Dr Stephen O’Brien is the Dean for the Faculty of Health and Society at the University of Northampton
Before I start this blog, it is important to declare my personal position. I am a lifelong supporter of Liverpool Football Club (LFC) and had I not been at a friend’s wedding on that fatal Saturday in April 1989, I may well have been in the Leppings Lane end of the Hillsborough stadium in Sheffield. I have followed the unfolding Hillsborough phenomenon for 30 years now and like the football club itself, it is an integral part of my life. To all caught up in the horrific events of Hillsborough, I echo a phrase synonymous with LFC and say; “You’ll Never Walk Alone”.
On April 15th, 1989 ninety-six men, women and children, supporters of Liverpool Football Club, died in a severe crush at an FA Cup semi-final at the Hillsborough Stadium, Sheffield. Hundreds were injured, and thousands traumatised. Within hours, the causes and circumstances of the disaster were being contested. While an initial judicial inquiry found serious institutional failures in the policing and management of the capacity crowd, no criminal prosecutions resulted, and the inquests returned ‘accidental death’ verdicts. Immediately, the authorities claimed that drunken, violent fans had caused the fatal crush. In the days and weeks following the disaster, police fed false stories to the press suggesting that hooliganism and drunkenness by Liverpool supporters were the root causes of the disaster. The media briefing was most significantly demonstrated in the headline “THE TRUTH” which appeared in The Sun newspaper immediately after the event devoting its front page to the story and reporting that: ‘Some fans picked pockets of victims; Some fans urinated on the brave cops; Some fans beat up PC giving life kiss’. What of course we appreciate now is that this headline was far from truth, however the blame narrative was already being set. For example, Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield, the match commander on the day, misinformed senior officials from the Football Association that fans had forced entry causing an inrush into already packed stadium pens. Yet it was Duckenfield who had ordered the opening of the gates to relieve the crush at the turnstiles. Within minutes the lie was broadcast internationally.
Blaming of Liverpool fans persisted even after the Taylor Report of 1990, which found that the main cause of the disaster was a profound failure in police control. While directing its most damning conclusions towards the South Yorkshire Police, it also criticised Sheffield Wednesday Football Club, its safety engineers and Sheffield City Council. However, following the Taylor Report, the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) ruled there was no evidence to justify prosecution of any individuals or institutions. On a more positive note, the disaster did lead to safety improvements in the largest English football grounds, notably the elimination of fenced terraces in favour of all seated stadiums.With the media allegations unchallenged and in the absence of any imminent prosecutions the families of the 96 hugely supported by the people of the City of Liverpool and it’s two football clubs began an exerted and prolonged campaign for truth and justice. In late June 1997, soon after the election of the Labour Government and following a concerted campaign by families, the Home Secretary Jack Straw proposed an unprecedented judicial scrutiny of any new evidence and appointed senior appeal court judge and former MI6 Commissioner Lord Justice Stuart-Smith to review further material that interested parties wished to submit. A large volume of new material was presented. However, Stuart-Smith rejected the new evidence concluding that there was no basis for a further public inquiry or new material of interest to the DPP or police disciplinary authorities. Undeterred by such a devastating outcome the families undertook a series of private prosecutions again to no avail.
It is important to note that public inquiries, convened in the aftermath of major incidents such as Hillsborough or to address alleged irregularities or failures in the administration of justice, should not be considered a panacea but provide an opportunity to speedily ensure that management failings are exposed to public scrutiny. They are popularly perceived to be objective and politically independent. On the other hand, they also have the potential to act as a convenient mechanism of legitimation for the state. It appeared to the families that the various inquiries that followed Hillsborough were incapable of surfacing the truth as the cards were stacked in favour of the state.
Roll forward to 2009. On the 20th anniversary, invited by the Hillsborough Family Support Group, Minister for Health Andy Burnham MP addressed over 30,000 people attending the annual memorial service at Liverpool FC’s Anfield stadium. Whilst acknowledging the dignity, resolve and courage they had exhibited in all the events of the previous 20 years he offered support and hope that their struggle would be further supported by the MPs in Liverpool as a whole. The cries of “Justice for the 96” that rang out that day heralded a turning point. Consequently, in December 2009, following the families unrelenting campaign, the Bishop of Liverpool, James Jones, was appointed to chair the Hillsborough Independent Panel. It was given unfettered access to all the documentation that had been generated in all the enquiries and investigations to date. The outcomes of their deliberations were presented in closed session to the bereaved families at Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral on 12 September 2012, the report concluded that there was no evidence among the vast documentation to support or verify the serious allegations of exceptional levels of drunkenness, fans with no tickets or violence. The bereaved families and survivors were overwhelmed by the unqualified exoneration of those who died and survived. Shortly after, the Prime Minister David Cameron responded in detail to a packed House of Commons. He made a proper apology to the families of the 96 for all they have suffered over the past 23 years. In April 2016, a special Coroner’s Court ruled that the Hillsborough dead had been unlawfully killed and a campaign for justice that had run for well over two decades was concluded.
This year will be the 30th anniversary of that tragic event and I believe it is fair to say that the ensuing years have provided us with a troubling case study with features of institutional cover up, the power of the state, the Establishment, the resilience of the victim’s families, community and a social movement which Scraton (1999, 2013) refers to as an alternative method for liberating truth, securing acknowledgement and pursuing justice. Scraton has written extensively on the disaster and the subsequent events. He draws on human rights discourse to show how ‘regimes of truth’ operate to protect and sustain the interests of the ‘powerful’. He examined in detail the formal legal processes and their outcomes regarding Hillsborough and demonstrated how they were manipulated to degrade the truth and deny justice to the bereaved. He exposed the procedural and structural inadequacies of these processes and raised fundamental questions about the legal and political accountability of the instruments of authority. The broader socio/legal policy question that emerges from Hillsborough is whether ‘truth’ can ever be acknowledged and institutionalized injustices reconciled in a timely fashion when the force of the state apparatus works to differing ends. Time will only tell. In 2019 there are many other tragic examples where we could replace Hillsborough with Orgreave, Lawrence, Windrush, Grenfell. Let’s hope that it doesn’t take 30 years for truth and justice to emerge in the future.
Scraton P., (1999) Policing with Contempt: The Degrading of Truth and Denial of Justice in the Aftermath of the Hillsborough Disaster. Journal of Law and Society 26, 3, p273-297
Scraton P., (2013) The Legacy of Hillsborough: liberating truth, challenging power Race and Class, 55, 2, p1-27