Hillsborough: 23 years on, what have we learnt?
(Disclaimer: as a Liverpool fan, this was tough to write – though I’ve tried to be objective. Space means I’ve had to omit a lot of specifics, but you can read the full report at http://hillsborough.independent.gov.uk/ )
With the publication of the Hillsborough Independent Panel’s report this week, the State has finally confessed to what we have been saying for 23 years. If you do get the chance, I’d highly recommend it; not only does it completely exonerating the fans after years of smears by the media and high-profile figures, but throws up some disturbing facts about the authorities’ conduct on that fateful day. Many of the mistakes made have been corrected, and would not occur today, but many are still unanswered. It’s worth looking at the report to see what questions remain unanswered.
Firstly, we learnt about general official incompetence; in brief, the stadium itself was not fit for purpose for years prior to the tragedy. It’s now clear that at the time, Sheffield Wednesday FC were primarily concerned with limiting cost, rather than ensuring safety. Their relationship with their safety consultants was too close, which meant when there was another crush in 1981, Sheffield Wednesday blamed the South Yorkshire Police for inadequate crowd control, rather than their own flaws. Recommendations on how to better manage the crowd were ignored by the club because of the cost in implementing them, and they resolutely stuck by their maximum capacity figures despite concern by the police and Fire Service. Even though the terrace underwent a significant modification programme, there was no official safety reassessment that could have highlighted the deficiencies and potential for catastrophe. Despite all these red flags, and even though the FA was aware of crush issues during the semi-finals in 1981, 1987, and 1988, Hillsborough was again chosen to stage the FA Cup semi-final in 1989. From the documents available, it becomes apparent that after these incidents, which resulted in delayed kick-offs and crushing, the relevant parties did not share their experiences within and between their organisations, meaning lessons were not learned that could have informed the organisational plan in 1989.
Secondly, we heard about what happened on and around the fateful day itself. South Yorkshire Police replaced Chief Superintendent Brian Mole, a commander with considerable experience of Hillsborough, for reasons still undetermined. This meant that as the tragedy unfolded, the response was managed by Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield, a man with limited experience of policing at Hillsborough. Once more, tensions between the various bodies concerned with match safety meant information was not shared. A planning meeting one month before the match wasn’t attended by the Ambulance or Fire Services, again for reasons still undetermined. The operational plan was also inherently flawed; barring a few minor changes, it was a carbon copy of the 1988 plan, without factoring in the crowd control problems experienced on that day (when crushing was experienced), and as such, it could reasonably be expected to reproduce a similar outcome. Lines of communication and a hierarchy of authority were unclear, which hindered the response as the tragedy unfolded. We also learn that there was a considerable anti-Liverpool bias in many of the briefings, with an emphasis on the trouble they would cause, their alcohol consumption, and their disruptive behaviour. In short, the police prioritised controlling a crowd they perceived to be hostile, rather than ensuring the safety of these fans. Furthermore, this anti-Liverpool mindset coloured the initial response to the disaster, as we’ll see. Lastly, despite reports to the contrary, there was not an issue with fans arriving late to the match. Rather, the turnstiles were not fit for purpose, an issue already known to the club and the authorities, and poor communication by the police between the interior and exterior of the stadium meant that there was an information gap about the extreme situation developing, which led to poor decisions being taken.
When the emergency unfolded, there were clear errors in judgement. Decision-making in a crisis is always difficult, which is why robust plans are supposed to be set out beforehand, allowing authorities to follow a set path and reduce the potential for errors. However, based in part on their briefing, the police initially took the unrest in the pens as disorder by the fans, rather than the result of spectators being crushed, injured, and worse. Ambulance Service officials, despite being closer to the pens, also failed to realise what was happening. The major incident procedure was not fully activated by either the police or the ambulance services, and there were crucial delays in deploying medical teams. Instead, action was taken unilaterally by junior ambulance and police officials, as well as the fans (many themselves injured), who resuscitated casualties and helped transfer them to the designated casualty reception point. No triage system was put in place, forcing these officials to attempt to compensate. Basic medical equipment needed in the stadium was outside in vehicles, as crews were unaware of the situation inside. We learnt from the report that many people were still alive after the official inquest’s ‘cut-off’ point of 3.15pm, and while it is impossible to predict who specifically could have been saved, it’s very likely an appropriate medical response would have saved lives.
Thirdly, the authorities went on the defensive almost immediately. Blood was taken from victims and tested for alcohol levels, and police searched for details of the injured and deceased on the criminal database in an attempt to blame the victims themselves for what unfolded. Very quickly, a narrative was established of ‘drunken Liverpool fans causing trouble,’ with Duckenfield falsely telling senior officials that Liverpool fans had broken into the stadium, triggering the crush. Officials from the police, in conjunction with local Conservative MP, Irvine Patnick, fed the media stories about drunken ticketless Liverpool fans forcing their way into the stadium. The Sun headlined four days after the disaster with its ‘The Truth’ story, alleging Liverpool fans impeded the rescue operation, assaulted police, and violated the dead and dying, in a story they defended as ‘factually accurate’. These were the same fans who were carrying people from the crush and administering first aid while the police were failing to manage the disaster response. Reports from the ground by police and ambulance officials were altered by the police to remove criticisms of the management procedure – 116 reports out of 164.
For 23 years, those who argued the above have been maligned by the media. Boris Johnson saw fit to blame the fans in 2004 in the Spectator, accusing Liverpool of having a victim mentality. David Cameron, praised for his comments in the House on Wednesday, has previously compared the families of the deceased to “a blind man in a dark room, looking for a black cat that isn’t there”. Now, the truth is at last out, and the public climb-down of those who went out of their way to attack bereaved families has begun. How can we make sure this doesn’t happen again? Great strides have happened in match management since that fateful day. Stadia have been improved and converted to all-seater. The proliferation of camera phones means that such a cover-up would be almost impossible today. Police now work with the clubs and the fans, rather than against them.
But there are still many questions to be answered. The original inquest was based on a cut-off point after 3.15pm, on the basis that nobody could have been saved after this time. Challenged at the time by the families, this has finally been exposed for the falsehood it always was. So, we need a fresh inquest. The FA needs to explain why it chose to host the match at a stadium it knew to have problems. Those at Sheffield Wednesday who prioritised cost over safety should face legal action for their role in this disaster, for violations of health and safety. Irvine Patnick has questions to answer. There should be an enquiry to discover those responsible for directing the official cover-up within the South Yorkshire Police, and they should also face criminal charges, for perverting the course of justice. They also have questions to answer about how the original plan was drawn up and implemented, and must show that errors made here would not be repeated today.
There are wider lessons to be learnt here too. Hillsborough is just one more case of the police closing ranks to avoid criticism; we were told Ian Tomlinson had simply collapsed, and the police were attacked by protestors as they tried to save him. We were told Mark Duggan fired first at the police. It goes without saying that both those statements were proven to be factually inaccurate by subsequent evidence. I have to wonder whether having the force headed by an elected figure would have made a difference, or would they have fought the harder to cover up the truth, to save their job?
We also need to look at the role played by the media. Along with Leveson, this adds weight for a re-evaluation of the role of the media in our society, who point to stories such as the expenses scandal as support for a robust investigative journalism. Yet in 23 years, none of them managed to unearth the Hillsborough cover-up (excluding the local Merseyside press, which has always been consistent in arguing against the official narrative). Instead, they have supported the official line, and been key players in the smear campaign against the families and Liverpudlians more generally.
Wednesday 12th September 2012 will be another day that becomes part of Liverpool history. But justice delayed is justice denied, and we’ve waited long enough. We may have the truth, but now people need to be held to account for their role in this disaster.
May the 96 finally rest in peace.