Liverpool's strong sense of injustice
Published 15/04/2009 | 02:01
It was 20 years ago today that the Hillsborough disaster claimed the lives of 96 Liverpool football fans.
They were among 50,000 fans that had travelled to Sheffield Wednesday on a spring afternoon to watch their team play in the FA cup semi-final against Nottingham Forest.
In the run-up and the immediate aftermath of the 3pm kick-off, a crush at the Leppings Lane end of the "neutral" stadium resulted in the worst ever disaster to befall a British sporting event. As well as those killed, hundreds more were injured while thousands suffered emotional and psychological trauma as a result of their experience. The families of the victims, who have campaigned tirelessly ever since, say the truth of what happened that day and crucially the role of senior officers within South Yorkshire Police has never been satisfactorily explained.
How did the crush happen?
Football was blighted by hooliganism in 1989 and this provided the main focus of the policing operation rather than the welfare and safety of the fans. The venue was a poor choice for the occasion. There was a well-known "bottleneck" at the Leppings Lane end caused by the slow old-fashioned turnstiles. Some 38 people had been injured in a crush at the ground in 1981.
As the excited crowds built up close to kick-off, a senior officer radioed the match commander, Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield, who was overseeing his first major match, asking him to authorise the opening of the exit gates allowing fans to get into the ground without passing through the creaking turnstiles. He agreed. But by this time the number of people inside the "central pens" of the terrace was also beginning to mount dangerously. Crucially police did not steward the entering fans into the relatively empty side pens. Instead some 2,000 supporters eager to watch the match piled into the already crammed central area where a perimeter fence guarded against the threat of a pitch invasion.
What happened next?
Incredibly, as people started to suffocate, the match got under way, and desperate pleas for help were drowned out by the excitement of the game. Fans attempting to climb the anti-hooligan fences were forced back by officers. Limited relief came only when the two narrow gates on to the perimeter track were opened. The game was abandoned after six minutes by which time fans were on the pitch, fashioning stretchers out of hoardings to transport the injured and dying towards medical help. But of the 42 ambulances that were summoned to the ground only three made it on to the pitch. Here paramedics faced chaotic scenes described by one as "bedlam". Official medical cover that day was provided by St John Ambulance volunteers.
Few victims received even rudimentary help opening airways. Many of the injured were laid on their backs rather than in the recovery position. There were no doctors to confirm who was dead and who still had a chance of survival as the bodies were left in piles. Only 14 of those who died ever made it to hospital. The remainder were taken to the ground's gymnasium where they were photographed and the images shown to grieving relatives who were denied access to their loved ones.
Why were Liverpool fans initially blamed by some sections of the media?
Off-the-record police sources were quoted in the press, appearing to put the blame on the travelling Liverpool fans. It was reported they had been drunk – an allegation which led to the unprecedented step of all the fatalities, including the children, having their blood alcohol levels taken. Even the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was briefed that the tragedy occurred as a result of a boozed-up mob. Most notoriously the Sun newspaper carried unsubstantiated claims that fans had urinated on police officers performing first aid and looted the bodies of the dead. These allegations caused profound hurt for Merseyside and have been endlessly repeated at legal proceedings.
What did the Government do?
Lifelong football fan Lord Taylor, who later went on to become Lord Chief Justice, was called upon to investigate the disaster. In the first of his two reports, he found that the central cause of the tragedy was the failure of police to cut off access to the central pens. These, he said, were already over-full because of the failure to monitor the growing crowd. He also identified a lack of leadership and a sluggish response to unfolding events. However he acknowledged that there was a small minority of drunken fans, and that problems were exacerbated by inadequate ticketing. In his final report, Lord Taylor recommended that all major stadia should become all-seated putting an end to the tradition of standing on the terraces. His advice was immediately accepted for the higher leagues in England and Scotland.
How did the police react?
This gets to the nub of the families' anger and ongoing sense of betrayal. Immediately after the disaster South Yorkshire police set up a team of officers and legal advisers to review all police statements concerning the events at Hillsborough. But it took nine years for it to emerge that many of the statements made by junior officers had been amended and vetted before being submitted to Lord Taylor or the controversial inquests into the deaths. Junior justice minister Maria Eagle, a Liverpool MP, has accused the police of a "cover-up" and of waging a "black propaganda" campaign to divert the blame away from its own officers. Police insisted they were merely removing comment and emotion from the statements.
Among those linked by Ms Eagle to the affair was Norman Bettison, who denies any role in an alleged cover-up. He was later appointed Chief Constable of Merseyside – much to the fury of the relatives and survivors. He was knighted in 2006 and is presently head of West Yorkshire Police. The new Chief Constable of South Yorkshire Police, Meredydd Hughes, this week said he fully accepted the Taylor findings and would apologise if documents found any evidence of a cover-up campaign though he said there had been no attempt to conceal evidence by his force.
What did the victims' families do?
Those left to mourn loved ones have worked tirelessly to bring about truth and justice. Having argued bitterly to dispel the myths and lies in the immediate aftermath, they have pursued their claims against the police through the courts and lobbied Government at the highest level. Families challenged the initial inquest held by Dr Stefan Popper in which key witnesses were not called or cross-examined. They sought a judicial review of the decision to limit the inquest proceedings to events up to but not after 3.15pm on the day of the tragedy – effectively excluding much of the policing operation from scrutiny and the key question of whether any of those who died were still alive after this time. They campaigned to overturn Dr Popper's controversial findings of accidental death rather than unlawful killing and highlighted the key inconsistencies in the case such as the disappearance of CCTV videos from the locked control room on the day.
Continuing pressure, the annual emotional remembrance day and the championing of fresh evidence such as that portrayed in Jimmy McGovern's drama Hillsborough, led to the incoming Labour government in 1997 ordering a review under Lord Justice Stuart-Smith. His failure to challenge either the inquest findings or the Taylor report resulted in the Hillsborough Family Support Group bringing a private prosecution against the now retired Mr Duckenfield and another officer Bernard Murray claiming manslaughter. Mr Murray was later acquitted while the case against the officer in charge was eventually dropped after a jury failed to reach a verdict.
Is it time to draw a line under the events of that day?
* It is 20 years since the disaster and football culture has been transformed largely as a result
* There has been an inquest, two senior judicial inquiries, and a private prosecution
* The disaster has bequeathed a safe future for millions of football fans in the form of all-seater stadia
* There are still too many questions left unanswered, and the role of South Yorkshire Police has yet to be properly scrutinised
* Families will never be sure that their loved ones could have been saved
* Hurtful media speculation over fans' culpability has left wounds that will never heal