After yesterday’s announcement, I feel compelled to write something about Hillsborough.
When you attend a football match, or any other public event for that matter, you have a right to expect certain things. These include:
- A venue that is safe and where risk assessments have been carried out
- That organisers can manage the crowd at all times and have systems to avoid over-crowding
- Having in place emergency procedures to deal with any eventuality
- Experienced, well-trained and responsive staff on duty
- Effective and timely response from Emergency Services when required
Tragically none of these basic prerequisites were in place at Hillsborough on 15th April 1989 for the FA Cup Semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forrest. As a direct result of inept planning and mis-management on the day 96 fans had the life literally squeezed out of them. As if that were not bad enough, worse was to come, much, much worse. In fact what followed was one of the most shameful, disgraceful episodes in English sport.
Firstly, and even as the horror was unfolding, the Match Commander, Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield lied about his decision to open one of the gates; an act that led directly to the crush. He perpetuated the lie that fans had forced the gate to gain entry for many years. His lies precipitated a huge cover up by people who should be beyond reproach but who sadly were complicit. Crucial documents were withheld from the initial and subsequent enquiries, 164 police statements were altered and 55 officers gave false information and were described as ‘defensive and evasive’ when giving evidence. All of this was in an attempt to conceal what actually happened on that fateful day and who was ultimately responsible for the death of 96 people. Public authorities, Members of Parliament and countless others colluded to deflect the blame onto the fans.
This went right to the very top. The then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher all too readily believed the lies she was told. The stories probably rang true to her because she accepted the stereotypical portrayal of Liverpudlians’. From a political standpoint, she did not want to admit that the police and other emergency services had not only reacted ineffectively but had actually caused the problems in the first place. And so the establishment created a myth that the fans were to blame by turning up late, being drunk and forcing their way into already crowded spectator areas.
The contemptible Sir Bernard Ingham, Margaret Thatcher’s Press Secretary at the time briefed the media with this misinformation. In a hideously unsympathetic letter to one of the families he infamously described the Liverpool fans as ‘tanked up yobs’; colourful language which basically means drunken hooligans. Even to this day, this odious man refuses to apologise for this abhorrent and ignorant slur. What a pompous loathsome, pitiful man. He was talking about innocent, grief-stricken human beings. Now has been proven to be both wrong and prejudiced, I for one think he should have his knighthood summarily rescinded.
Some of the gutter press, most notably Kelvin MacKenzie of the Sun newspaper barbarically ignored the grief of the relatives, the injured, the Club and the traumatized City and published some of the most despicable and repugnant headlines and copy ever printed. Some of the accusations levelled at the Liverpool fans were so vile, I can’t even bear to mention them. At least Mr MacKenzie eventually had the decency to apologise (although it was a long time coming).
The cover up might have worked too if not for the Hillsborough Family Support Group and associated people who knew the truth and tenaciously never gave up the fight for justice.
The far-reaching Taylor Report into the tragedy published in 1990 stated that the main reason for the disaster was the failure of police control and yet the authorities refused to accept responsibility and no action was taken against any individual or body. Again the establishment closed ranks and ignored the truth.
The Hillsborough Family Support Group dug in for what they knew was to be a long and difficult battle to unearth the truth and to clear the names of their loved ones and fellow fans. They would never give up.
In 1997 there was another investigation. It concluded that there was no need for a Judicial Review on the basis that altered police statements were inadmissible. Inexplicably the Coroner refused to hear any evidence relating to events taking place after 3.15pm on the day. This decision meant that the response of the police and other emergency services never came under scrutiny.
And still the Family Support Group carried on with their fight to exonerate the erroneously vilified fans.
In 2009, 20 years after the horrific events, an Independent Panel set up by the Government finally concluded that the fans were not responsible in any way for the disaster. It also highlighted the unbearable fact that 41 of the 96 victims might have survived had the emergency services’ reaction been more coordinated and effective. In September 2012 the original inquest verdicts were quashed and the High Court ordered a new inquest. That started in March 2014 and the new hearing lasted for 279 days.
Yesterday, 27 years, 27 YEARS! After the disaster the jury finally confirmed that the Hillsborough 96 were ‘unlawfully killed’ due to the deficiencies in policing and ambulance response as well as the design of the stadium.
As a Liverpool fan, a football fan and a human being I have very mixed emotions about yesterday’s verdict. I am happy for the families because their long dignified fight for justice is over but I remain deeply sad for their loss and pain. It will never be removed. The poor people that died that day didn’t deserve to be treated like that in life or to be further maligned in death.
I am also very angry. Angry that it happened in the first place due to negligence and incompetence. Angry for the cover up and conspiracies. Angry with the media. Most of all I am angry on behalf of the families who have had to wait 27 years for the truth to be told. For all this time they have had to re-live those terrible events over and over again. Their suffering was made worse by many people who could and should have expedited the truth. These people should be hanging their heads in shame today. They should also face criminal action, and I believe and hope they will. Sadly, for some of the worst perpetrators this will be too little too late.
In a civilized society, the Police and Emergency Services should be the rock of the community, they should serve and protect. Politicians should be honest and always seek the truth no matter how uncomfortable. The media should report accurately and dispassionately. None of this happened in the case of Hillsborough. The fact that it has taken 27 years for the truth to come out makes me ashamed of my country. These miscarriages should never be allowed to happen again.
On the other hand, I am so proud of the Hillsborough Family Support Group and other friends and supporters that never gave up. Thanks to their unstinting and diligent fight, their loved ones can now finally rest in peace. They will never walk alone.
Mark Sutcliffe, CEO April 2016