to support the great lie by removing criticisms of the force and emphasise any stories of supporters misbehaving.

The press, eager as ever for a sensational turn of events, bought it. They printed false allegations that drunken fans stole from the dead and urinated on them and police rescuers. (This was the era of football hooliganism when anything would be believed about the working-class “scum” who supported football). The Sun was the most outrageously irresponsible in reporting lies as The Truth, but most papers, local and national, serious and popular, prominently carried the police claims. Tory politicians, from the local MP to the prime minister, seized upon it as proof of their polarised vision of a society in which striking miners, poll-tax protestors and the rioters of Toxteth and Brixton, were on one side – and police and politicians were on the other.

Then came the lawyers. An independent inquiry led by Lord Chief Justice Taylor did good work. He ruled that there was no evidence for the stories about a surge of drunken late arrivals with no tickets. He said the main cause of the disaster was a failure in crowd control by South Yorkshire Police. Major redesigns of safer all-seater football stadiums throughout the land ensued as football crowds came to be seen as people who needed protection rather than people from whom others needed protecting

But the judge did not scrutinise the police cover-up deeply enough. Much police and ambulance paperwork was not made available to him. And the Director of Public Prosecutions failed to bring criminal charges for negligence against the stadium owners, the local council, the Football Association or the police.

Next the coroner failed. Implicitly accepting the police lie, he ordered the blood alcohol levels of all victims, even the dead children, to be taken. He ruled, wrongly the pathology evidence shows, that no-one could have died after 3.15pm on the day. So evidence was never heard on how police prevented ambulances reaching the 41 fans who, with swifter treatment, might well have survived, we now know. The inquest jury were given no option but to return a controversial verdict of “accidental death”.

An appeal against the way the inquests were handled went to the European Court of Human Rights; it failed on a timing technicality. Next a private prosecution for manslaughter against David Duckenfield failed when the judge refused to accept a majority verdict and ruled a retrial was not permissible. Senior lawyers at the Crown Prosecution Service were afterwards handed detailed analysis of the police cover-up but decided to take no action.

Even internal police disciplinary procedures failed. The Police Complaints Authority recommended that Duckenfield and his Superintendent assistant should face charges. Duckenfield retired on medical grounds, aged 46, on a full pension, before the proceedings could begin. The case against his assistant was dropped.

The politicians failed too. After the broadcast of Jimmy McGovern’s docu-drama Hillsborough in 1996, public opinion forced Home Secretary Jack Straw into ordering a “scrutiny” of “new evidence” by another judge. Lord Justice Stuart-Smith’s inquiry examined dozens of internal police statements which had been altered to remove “comment and opinion” but concluded that, though the editing was an “error of judgement” the findings of Lord Justice Taylor’s Inquiry would not have been affected.  What we now know from the independent panel was that “the removal of conjecture or opinion was highly selective” with comments critical of the police going but those hostile to the crowd remaining “as a statement of fact.” Jack Straw tamely accepted the outcome.

So why did the total apparatus of the state so totally miscarry here? And why has an independent panel been able to turn up the truth?

Its chairman, the Bishop of Liverpool, has said that panels like his are not just faster and cheaper than inquiries led by judges – his lasted 18 months compared to the 10 years of the £100m Saville Inquiry into the Bloody Sunday shootings. Panels, because they interrogate documents not individuals, don’t require defence barristers. They can be far more considerate of the needs of victims because they start in a different place.

For James Jones it started every morning with the photograph he kept on his desk of the stadium at 2.59pm on the day of the disaster alongside the names of the 96 individuals who died. Judicial processes, he says, tend to distance those most affected.  “People with power are often patronising to the victims.  A culture of blame, liability and litigation conspires against getting to the truth.  They certainly conspire against enabling the victim to feel that their needs and grief are being respected in the process.”

The inability, or reluctance, to begin with people rather than processes – along with the institutional protection of privilege – is part of what has led to the great decline of trust in Britain today. Hillsborough has focused on the police and the courts. But the same thing has happened with greedy bankers, self-serving politicians and unethical journalists. Yet the Church of England, because it is the established church and is required to have a presence everywhere, retains a lot of confidence among local communities. “Unlike some of the other public figures it does not run the risk so much of its people being seen to be on the make,” as the bishop put it.

It was that local authenticity and integrity which explains why a handful of concerned citizens succeeded over Hillsborough where the British state so lamentably failed.

What particularly annoys activists inLiverpoolis that many of the facts which drew sharp intakes of breath from MPs last week in the Commons had been in the public domain for years, through Scraton’s research and McGovern’s drama. The local MP Andy Burnham, had disclosed the same details of senior policemen ordering the doctoring of the notes of ordinary officers in the Commons a year ago. No-one listened.

But the assiduity of the bishop’s panel’s scrutiny of 450,000 documents from over 80 organisations added the forensic detail which made the assertions of the bereaved relatives incontrovertible. It also offered new revelations about the ambulance service and proved that the coroner’s 3.15 cut-off was wrong. It disclosed that many in authority knew beforehand that the stadium was not safe. It showed how the Chief Constable of South Yorkshire used the Police Federation to disseminate untruths.

For years the establishment sneered that McGovern and Scraton were conspiracy theorists. Now we know that there was indeed a conspiracy – and it may well turn out to be criminal.

Yet we know not thanks to the suffocating culture of secrecy among  British officials who see themselves as the masters rather than the servants of the public. We know only because of a bunch of individuals would not take No for an answer.

Through those few people Hillsborough has ceased to be the grief of a single community and become the tragedy of a nation. We have all discovered, as survivor Adrian Tempany put it, how systemically justice can be corrupted. But we have also been reminded that right can still triumph over might.

This is an extended version of a piece from the Independent on Sunday

Why the Hillsborough Independent Panel is a model for uncovering the real truth

Time for a judicial inquiry into the culture of the British police

Finally vindication for the families of the 96

Hillsborough: A litany of lies – 2011





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