“Mr Speaker, the families were right”
Those were the words used by David Cameron (the UK Prime Minister), telling the country and the world that the families had it right all along following the publication of the report by the Hillsborough Independent Panel (HIP) following the release of nearly half a million documents pertaining to the case. For 23 years the families have been claiming that the police had lied, that the press had lied and that the politicians had lied about what had happened at Hillsborough. For 23 years those claims were wrongly dismissed as conspiracy theories and fabrications.
For 23 years not only the families and friends of the 96 Liverpool fans had to fight to get any sort of justice, they have had to do so whilst being subjected to slurs, lies and misinformation. It was suggested at the time that it was in some way the fault of their loved ones that they had died. That had they, and others like them behaved themselves, everything would have been okay. It was suggested that they somehow had it coming.
Despite the Taylor report conducted in the aftermath of Hillsborough rejecting any suggestion that the fans were drunk, violent, or in any way culpable and the fault solely lay with the decisions taken by the Police that day; the mud that was slung by the authorities in the aftermath of Hillsborough still stuck.
For every person who was informed about what really happened that day, there were two who still believed the vile lies that were reported afterwards. That drunken, ticketless Liverpool fans charged a gate causing a crush. That corpses were looted and desecrated. That the emergency services were urinated on and attacked as they were trying to help. Those were spurious lies that were presented as fact and too many people swallowed those lies whole.
The reaction in Liverpool to those lies was a furious denial. It wasn’t only the families of the victims who were enraged by those lies; it was every citizen of the city. It didn’t matter which team you supported, or even if you didn’t like football. It didn’t matter if you knew any of the victims or any of the families of the victims, or not. Everyone in the city felt that not only were the victims being besmirched, they were too, and they wouldn’t stand for it. They campaigned for the truth.
The efforts made by the various Hillsborough families groups were not exactly universally supported. Liverpool was christened ‘the self-pity city’, with the perception being that all scousers were whining conspiracy theorists. The current mayor of London, Boris Johnson, made comments (which he later apologised for) about Liverpool revelling in its victim status. The prevailing attitude was that the families and those who challenged the version of events given by the police and the politicians should move on. As recently as last year a high court judge told the families they should behave in a more dignified manner (i.e.shut the hell up).
The accusations of conspiracy theories have gone now. The truth has been laid bare for all to see. The question is, what happens now?
It was already known that Hillsborough was a totally preventable tragedy. None of the 96 who did die that day should have died. One of the big surprises in the HIP report was the heartbreaking revelation that as many as 41 of the victims could have been saved had a proper emergency/disaster plan been put into place by the police and properly implemented.
Anyone can make a mistake, but it is actions of the police in the aftermath which should bring the most severe punishments. At least 116 statements made by police officers in the aftermath of the disaster were doctored to remove any content that painted the police in a bad light or showed the organisation that day to be lacking. It seems clear that there was a conscious effort to subvert the truth of what happened and to lay the blame on the fans. South Yorkshire’s current Chief Constable (the chief of that police force) has referred the conduct of his predecessor and the force in general to the independent police complaints committee, an independent committee who scrutinise the actions of the police and can recommend further action.
More qualified minds than mine can speculate as to what action will be taken now by the authorities, what enquiries should be held and what, if any punishments should be handed down to those guilty of perpetrating and spreading a horrible lie, but my attention was turned to the conduct of the football authorities, which was frankly, disgraceful.
Amazingly, it took 24 hours for the FA to make any sort of statement following the release of the documents, and the one they eventually made was so woefully inadequate and insincere, taking no responsibility for their own actions and somehow not including the word ‘sorry’, a second one had to follow a few hours later where FA Chairman David Bernstein offered an unreserved apology for the FA’s part in the Hillsborough disaster.
Make no mistake; the FA has to take a lot of responsibility for what happened. Hillsborough was deemed unsuitable as a semi-final venue, following a near-disaster in 1981 where a crush developed amongst the Spurs fans in the same Leppings Lane end where 96 fans would die years later. Thankfully, the police reacted in time that day and were able to open gates that allowed the fans to escape, and disaster was averted.
Following that, Sheffield Wednesday, the club who plays at Hillsborough, were given a list of improvements they needed to make in order for the Leppings Lane End to be considered safe. They failed to carry them out due to the cost. Sheffield Council, who were responsible for inspecting Hillsborough failed to carry out a proper safety inspection.
Despite this, and despite Hillsborough still not having a valid safety certificate, Hillsborough was reinstated as a semi-final venue in 1987. There were problems in the 1988 semi, which featured Liverpool and Nottingham Forest, where fans complained about over-crowding and crushes. The HIP report published the correspondence of one fan who wrote to the FA (who ignored the letter) and the then minister for Sport about his experience in the 1988 semi-final.
“The whole area was packed solid to the point where it was impossible to move and where I, and others around me, felt considerable concern for personal safety," the supporter wrote. "As a result of the crush an umbrella I was holding in my hand was snapped in half against the crush barrier in front of me? My concern over safety was such – at times it was impossible to breathe – that at half-time? I managed to extricate myself from the terrace, having taken the view that my personal safety was more important than watching the second half”
Before the 1989 semi-final, Liverpool secretary Peter Robinson called the FA competition secretary asking that Liverpool be allocated a larger stand, due to their larger fanbase than Nottingham Forest. The then-FA Chief Executive, Graham Kelly, was informed of that request but did not relay it to the Chairman of the match and grounds committee, who were responsible for picking the venues. After Hillsborough was picked, Liverpool’s request for the larger Kop end was rejected by South Yorkshire police, who after what they considered to be a successful 1988 semi, saw no reason to change things around.
Graham Kelly, didn’t comment after the publication of the report or the decision to select Hillsborough as an FA Cup semi-final venue in 1989, except to say "I'm glad that it has been resolved in some way."
The FA knew, or at least had all the indicators, that there was the potential for major problems at Hillsborough and did nothing about it. They also failed to check whether or not Hillsborough had a valid safety certificate. Graham Kelly even helped spread the lies told by the police by repeating them on national radio. The inadequacy of the current FA’s response suggests that they are as willing now to bury their heads in the sand over Hillsborough as they were 23 years ago.
Former Culture Secretary Andy Burnham, the MP who was instrumental in the setting up of the Hillsborough Independent Panel, said “the FA needs to ask themselves some serious questions The main one is why did they allow a semi-final to be played at a ground without a valid safety certificate?
"I don't think there's an answer that people can accept because I think it was because of negligence of people's safety”
Margaret Aspinall, of the Hillsborough Families Support Group said “We welcome the apology but the one thing that makes me angry is that we have had to wait for this report to come out before we get all the apologies that should have been made a long time ago”
It’s unlikely that the FA will do anything until after a possible new enquiry has been conducted following the publication of this report. The FA do not want to admit any liability and have stressed that the Taylor report that was conducted in the aftermath of the Hillsborough disaster did not find the FA culpable for the lack of safety certificate, which was seen as a matter between Sheffield Wednesday and the local council, but it is unclear whether the FA’s failure to check was ever explored.