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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
Every student has a different experience in their studies, be it through what they have studied, who they studied with or even where they studied. “Team Cops and Robbers” studied the same degree, the same modules at UON, yet we had different experiences. However what we share (and are all very fond of) is how positive the experience was, tackling the stresses (and joys) of the degree as a trio. We each offer a brief overview of our experience as a member of “Team Cops and Robbers”, who graduated in 2015 and still remain very involved in each other’s lives…
Jes: I was a late comer to Team Cops and Robbers, as Emma and Leona had already bonded without me (rude I know!). We were thrown together in Drew’s 2nd year History module, where there were only a few Crim students – so they didn’t get much of a choice with regards to me joining, the then, duo. And the rest as they say is history! What stemmed from there is quite remarkable; we all had own our strengths when it came to Crim. My recollection is Emma knew everything about everything, Leona kept us all motivated and on top of our seminar preparation and I kept us glued to the library and bossed us around -especially with group work (my car Geoffrey was an unofficial member of the gang taking us to and from Park campus). Although we took the same modules, due to our differing interests, we all did different assignment questions and had very different ways of writing and tackling assessments. In my third year, I distinctly remember Emma and Leona reminding me to take time to myself and to not live 24/7 in the library; and had they not been there to encourage me to breathe, it is likely I would have burned out! They were not afraid to question my views, or understanding, or challenge my bossy attitude when it came to group work, for which I am very grateful! And still today, even though we are no longer studying together, they keep me motivated with the MSc, sending me motivational gifts as a reminder that even though they are not studying with me, I am not alone! My academic journey would have been very different had it not been for our trio, and likely would not have been as successful.
Leona: Sometimes being in class with friends can be detrimental as you end up spending so much time having fun, you end up forgetting the work side of uni. However when you meet friends who are so determined to do well and hard-working, it can really motivate you to push yourself. Myself, Jes and Emma became a power trio; encouraging each other, motivating each other and always making sure we were working together for group projects. We are all completely different when it comes to learning but I think these differences really helped us. Learning from them really helped me to improve my own standard of work, and having the girls’ input and guidance throughout, really encouraged me and helped me gain confidence in my own voice. Plus it made doing all the studying we did much more bearable. I’m sure sometimes it took us longer to get through everything as we would be half working, half chatting, but as a trio it meant we could help each other if we got stuck or go for coffee breaks if we were bored or unmotivated. Having Jes and Emma there with me meant there was always someone there to go through notes with, always someone to explain something in a different way if I didn’t fully understand something, always someone to motivate me when I was exhausted and didn’t feel like working any more. It meant that my viewpoint expanded as I learned from their experiences and that once we had all finished writing our essays we could share them with each other to check, critique and make suggestions for improvement. But more than all that, it meant there was always someone there to help you balance the workload, someone to tell you when to take a break, and to “day drink” in the SU, explore winter wonderland, or have a Disney film day. During my time at uni these girls inspired me to work harder, and to really challenge myself to improve on everything I was doing. Without them there to encourage me and spur me on, I don’t think I would have come out with the grade I did, and I am certain that my uni experience wouldn’t have been half as memorable.
Emma: Meeting Jes and Leona was one of the best things about university. Not just because they are now two very dear friends of mine, but because we were vital to each other’s sanity at uni. I met Leona first in welcome week with a very interesting exchange asking if I was at the right seminar and proceeding to tell her my name, that I was from the south west and that I liked reading about serial killers. Leona reciprocated with the main difference being that she was from the north and from there our friendship blossomed. Jes was some girl who sat with another group of people. It wasn’t until 2nd year that Jes really came into our friendship group and “Cops and Robbers” was formed. We all had strengths and weaknesses that helped us when it came to group work. Jes was always super, super organised, having her essays completed with weeks to go. Leona was always bubbly and would follow Jes with completing her essay with time to spare. Me… I would research and collect quotes and references and then write my essays with 48-24hrs to go, as I liked the time pressure. This changed in my 3rd year though as being around Leona and Jes, they moulded me and proof read my concepts and challenged me back on things. Any time we had group work, I knew we would do well because as a trio we kicked ass! We did not always have the same views in our seminars and would often debate but we would always leave as friends. Best advice for getting through university sane, is to find people who are fun, you get on with and drive you to be the best.
Hopefully what is clear from each of our perspectives is how important we were to keeping each other (relatively) sane! Your friendship groups during your studies are essential to keeping you happy, but also keeping you motivated! Whilst it is independent studies, and at the end of the day is YOUR degree; the input from friends and family will shape your own ability and attitude. If you find the right group, hopefully you will find that they push you, support you and challenge you!
I recently read Melanie Reynolds’s article in The Guardian ‘Working-class lecturers should come out of the closet,’ and it resonated with me. I was the first generation in my family to go to university and it was difficult. I grew up in a poor socio-economic position, received government allowances, there was a stigma to this, and unspoken expectation that you kept this hidden. When I turned 18 I moved out of home and went to university, from the start I was supporting myself. I worked in a pizza shop, a convenience store, a sandwich shop, and a call centre. I lived pay day to pay day. Starting university felt like learning a new language to me, it was a shock.
I remember one of my first assignments I handed in. I had to print it on lined foolscap paper because I didn’t have any printer paper and I couldn’t afford to buy any. It is all well and good to tell a student to be prepared – trust me I would’ve been if I had the money. This meant I couldn’t afford to print at university either (before the days of online submission!). But I also didn’t know how to print at the university at that stage and I didn’t want to let on to anyone that I didn’t know how, I already felt like I stood out. It seemed that everyone around me had this innate understanding of how everything worked. It seemed like a simple thing, but it was hard to ask for help.
Another time I lost my student card on the train and when I got on the bus to go to university the bus driver asked for it. He stayed at the stop while I literally went through every compartment in my bag looking for it, with everyone watching it just brought feelings of shame. I had to pay an adult fare in addition to the three-zone student fare I had already paid, and those couple of dollars extra made a big difference to me, considering I knew I would also need to replace my student card.
I didn’t feel like I belonged, I didn’t know anyone at university, I didn’t know what services were available, even if I did I would have felt like I was wasting their time – taking away time for ‘real’ students. It was difficult to watch other students be involved in activities and wonder how they found the time and the money. Being in law school made me feel like I didn’t dress right, didn’t talk properly, that I was not connected to the legal profession because no one in my family was a lawyer or judge, I was an impostor. It was very isolating.
What can I say to help – it will get better? That you’ll get over the feelings of impostor syndrome? It does get a little better, for me it took time, realising that I was not alone in these feelings, that many students had the same questions, and to build the confidence to speak up. There was a lot of pressure to succeed and this is something you need to manage.
I try to be open about my experiences with my students so that they may feel more comfortable approaching me with their issues. To me there are no stupid questions. One of my most disliked words is ‘just’ – ‘well you just do this’ the expectation that you’ll ‘just’ know. I don’t expect my students to ‘just’ know. When I ask students to tell me when they are having difficulties I truly mean it. This is my job and it is the university’s job to support you. Starting university can be overwhelming. So, remember students ALWAYS ask me for help, email, phone or in-person.
What can we do as educators? Universities and their staff need to be pro-active in connecting with students and providing assistance – not ‘do you need help?’ but ‘what can I do to help?’ We need to seek to bridge the gap and bring equity to our students, not just equality.
For all students there are support services available to you at the University of Northampton, please take advantage of them.
(Very soon to be) Lecturer in Criminology