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Commemorative Hillsborough banner. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Dragan Plavšić looks at the struggle to get to the truth behind the Hillsborough tragedy

In 2016, after 27 long years of campaigning by the families, the jury at the second inquest into the deaths on the terraces at Hillsborough of 96 Liverpool fans - men, women, and children - reached a verdict of ‘unlawful killing’. It found that the order of the commanding police officer, David Duckenfield, to open Gate C of the stadium and let fans in en masse had been grossly negligent. His order ‘caused or contributed to’ the deadly crush on the terraces.

Last Thursday’s acquittal of Duckenfield by a crown court jury of the charge of gross negligence manslaughter means that an absurd injustice now prevails in the Hillsborough case: the inquest verdict of ‘unlawful killing’ stands, but the identity of the unlawful killers remains unknown, at least from a legal point of view.

The contradiction between these two verdicts reflects a broader contradiction between the powerful and the powerless that has bedeviled the struggle for justice of the families from the very outset. 

Blame

As the Hillsborough tragedy unfolded on 15 April 1989, so did the lies. In neoliberal society, the poor are habitually blamed for their own poverty. At Hillsborough, the Liverpool fans were instantly blamed for their own deaths. 

Duckenfield was responsible for one of the first and most grievous of these lies. At the stadium, he told the chief executive of the Football Association that Liverpool fans had forced open Gate C, causing the rush to the terraces. In fact, Duckenfield had issued the order to open it himself. 

This set the tone. Police officers were to source many of the scurrilous media stories that soon appeared. Drunken, late-arriving, ticketless fans were the true cause of the disaster, it was claimed. ‘Yobs’ and ‘hooligans’ attacked ambulance workers, firemen and police officers as they gave mouth to mouth resuscitation, even urinating on them from a balcony. Thieving fans pilfered from the dead and dying, while others verbally sexually abused an unconscious woman. All this was reported, most prominently and outrageously in The Sun.

This attitude went to the very top. Bernard Ingham, Thatcher’s Press Secretary, declared, ‘There would have been no Hillsborough if a mob, who were clearly tanked up, had not tried to force their way into the ground. To blame the police is a cop-out.’ And years later, in 2004, Boris Johnson, then editor of The Spectator and a shadow minister, published an editorial attacking ‘Liverpool’s failure to acknowledge, even to this day, the part played in the [Hillsborough] disaster by drunken fans at the back of the crowd who mindlessly tried to fight their way into the ground that Saturday afternoon’. 

But this was not at all the conclusion of Lord Taylor, whose interim report appeared four months after Hillsborough. He found that most fans were ‘not drunk, nor even the worse for drink’, and that ‘not a single witness’ supported ‘any of those allegations’ against the fans ‘although every opportunity was afforded for any of the represented parties to have any witness called...those who made them, and those who disseminated them, would have done better to hold their peace’. 

In fact, Taylor concluded that the ‘main reason’ for the disaster was ‘the failure of the police to keep control’ even if senior officers ‘were not prepared to concede they were in any respect at fault in what occurred’. 

Class

Taylor was clear about the prime responsibility of the police for the immediately disastrous turn of events at Hillsborough. But he was also aware that there was a context to it, even if he was to address it with typical judicial circumspection.

The 1980s were a turbulent decade as Thatcher sought to remake Britain by establishing a new neoliberal order and with it an essential ingredient, a subdued, market-compliant workforce. Having defeated the miners whose year-long strike had almost brought her government to its knees, Thatcher saw in the then increasingly hysterical issue of ‘football hooliganism’ the same core problem. For her, football fans were a dangerous and unruly ‘mob’ whose subduing would send another uncompromising ‘law and order’ message to society at large.

One of the direct consequences of this near-hysteria was the practice of ‘corralling’ fans onto terraces that were divided into pens and which blocked ready access to the pitch. In short, fans were caged like animals during matches. As a result, at Hillsborough, penned-in Liverpool fans could not readily escape the deadly crush by taking to the pitch. Taylor himself noted that the febrile atmosphere around ‘hooliganism’ had brought about a dangerous ‘imbalance’ between law and order and fan safety.

This ‘imbalance’ reflected ruling class priorities and came with a deep class-based contempt for ordinary working people, the consequences of which at Hillsborough were deadly. In a 1995 article that has only recently come to light, Boris Johnson gave fulsome expression to this contempt when he wrote, ‘Working class men are likely to be drunk, criminal, aimless, feckless and hopeless. And perhaps claim to suffer from low esteem, brought on by unemployment.’ Johnson’s arrogance is here only superseded by his ignorance, but he voiced the private thoughts of many in the establishment.

Struggle 

Lord Taylor’s interim and final reports should have led to prosecutions, but in 1990 the Crown Prosecution Service decided there was ‘no evidence to justify any criminal proceedings’ against any police officers (or the owners of Hillsborough or the local council or the engineering firm that designed the pens). In 1991, the first inquest reached a verdict of ‘accidental death’ with South Yorkshire police reiterating their claims about drunken, late-arriving fans. The families challenged the verdict, but the High Court refused to quash it holding the coroner’s inquiry to have been ‘full’. 

In 1997, the new Blair government ordered a judicial review of the case, only for the judge to conclude that there were no grounds for another public inquiry or for quashing the inquest verdict or for pursuing criminal prosecutions. The lack of political will here was key. The Home Secretary, Jack Straw, never believed there were grounds for another inquiry, while Blair pointedly commented ‘Why? What is the point?’ As Andy Burnham, now mayor of Liverpool, later recalled, ‘I remember all too well the pressure I came under to leave the issue well alone.’ 

This history speaks clearly to the establishment’s determination to put obstacles in the way of the Hillsborough families and campaigners. As Burnham also noted, ‘The system plays the long game. It can afford to. It works on the basis that people will be ground down by the frustration and the wait. It plays the propaganda war against working-class communities, encouraging the rest of the country to think the worst of them.’

But the Hillsborough families and campaigners never gave up, buoyed through the inevitable ups and downs of their campaign by widespread support in Liverpool and across the country. In the end, the irresistible moral force of their cause and their relentless campaigning told.

The turning point came in 2009. At the 20th Hillsborough anniversary memorial at Anfield, Burnham, by then a cabinet minister representing the Brown government, was forced to halt his speech for two full minutes in the face of Liverpool fans chanting ‘Justice for the 96’. The impact on Burnham was decisive. At his urging, the government waived the official 30-year rule so as to allow any Hillsborough documents not yet in the public domain to be disclosed and established the Hillsborough Independent Panel to report on content. 

The Panel’s report was based on 450,000 pages of documents. Consistent with Taylor’s original findings, it found ‘no evidence among the vast number of disclosed documents and many hours of video material to verify the serious allegations of exceptional levels of drunkenness, ticketlessness or violence among Liverpool fans…no evidence that fans had conspired to arrive late at the stadium and force entry and no evidence that they stole from the dead and dying. Documents show that fans became frustrated by the inadequate response to the unfolding tragedy. The vast majority of fans on the pitch assisted in rescuing and evacuating the injured and the dead.’ 

It further found from the ‘documents disclosed’ that ‘the origin of these serious allegations’ against the fans ‘was a local Sheffield press agency informed by several [South Yorkshire Police] officers, a [South Yorkshire Police] Federation spokesperson and a local [Conservative] MP’, Irvine Patnick, knighted in 1994. At the same time, the Panel found that 116 of 164 police statements had been ‘amended to remove or alter comments unfavourable’ to South Yorkshire Police. 

The impact of the publication of the Panel’s report in September 2012 was swift. In December, the High Court quashed the inquest verdict of ‘accidental death’, ordering a second inquest. In 2016, this second inquest reached a verdict of ‘unlawful killing’. And in 2017, the Crown Prosecution Service announced its intention to prosecute Duckenfield among others. 

None of this would have been possible without the campaign of the Hillsborough families.

Rewards

That said, Duckenfield’s acquittal means that no-one has ever been convicted of the 96 deaths at Hillsborough, and this is a travesty. Hillsborough remains, in Burnham’s words, ‘the greatest miscarriage of justice of our times’. 

But it is also important to recognise that the powers that be have by no means had it all their own way. The tenacity of the Hillsborough families and campaigners and the widespread solidarity and support they have drawn on have been central to exposing the truth about what happened on 15 April 1989, and indeed what has been done to hide it. 

This is a victory, if an incomplete one, and as such, it reminds us of the rewards that struggle can bring, even against a state machine operating to a logic quite alien for most people, that of serving the interests of a wealthy and powerful elite. Indeed, it is precisely because the state is an alien institution in this sense that the struggle for any kind of justice for the 96 has been so long and arduous. 

For those seeking justice in cases akin to Hillsborough, there is a lesson here. The powers that be will do what they can to avoid responsibility for the consequences of their actions. They will play the devious game, the long game, the obstructive game, and any other game they can get away with. In the case of Grenfell, this can already be seen in the recently distracting attempt at blaming the fire service for the death toll. It means that tenacious independent campaigns on the model of the Hillsborough families, which draw sustenance from popular support and trustworthy political allies, will be crucial to extracting the truth from those who have every reason to suppress it.

Dragan Plavšić

Dragan Plavšić

Dragan Plavšić is a member of Counterfire in London and of Marks21 in Serbia. He jointly edited The Balkan Socialist Tradition and the Balkan Federation 1871-1915 (2003).

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