Twenty-three years after the horrific events at Hillsborough football ground on 15 April 1989, when 96 Liverpool supporters died at an FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest, the truth is finally emerging. The Hillsborough Independent Panel have accessed previously hidden official documentation to unearth an appalling cover-up by the authorities of the shortcomings that led to Britain's worst-ever sporting disaster. The evidence is a damning indictement of South Yorkshire Police (SYP), local politicians and the tabloid press, who were all guilty of shifting blame onto the victims.
South Yorkshire Police: fact and fiction
Aspects of this news strike a chord with a fictional portrayal of corrupt officialdom. Aired on Channel 4 in 2009, Red Riding was adapted from David Peace’s novels. It portrayed a murky underworld where senior police officers, local politicians and tabloid editors colluded in covering-up crimes. The conspiracy to deny one of their numbers’ murderous paedophile activities had more tentacles than a creature from War of the Worlds. Brown envelopes stuffed with wads were handed around with the glee of pass the parcel at a kids’party. Hacks who weren’t on the payroll faced walls of silence on a par with the Chinese one, while anyone digging too deep was bundled into a police van, driven across the Yorkshire Moors at high speed, then ejected. These corrupt men may have conspired in gruff Yorkshire accents but their behaviour was straight out of some tinpot Latin American dictatorship where the solution to labour disputes involves live ammunition. As they crushed their opponents their mantra was “This is the north, where we do what we want”.
Red Riding fictionalised the activities of rogue elements of the SYP. The revelations on September 12 stoked many of the same emotions: feelings of revulsion that people sworn to uphold the law and dedicate themselves to public safety in a democracy could be so cavalier about human lives. Yet this is the horrific reality that has unfolded.
41 of the dead could have been saved
The police tampered with scores of statements from witnesses who had been at Sheffield Wednesday’s ground. Spectators complained about police officers simply standing around after opening an exit gate that allowed 2,000 more fans to be funnelled into a pen that was already way beyond its 1,600 capacity. But whenever their own officers used words like ‘panic’, ‘chaos’, ‘confusion’ or ‘fear’ to describe events, these were struck from police records. A particularly sinister aspect of the cover-up was this fact. 41 of the deceased fans could have been saved. They were still fighting for their lives after the original inquest's 3:15 cut-off point. This highlighted a woeful lack of a co-ordinated response from emergency services on the day.
The Murdoch press empire played a major part in the miscarriage of justice, with his flagship rag The Sun luridly shifting blame away from the authorities and onto the victims themselves. Kelvin MacKenzie, then editor, published utterly fabricated lies about these innocent supporters under the deeply ironic banner headline ‘The Truth’. The Sun remains heavily boycotted on Merseyside to this day.
Summary of the Hillsborough report's findings
• Senior officers privately discussed 'animalistic behaviour' of 'drunken marauding fans'
• Police carried out criminal record checks on deceased to 'impugn reputations'
• New evidence suggests dozens survived past 3.15pm inquest cut-off point
• 116 of the 164 South Yorkshire Police statements were doctored
• South Yorkshire Ambulance Service evidence was misleading
• No evidence to support police account that fans were drunk and aggressive
• Margaret Thatcher expressed concern in Cabinet that the first inquiry contained 'devastating criticism of the police'
• Weight placed on blood alcohol levels among the dead was 'inappropriate'
• The Sun's allegations originated from police and Sheffield MP Irvine (now Sir Irvine) Patnick
Hillsborough has been described as an example of class war. There is some substance in this. Had 96 tennis spectators died in a crush before a Wimbledon semi-final there would have been widespread apoplectic outrage. Heads would have rolled immediately. But the Hillsborough victims were from a demograph that is all too commonly vilified due to the anti-social activities of a small minority: working class football supporters. A 23 year wait for the suppressed truth to emerge is a diabolical insult to the families of those who so needlessly lost their lives.
Given the shockwaves instigated by these revelations it is hardly surprising that those implicated are scurrying to cover their backs. Kelvin MacKenzie has issued a ‘profuse apology to the people of Liverpool’. London Mayor Boris Johnson has apologised for repeating the groundless accusations about drunken hooligans during his time as editor of The Spectator (he had added insult to injury by stating the number of deaths was ‘more than 50’ as opposed to the true figure which was almost 100). Sheffield MP Sir Irvine Patnick, who provided the tabloids with much of their defamatory fiction about drunken football hooligans, is now squealing that he was only parroting what the SYP informed him.
The SYP, Kelvin MacKenzie and Irvine Patnick's 'drunken hooligans' included young teenage girls, and 10-year old Jon-Paul Gilhooley, the tragedy's youngest victim. This didn't stop the authorities taking blood samples from the victims to justify their distortion of the truth.
To anyone who went to the football in the 1970s and 1980s, throughout Britain's crumbling and safety certificate-less stadia, when thousands were routinely herded down steep open terraces towards narrow exits, the events at Hillsborough were a chilling glimpse into ‘what might have been’.
After the release of the documents, Hillsborough Family Support Group (HFSG) president Trevor Hicks, who lost two teenage daughters at Hillsborough, voiced a nation’s hopes: "THE TRUTH IS OUT TODAY, AND
THE JUSTICE STARTS TOMORROW."
The names of the 96 are published on the BBC website.