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Hillsborough: the long and winding road

QUB's Phil Scraton on seven key days that finally unravelled a web of deceit

By Phil Scraton

Queen's University academic Professor Phil Scraton played a major role in getting to the truth about Hillsborough. He is the primary author of the Hillsborough Independent Panel’s report. Here he details the long and winding road that lead to the inquest verdicts.

12 September 2012, 9am

Liverpool Anglican Cathedral. High on a stage in the Nave I stood before families and survivors. On behalf of the Hillsborough Independent Panel chaired by James Jones, the Bishop of Liverpool, I delivered our 153 detailed findings. Dismissing years of false allegations, we had found no evidence ‘to verify the serious allegations of drunkenness, ticketlessness or violence among Liverpool fans’.

Neither had they ‘conspired to arrive late at the stadium and force entry’, nor had they stolen from the dead. In fact the mass of documents revealed a structurally unsafe stadium, its management and policing complacent, neglectful and deficient.

An hour passed in a flash. I finished. You could hear a pin drop. Together as one, families - many in tears – stood to applaud. Within minutes the Prime Minister addressed a packed House of Commons. He offered ‘a proper apology to the families of the 96 for all they had suffered over the past 23 years’.

It was a ‘double injustice’ - the ‘failure of the state to protect their loved ones, the indefensible wait to get to the truth’, and ‘the injustice of the denigration of the deceased that they somehow where at fault for their own deaths’.

The Home Secretary announced a ‘move from truth to justice’. What followed was unprecedented. Long-term, fully resourced criminal and disciplinary investigations – still ongoing, the quashing of the inquest verdicts with new inquests to follow. Why had it taken so long? For families and survivors the road to the Cathedral had been broken and painful – grief and injustice combining to cause illness and further loss.

15 April 1989, 3.20pm

Like so many, my recollections have not diminished with passing time. Only the second semi-final I’d missed in years. As the disaster unfolded, stunned I watched Grandstand’s live coverage. There and then it was obvious it wasn’t crowd disorder. As John Motson commented, the central pens were crammed, the side pens half empty.

Little did we know, at that moment in the police control box match commander David Duckenfield told the FA’s chief executive Liverpool fans had forced entry, rushed the tunnel and caused the fatal crush. In minutes his lie was broadcast around the world. Fans trapped, dying and rescuing were blamed.

Later I heard from returning survivors that the police had opened exit gates to relieve a crush at slow turnstiles. Without guidance they walked through Gate C, down the steep tunnel directly ahead and into the back of already overfull pens.

Unable to retreat, trapped like cattle to the front and sides, the compression was unbearable. An old safety barrier collapsed. Death and injury were inevitable. As I heard chilling accounts, Liverpool’s chairman bemoaned the club’s chances of returning to Europe. There was instant outrage.

The mile of scarves between Goodison and Anfield, the thousands of tributes on the pitch, the enormity of the tragedy began to sink in. Worse followed. Proclaiming ‘THE TRUTH’, The Sun alongside other newspapers published scurrilous allegations orchestrated by senior officers and wired by a Sheffield news agency.

The initial tide of national sympathy turned, the bereaved and survivors were devastated. As hostility mounted I contacted Liverpool City Council and the Hillsborough Project was born.

4 August 1990

The Taylor Report concluded the ‘main cause’ of the disaster was ‘overcrowding’, the main reason ‘failure in police control’. At the highest level the police and other agencies were found wanting. Responding angrily South Yorkshire’s chief constable vowed the inquests would exonerate his officers. The eventual accidental death verdict appeared to prove him right.

In 1995 our 350-page report, No Last Rights, revealed the full extent of the flawed inquests. It was ignored. Then I met a former South Yorkshire police officer whose statement had been reviewed and altered without his consent. This led to accessing all South Yorkshire police statements. I uncovered their systematic review and alteration carried out by a team under the Force’s head of management services in consultation with its solicitors.

None of this cut ice with Lord Justice Stuart-Smith, appointed by the Labour Government in 1997 to review new evidence. He rejected my call for a ‘wide-ranging’ full inquiry stating it ‘would clearly impose enormous burdens on the police and the hospital and medical staff to no purpose’. My ‘allegation’ of ‘malpractice’ was ‘not substantiated’. He found ‘no irregularities’ in the investigations or inquests. This was the Government’s final word - the end of the road had been reached.

15th April 2009, 3.30pm

At the 20th Anniversary, addressing a near-full Anfield, the then Culture Minister, Andy Burnham, praised families’ ‘dignity’, ‘resolve’ and ‘remarkable courage’ in the face of ‘major injustice’. Then, ‘in the public interest’ he called for ‘full disclosure’ and independent review of all Hillsborough-related official documents. The Hillsborough Independent Panel was appointed in January 2010 and I headed its research.

New inquests, unprecedented in size, complexity and legal representation, followed. During five preliminary hearings the coroner, a high court judge, stated the inquest would not degenerate into an ‘adversarial battle’ between lawyers. It was a hollow wish.

Battle-lines were soon drawn. Allegations of drunkenness, ticketlessness and so-called late arrival were back on the agenda. Lawyers representing the police and other authorities distinguished between the ‘innocence’ of the 96 and the ‘guilt’ of an unidentified minority who survived.

31 March 2014, 11.43am

Before a jury and over 100 lawyers, the inquests opened in a converted office block on Birchwood Park industrial estate. Families presented moving personal profiles of loved ones. They were adapted to be non-controversial. Many family members, among them survivors, felt yet again they had been censored.

Throughout 22 months evidence was heard from over 500 witnesses. It focused on the stadium’s history, condition, safety and structural modifications, planning for the semi-final, and the disaster itself. Reports were presented by experts in safety, policing and pre-hospital emergency care.

Two medical teams reviewed the original pathological evidence. As anticipated, there was minimal common ground between fans’ and police accounts. The alteration of police and ambulance service statements was laid bare.

Foreseeable, ignored risks, first evident in a near fatal crush at Hillsborough in 1981, were revealed to the jury. Deficiencies included: restricted access from Leppings Lane, broken terracing, inadequate escape routes, locked perimeter track gates, ineffectual policing and stewarding.

All this had been exposed in my 1999 book and further detailed by the Panel’s research. The inquest jury heard it for the first time. The expert witnesses confirmed the stadium’s unsafe condition and policing failures.

25 January 2016, 10.16am

The Coroner began his complex, detailed and contested summing-up. He would offer only one possible verdict - unlawfully killed. Whether or not the jury returned this verdict, they were instructed to provide a narrative focusing on key questions. Five concerned policing and police actions. Others addressed the club’s conduct, stadium defects, stadium licensing and oversight, the safety advisors, and the emergency response.

One question was profoundly controversial. Asking if fans’ behaviour ‘caused or contributed to the dangerous situation’, it reflected repeated allegations made primarily by police officers. Ironically, and unknown to the jury, some who made these allegations had been interviewed by the investigation teams and were likely to face charges.

This revealed the problem of holding inquests before prosecutions and disciplinary actions have been completed. It threatened to reverse the Panel’s findings. Families and survivors were incensed.

With constant delays the Coroner’s summing-up lasted over two months. At 2.05pm on 6 April 2016, Day 308, the jury retired.

April 26 2016

The jury returned to a packed court at 11am on 26 April, twenty-five months on from the inquests’ opening. Their verdict was unanimous on all questions except one. On a 7-2 majority they concluded that the 96 had been unlawfully killed – gross negligence manslaughter. It reverberated around the court.

Sitting among families and survivors the release of tension, depth of pain and emotion of exhaustion was immediate. As the detailed narrative was delivered, the fans were exonerated, the institutions called to account. Complacency, profound negligence and persistent denial was fully exposed.

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Hillsborough vigil: Families of the 96 hailed at commemorative service

And the accidental death verdicts blighting the memory of the 96 were wiped from the record. Standing with them on the steps of St George’s Hall Liverpool on Wednesday evening, 30,000 people crowding the centre of Liverpool the condemnation of those who had inflicted suffering on the bereaved and survivors sang together ‘You Never Walk Alone’.

For families and survivors their journey is yet to be completed. Unprecedented in scope the current Operation Resolve and Independent Police Complaints Commission investigations will bring disciplinary actions and prosecutions. This week, in keeping with the Panel’s findings, the jury’s narrative laid full collective responsibility for the disaster at the doors of the organisations that - with appalling consequences - failed in their duty of care. Their determination to mask truth and escape justice has unravelled.

A version of this article first appeared in the Liverpool Echo and has been reproduced here with permission of the author.

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