- Thursday, 13 September 2012
- Written by Steve Jones
The story starts not in 1989 but in 1981. An FA Cup semi-final between Spurs and Wolves at Hillsborough was marred by an incidence of overcrowding. Some people were hurt and others had to be let onto the touchlines to move to safer areas. The report talked of fatalities being “narrowly avoided” yet the incident was largely covered up so that most people, even those in the ground on the day, including the author of this article, was unaware of how close to disaster they had come.
The stadium had already been marked down as failing to meet minimum safety standards since 1978. For several years afterwards Hillsborough was not used for semi-finals but the cash return from staging such games at one of the larger league grounds in Britain was too much for the FA and they began using Hillsborough again even though most of the safety concerns had not been addressed. So it was that in 1989, a semi-final involving Liverpool FC and Nottingham Forest FC, then both top teams in the English league, was set to be played at the Hillsborough ground at 3.00pm on a Saturday afternoon.
On the day, pens 3 and 4 in the Leppings Lane end (the same one occupied by Spurs fans in 1981) were overfull by 2.50 pm – the official capacity was 2,200 but it was later noted that it could only safely hold 1,600. However, the police were desperate to get people in and pushed another 2,000 into the stand. The consequences were inevitable.
By 3.06pm when the game was stopped, people were shouting out “We’re dying here!” Bodies were being passed over the perimeter fences and up to the upper stands. However, the response from the police and the authorities was slow and initially aimed at dealing with “hooliganism” rather than an emergency. Firefighters with fence-cutting gear and ambulances were delayed from getting into the ground – a delay that would be the difference between life and death for many of the 96. Despite the desperate efforts of those who could get to the dying and injured, by the half-hour mark the pitch was covered with bodies. 96 lay dead with a further 730 injured.
Shocked as people were in the terrible weeks that followed with football grounds being turned into makeshift memorials and the city of Liverpool holding one heartbreaking funeral after another, nothing could have prepared the bereaved for what followed.
Firstly, reports began to circulate putting the blame on the fans themselves and talking of excessive alcohol consumption. One shocking front page article, published in Murdoch’s rag The Sun, described Liverpool fans robbing the bodies of the dead and urinating on police officers trying to help. Although quickly denied and discounted, this single action resulted in a citywide boycott in Liverpool of The Sun that exists to this day. Kelvin MacKenzie, the editor of The Sun at the time, and still appearing on our screens to spew out his reactionary ignorant filth, has finally issued an apology for what happened. The mood on Merseyside will be that he can stick that so-called apology. It should also be noted that the “source” of the story has been revealed as being Sir Irvine Patnick the then Tory MP for Sheffield Hallam. Many of these lies were later to be reused by the Spectator magazine in 2004 under the editorship of one Boris Johnson.
So the fight for the truth began. The official investigation – the Taylor Report – discounted the stories of drunkenness being the cause and outlined the failings on safety and the slow response of the authorities to the unfolding crisis. However, more still needed to come out.
By the time of the official inquests into the deaths, we now know that the police were preparing to use this as their chance to deflect blame away from themselves. The new report has revealed that over 160 police statements were changed to cover up the failings of the South Yorkshire police. It is now known that the head of police operations David Duckenfield initially lied to officials on the day saying that Liverpool fans had broken into the Leppings Lane stand causing the crushing. Shockingly, all the dead – even the children – had their blood checked by police investigators for hoped-for evidence of high alcohol levels.
However, the coroner aided the police by ruling that no evidence need be submitted for any event that occurred after 3.15pm on the day. The stated reason was that by that point all the victims had been fatally injured, according to the court. This prevented evidence about the subsequent delays and errors being presented in open court.
In fact the new report has revealed that 41 supporters could still have been saved after 3.15pm had proper action been taken by the police and ambulance services.
Why did this happen? The later part of the 1980s was taken up by the non-stop campaign by the right-wing press and the Tory government to mark football fans down as being hooligans and drunken louts. Certainly there had been incidents of trouble at grounds during the 1960s and 1970s, although these had declined during the 1980s. However, the trouble involving Liverpool fans at the European Cup Final in Heysel was the starting point for Thatcher to get involved. In passing we should not that it was later confirmed that much of the blame lay with the poor condition of the Heysel stadium and the lack of proper segregation. Thatcher realised that this was her chance to push through the idea of ID cards. Although initially aimed just at those attending football games, once established the principle could later be expanded to cover everybody. Ironically, Blair would later try this again but this time going for everybody right from the start.
So the mindset of all those involved was fixed well before the day and put in motion what occurred. In addition Sheffield Wednesday FC, who owned the Hillsborough ground, were only interested in maximising profit and had done nothing about updating and improving the ground to even meet minimum basic standards. Sheffield City council were complicit in this by not acting on the Safety of Sports Grounds Act of 1975. They were not alone in this. Many other grounds in Britain had become run down monuments to Victorian architecture by then. One of the terrible ironies to come out of this disaster was that, following these events and the publication of the Taylor report, changes were made but most just acted to increase the profits being made by the owners. Yes, the bloody fences were taken down but we also had all-seater stadiums being introduced and a huge hike in ticket prices, not to mention the corrupting influence of TV under the greedy watch of the new Premier League.
The Lone Stand
For years, the families and their supporters have had to fight on alone (aided only by thousands of football fans around the country united in solidarity) to get the truth to come out. Successive governments aided the cover up. The report also reveals that Thatcher knew early on that the statements from the police were suspect but did nothing. Even now, the police are trying to find excuses. They are all saying that this was a “one-off”, a “departure from the norm”. Really? Try telling that to the family of Jean Charles de Menezes. Try telling that to the family of Ian Tomlinson. Try telling that to the family of Paul Duggan.
Lies and cover-ups? This is the norm of a state machine determined to hide its dirty face. Remember that Hillsborough came only a few years after the Miners’ Strike with all that was involved. Remember also the hatred of the government and the establishment towards the city of Liverpool who, only a few years before, had stood up under the leadership of the City council defending socialist ideas against the attacks on public services by the Thatcher regime.
This scandal, now officially confirmed at last, shows once again the rotten links between the pillars of capitalist rule – the police, parliament, the state and the press. Now the inquest verdicts should be withdrawn as flawed and a new inquest hearing held that accepts the suppressed evidence. Those held guilty should be brought to justice. They have all lived nice lives, unlike the many victims – living and dead – of this terrible disaster. Whether they will or not remains an open question. The rich and powerful control the law and benefit accordingly.
23 years is a long time to wait for vindication. Some will not have lived to see it. Every football supporter of a certain age will remember even now where he or she was and what they were thinking on the afternoon of April 15 1989. The 96 will never have that chance. They never left Hillsborough. Also trapped there in many ways are the many thousands of survivors marked by what they saw and felt and heard. Also trapped are the families and friends of the dead, deprived of husbands, daughters, sons, fathers and all the lost dreams that flow from that. Also trapped are the tens of thousands of other supporters of both teams who started the day looking forward to a game and ended seeing things that will have marked them for life.
One woman aged 33 sent a message to the BBC website as the report was coming out stating that she had attended the match as a ten-year old Forrest supporter. Since then she had never been back to a football ground and had spent the last 23 years suffering from nightmares and terrible depression. One example out of many – still trapped at Hillsborough.
The fight for the truth and for justice will go on. More must come out so that we know everything about what happened, who told the truth and who lied. Mealy-mouthed words of belated apology can never be enough.
The full text of the official report: http://hillsborough.independent.gov.uk/
The voice from Liverpool: http://www.socialist.net/hillsborough-the-truth-at-last.htm