Hillsborough: Twenty Years, No Justice

Merrick, 12th March 2009ce

Next month is 20 years since the Hillsborough disaster.

On 15th April 1989 an FA Cup semi-final match between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest was to be played at a neutral ground, Sheffield Wednesday's Hillsborough.

Liverpool, despite having far more fans than Forest, were allocated 4,000 fewer tickets and the smaller Leppings Lane stand. Its official capacity was well above what could safely be contained, even before the police forced more in.

Inside the ground, as was common at the time, the terraces had sturdy ten foot fences at the front, caging in fans. With ten minutes to go before kick-off, there was already a crush on the Liverpool terraces and a lot more fans outside the ground.

Panicking in the short time before kick-off with so many fans still outside, the police didn't delay the start of the match and see people in safely. Instead, they opened an exit gate and allowed the fans to pour in.

Alleviating a supposed crush by forcing the crowd into a far more crowded area fronted by tall strong cages was only going to lead to one thing. Hundreds of people were injured, 96 were killed.

It wasn't just the opening of the gate that caused problems. That appalling decision was compounded by other police incompetence.

It is alleged that the officers' criminal negligence stems from their failure to cut off access to a tunnel leading to pens three and four where all 96 victims were standing.

Inadequate signposting meant that those entering the ground found themselves "drawn to the tunnel", said Mr Jones. A sign above it said "standing", suggesting it was the only entrance to the terrace, while two other wing pens, which remained relatively empty, were accessible only by obscure entrances.

Tony Edwards was the driver of the only ambulance that went on to the pitch. He recalls how the police were blaming non-existant hooliganism and using it as a reason not to help the victims.

As we pulled up a policeman came to my window and said: "You can't go on the pitch, they're still fighting."...

There were 44 ambulances waiting outside the stadium - that means 80-odd staff could have been inside the ground. But they weren't allowed in. There was no fighting! The survivors were deciding who was the priority, who we should deal with. The police weren't. We weren't. Can you imagine a rail accident where all the ambulances wait on the embankment while the survivors bring the casualties up?

Adrian Tempany was in the crowd that spilled on to the pitch and set about rescuing the injured, part of what the subsequent Taylor Inquiry called the 'magnificent' response of Liverpool fans. They used advertising hoardings to stretcher people towards help.

We kicked another board over, but as it lay flat on the ground a policeman walked over and stood on it. "You can't just vandalise the stadium," he said. So we picked up this lad by his arms and legs. As we ran his big, heavy body along, bumping his head on the grass in the vain hope of reviving him

Watching the whole thing from the police control box the officer in charge, David Duckenfield, told representatives from the Football Association that the gate had been forced open by Liverpool fans. He - the man who'd ordered the gate open - blamed his victims. Even as the disaster unfolded, the police had started lying.

Why would he blame other people unless he thought that the opening of the gate was the principal cause of the disaster? Yet all through the inquiries and court cases he denied responsibility.

Other arms of the state lied to avoid blaming the police too. At the inquest the coroner ruled that everyone had died of exactly the same cause - traumatic asphyxia - and they were all dead by 3.15pm. This came despite the clear variety of causes of death, many of which would have been more treatable than traumatic asphyxia, and the testimony of officers who saw people die as late as 4pm.

The inquest couldn't consider anything after the time of death as contributory. By accepting the ludicrously early 3.15 cut-off it ensured major questions were avoided never got to examine major factors, such as why the police didn't initiate a major accident plan until 3.55pm. Its hands tied, although the inquest criticised the police it was forced to return a verdict of accidental death.


The Taylor Inquiry into the disaster also laid some blame with the police - 'the main cause of the Disaster was the breakdown of police control' - but didn't hold them criminally responsible. Not surprising really, given the doctored evidence they saw.

Officers on duty that day had been told not to make entries in pocket books but to give statements to a team of senior officers. When South Yorkshire Police met with their solicitors eleven days after the disaster, both sides agreed the police could be served with writs for what they'd done. They decided to alter the statements of officers involved. More than a hundred statements were significantly altered by the solicitors. Then the police changed some more by themselves.

Constables' statements had lines deleted such as, 'no senior officers at this stage appeared to be in command of the situation,' 'there seemed to be a total lack of contact with police control,' and 'my single most strongest observation that I would make was that for a significant period of time there appeared to be a lack of radio guidance from control' .

Statements didn't just have important lines cut, but also others falsified. 'Radio traffic was non-existent all through this time, as was a lack of direction from supervisory officers,' became 'Radio messages being passed were more difficult to understand all through this time'.

In another shift of blame on to the fans from the police, 'The radio was faint and totally incoherent. No instructions were forthcoming' was changed to 'The radio was faint amidst the noise in the ground'.

Ambulanceman Tony Edwards - the only ambulance driver inside the ground - is still incredulous that he was ignored by the Inquiry.

The Taylor inquiry was told my ambulance never got on to the pitch: it would've contradicted evidence given in another case. But I was there, in the police CCTV videos. All these questions they would have had to ask me are key to the mismanagement of Hillsborough. If they had asked me, it would have been disastrous for the police and the ambulance services

In 1998 the shiny new Labour government ordered a review to see if there should be a new inquiry. It concluded no new evidence would change the outcome of the original inquiry. It only looked at eleven of the altered statements. It also ignored the assertions of PC David Frost who said he and other officers had refused to sign their altered statements, declaring 'This was an attempt by senior management to sanitise and protect themselves; and any honour that the South Yorkshire Police had, which I thought at the time was considerable, disappeared for me'.

The review decided there wasn't 'any question of misconduct', and all the alterations to statements were just removing ambiguity and hearsay.


The Wednesday after the disaster, The Sun ran a front page headlined THE TRUTH. The story, claiming to be sourced from a Conservative MP who wasn't at the match and unnamed police officers, told of Liverpool fans attacking ambulance crews, pissing on coppers, pickpocketing dead bodies and beating up coppers giving the kiss of life.

To a trauma-ravaged Merseyside it was the most horrendous insult imaginable. There were public burnings of the paper. Its journalists were abused whatever story they were covering. A boycott began and, true to the Liverpool tradition of solidarity, even today anger persists in the city and sales are still barely a quarter of what they were before the disaster.

Liverpool's manager at the time, Kenny Dalglish, remembered the aftermath in his autobiography.

They knew the story had no foundation. Kelvin MacKenzie, the Sun's editor, even called me up. 'How can we correct the situation?" he said.

'You know that big headline - "The Truth",' I replied. 'All you have to do is put "We Lied" in the same size. Then you might be all right.'

Mackenzie said: 'I cannot do that.'

'Well,' I replied, 'I cannot help you then.' That was it. I put the phone down.

Despite the fact that the disaster happened in the midst of dozens of cameras, hundreds of journalists and police officers and thousands of onlookers, no evidence was ever produced to support any of The Sun's claims. The Press Complaints Commission had The Sun for breakfast, calling the story 'entirely inaccurate'.

In 1993 Kelvin MacKenzie told a House of Commons National Heritage Select Committee, 'I regret Hillsborough. It was a fundamental mistake. The mistake was I believed what an MP said. It was a Tory MP. If he had not said it and the chief superintendent had not agreed with it, we would not have gone with it.'

MacKenzie is saying that the chief superintendent - the man who'd ordered the gates open, David Duckenfield - validated the lies The Sun printed. Again, the question arises; why would he spread stories that clearly put the blame wrongly on to fans unless he felt there was a need to deflect attention from police action?

Of course, that means we take Kelvin MacKenzie at his word, which is never advisable. Indeed, his ideas shift. These days MacKenzie - now a sub-Clarkson rentagob bigot and still with The Sun as a columnist - says he stands by the basis of The Sun's claims, blaming the fans for going where the police told them to.

John Pilger noted in his book Hidden Agendas

The Sun’s treatment of the Hillsborough tragedy was typical not only of its record of distortion, but of its cruelty. The rich and famous have been able to defend themselves with expensive libel actions; the singer Elton John won damages, before appeal, of £1 million following a series of character assassinations. But most of The Sun’s victims are people like the Hillsborough parents, who have had to suffer without recourse.

The Sun has made half-arsed attempts to redress the balance over the years. Not so the police. In 1997 and 1998, Liverpool fans - including relatives of the 96 - travelling to a match at Hillsborough had floral tributes and Justice banners confiscated by South Yorkshire Police who claimed that flowers could be offensive weapons.

A few people did get well treated; again, just the police. Police sergeant Martin Long was awarded an estimated £330,000 compensation for post-traumatic stress disorder after witnessing the tragedy. That's a hundred times what Anne Williams received for the loss of her son Kevin. David Duckenfield retired two years later due to the stress of the disaster, aged 46. We've been paying him his full pension ever since.


Whilst the police had paid out around £15m to victims, it had always been out-of-court settlements that have a wink-wink insistence that there's no admission of liability. In 2000, this changed. Eileen McBride, a Liverpool fan whose trauma rendered her incapable of working since the disaster, sued South Yorkshire Police, holding their negligence responsible for her condition. She won in court.

With that, had anyone at the police actually been held responsible? No. But four years later, eleven years after the disaster and after the state failed to take any legal action against anyone, a private prosecution for manslaughter was brought against the two officers who had ordered the gates to be opened.

The judge, Justice Hooper, had been an advisor to the Crown Prosecution Service in relation to Hillsborough. The CPS, remember, had decided not to prosecute anyone.

Before the trial began he openly sided with the defendants, saying, 'neither the defendants or members of their family have given evidence but I have no difficulty in inferring that they must be suffering a considerable amount of strain'.

He continued, 'these two defendants, if sentenced to prison for the manslaughter of, in effect, 96 people be necessarily be at considerable risk of serious injury if not death at the hands of those who feel very strongly about Hillsborough.'

By this logic, we shouldn't be sending anyone accused of paedophilia to jail.

So, he went on, he wanted to get around this - before the trial even began - by 'making it clear that the two defendants will not immediately lose their liberty should they be convicted'.

No surprise, then, when the questions he gave the jury were framed so that the junior officer was acquitted and they failed to reach a verdict on the senior officer, Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield.

The judge ruled out any retrial.

He said the six-week trial of the former police officer and his deputy, former superintendent Bernard Murray, had been very public and the defendants had faced the public humiliation that accompanied it

Oh diddums. If I had personally taken a decision that led to the deaths of 96 people would it be suffering enough that I'd had all the humiliation of a six week trial then got to go home on my fat fucking pension?

The disaster wasn't only the fault of the police. The late 1980s vision of football fans as a security risk meant that something inhuman was likely to happen to them. With grounds around the country having standing terraces sloping down to those ten-foot fences, it was perhaps only a matter of time before something awful happened.

However, the appalling scale of Hillsborough isn't just the result of the common mindset of the day. It is partially the fault of poor signing in the ground, but the primary responsibility is clearly with the police. They know it, otherwise they wouldn't have started lying even as people were dying, systematically altered evidence and cruelly harrassed fans who want to expose what happened.

With the generous compensation for their own officers, the promotion and pensions that followed for those responsible, no convictions for anyone guilty either on the day or in the cover-up that followed, the police are still at the heart of what went wrong. The boys in blue continue to deny justice for the reds.

Hillsborough Justice Campaign