It would seem that the kindest reading of the events at Hillsborough show a Police force that was ill-equipped and unprepared for the situation it faced, and that individuals within that force did not fully understand what was happening until it was too late. Indeed, Ch Supt David Duckenfield had been appointed to his role just 19 days earlier and had no experience with running crowd control at Hillsborough stadium. This alone may be the reason why he opened a gate without considering where the people would go.
Incompetence, and the tendency to make the wrong decisions under stress, are not frailties unique to the South Yorkshire Police force in 1989. If we, as fellow human beings, work from the assumption that the Police were well-intentioned then it’s easier to excuse their actions as simple confusion rather than anything malicious or criminal. Indeed, it’s clear from photographs of the disaster that several individual officers tried to save people’s lives with CPR. In many ways, it makes us more comfortable to believe that they were just overwhelmed.
Within just a few minutes of the fatal crush, while bodies were still being carried from the grounds, Duckenfield began to lie. His lies made it onto the live BBC coverage within an hour. He spoke of a drunken mob forcing their way into the stadium. And he wasn’t the only one.
The history of South Yorkshire Police force’s official accounts of the disaster reads like a catalogue of cover-ups. Duckenfield was appointed to the role after his predecessor was “promoted” due to a bullying scandal in his ranks. From the start, he was more interested in monitoring the crowd for drunkenness and hooliganism rather than the basics of controlling the arrival and flow of people into the grounds. After the disaster, Police officers were ordered to take photographs of litter outside the stadium, trying to imply that fans were in a state of riot (perhaps not surprisingly, the pictures of litter are actually completely innocuous). Officers were ordered to write their accounts of the event on blank paper, rather than in their official notebooks which could later be entered into evidence in court. This was a total breach of Police protocol, and indeed these accounts were later altered and edited before they were submitted to the initial government inquiry – particular attention going to removing any mention of a previously-established Police tactic of shutting off the Leppings Lane tunnel and redirecting the flow of people when the terraces were full. The official Police report written for that inquiry, known as the Wain Report, originally described fans as “animals” and “savages”. The dead and injured had blood samples taken and tested for alcohol (including the body of Jon-Paul Gilhooley, aged just 10 years old). Police Inspector, Gordon Sykes (the one who ordered the photographing of litter) sought out the local Conservative MP, Irvine Patnick, in a Police bar that night and asked him to spread the tale that Liverpool fans were drunk and violently preventing the officers from saving people. This conversation was later the source of The Sun newspaper’s scandalous headline – which the paper apologised for running, 25 years later.
And before anyone thinks about forgiving the (Rupert Murdoch-owned) newspaper for simply being misled, consider this lurid account from the original article, which was a complete fantasy:
In one shameful episode, a gang of Liverpool fans noticed the blouse of a girl trampled to death in the crush had risen above her breasts. As a policeman struggled in vain to revive her they jeered: “Throw her up here and we will **** her.”
Oh the irony that in the original paper this story was followed by the ubiquitous, topless “Page 3 Girl”…
One of the saddest facts about the Hillsborough disaster is that, so far, no one has officially been held to account. The verdict delivered last week finally acknowledges that the deaths of 96 people were criminal acts. This lays the door open for prosecutions, but it is unclear whether there is political (and Police) willpower to put the now-elderly Police commanders in handcuffs. 27 years on, not enough has really changed.
Yesterday, I made the point that Hillsborough was an event that laid bare a social movement of our time. To put it simply: 96 people died because the Police assumed that they were a drunken mob, even before the crowd began to arrive. The design of the stadium, with crush barriers and cages now long-since removed from modern events, also started from this same assumption. The fences at Hillsborough were fundamentally different from the barriers you still see at motor racing or hockey games – those fences exist to protect the spectators from things that might come flying at their heads. At Hillsborough the cages were there for the sole purpose of containing the crowd – zoo bars to keep the dangerous animals off the grass and away from the real people. Even acknowledging that British Football had a serious problem with hooliganism in the 1980s (which it did), it makes no sense to lock a few dangerous criminals into a caged area with a bunch of ordinary people who can’t escape… unless you assume that everyone in the cage is equally dangerous.
Hillsborough occurred in the end stages of the painful social upheaval that marked Britain in the 1980s. Margaret Thatcher’s government rode a wave of (rather racist) anti-immigration politics in order to come to power in 1979 and then introduced a heavy-handed brand of conservatism that saw her slash income tax and social spending, while significantly limiting works rights. Her standoff with trade unions famously contributed to the Miner’s Strike of 1984-85, and it’s important to note that the South Yorkshire Police also rushed striking miners at Orgreave (on horseback) in one of the most violent episodes of the time. Police then attempted to prosecute 95 of the miners for rioting, but the prosecutions collapsed as their evidence was found to be fabricated. Four years later, it appeared that they had learned very little when also attempting to vilify the dead of Hillsborough.
As a very working-class city, Liverpool bore the blunt end of Thatcherism. It was a process not dissimilar to what was happening to industrial cities in America in the 1980s – unemployment, homelessness, massive profiteering for a small number of people as manufacturing jobs headed offshore. And in general there was little concern shown by governments (then or now) for the people left in the wasteland. In America, so much of that willful disdain is about race. In Britain, where many of those plunged into poverty were lily-white, it’s always been about class.