Why the Hillsborough Inquest Matters

At the moment in England, there are a lot of events marking the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare. And it is a phrase from The Merchant Of Venice which best describes the mood of the families of those affected and the people of Liverpool on Tuesday; Bated Breath.

For that was when the jury of the inquest into the Hillsborough disaster, where 96 fans dies at the 1989 FA Cup semi-final in Sheffield, was due to give their verdict after hearing evidence for the past two years. The families and their supporters hoped that this verdict would mean that their 27-year fight for justice would be over.

The inquest’s verdicts could not have been clearer. It was the catastrophic failings from the authorities that caused the deaths of those 96 supporters. It was not the behaviour of the supporters themselves.

Most importantly for the families, what followed was the verdict that they had waited 27 years to hear. Their loved ones didn’t die as the result of an accident, the verdict of the original inquest; they had been unlawfully killed.

While there were inevitably some morons who used this verdict to come out with some anti-Liverpool ‘banter’, for the most part, the reaction to these verdicts was positive. The families will hopefully now be able to start on the path towards healing. Some said they are prepared to accept death certificates for their family members for the first time, as this is the first time they are prepared to accept the cause and time of death.

However, there are bound to be people out there who were confused about the purpose of this inquest. They would correctly say that most of the important facts around what happened of Hillsborough were established a long time ago.

Many of the unsafe practices of the time have been changed. Many of the lessons that could be learned have been learned. So why is this still important?   

That’s what I’ll try to explain now.

There are times in life when we have to put our trust in strangers to look after our safety. One of those times is when we attend a major sporting event. We trust that the venue of that event is safe. We trust that that event will have competent security, and a proper emergency plan, should the worst happen.

For those of us fortunate enough to live in a country with a government answerable to its people, we trust that should something go wrong at that event, there would be some kind of investigation into what happened and some accountability established.

For those of us lucky enough to live in such a country, we would expect that a free press would accurately inform the populace of what happened and in turn ask questions of the government.

The opposite of this is what happened to the families of those that died at Hillsborough. They were totally failed by the institutions that should have protected and then supported them. In fact, those institutions actively worked against them. That cannot be allowed to stand.

Those fans were sent into an unsafe stadium, which should never have been selected in the first place as not only had there a few near misses of incidents of this type before, but Hillsborough hadn’t had a valid safety certificate for 10 years.   

They were sent to a stadium was in such condition that many turnstiles were broken, meaning that 24,200 Liverpool fans had to enter the stadium through only 23 turnstiles, meaning there were masses of fans in a small area outside the stadium. 

They were sent to an event which was overseen by a police Chief Superintendent, David Duckenfield, who had no experience of overseeing events of this magnitude, and failed to recognise the problem outside the turnstiles and did not delay the kick-off of the game.

They were sent to an event overseen by a man who eventually admitted not having studied the major incident procedure of his police force. A man who didn’t know there was a procedure for funnelling fans away from the central pens into the outer, less crowded ones. A man who took the fateful decision to open the gate and let the fans in, without having given any thought about where those fans would go once he did. 30 people who were outside that gate when it was opened would be dead a few minutes later.

In some ways, the worst was yet to come. The victims, which doesn’t only mean those that died but the thousands of others who were there and suffered with PTSD and survivor’s guilt afterwards; and their families were utterly failed by the institutions they were supposed to have put their trust in.

As the disaster was unfolding in front of him, Duckenfield, in a panic, told FA General Secretary Graham Kelly that Liverpool fans had forced open the gate, a lie which he repeated to people in the boardroom at Hillsborough.

Within minutes, that outrageous lie had made it into the public consciousness as it was broadcast on TV, followed by radio broadcasts later on. That lie quickly spread around the world.

Despite other senior officers knowing the truth of what happened within minutes, the tactic of South Yorkshire Police (the police force in Sheffield) decided to shift the blame onto the fans. 116 Officer’s statements were changed to ensure that the narrative of drunken fans being to blame was followed.

The police lies grew and grew, and once Inspector, Gordon Sykes, fed them to the local MP, Irvine Patrick, who in turn fed it to the then-Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. A few days later Patrick told a local news agency what he’d heard and they gave those stories to The Sun, the UK’s most read daily newspaper, which at the time had a readership of close to 4m a day.

A few days later, the grieving, shocked families were confronted with a headline ‘The Truth’, which was anything but. Those families were told 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 lies were presented as fact and too many people swallowed those lies whole.

The reaction in Liverpool to those lies was fury. 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 saw that as an attack on themselves and people just like them, and they wouldn’t stand for it. They campaigned for the truth.

But at every turn they were denied. The lie became so ingrained that the truth was itself seen as a lie. 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 stuck. 

This quote about the city of Liverpool's “failure to acknowledge, even to this day, the part played in this disaster by drunken fans at the back of the crowd who mindlessly tried to fight their way into the ground that Saturday afternoon. The police became a convenient scapegoat and The Sun newspaper a whipping boy for daring...to hint at the wider causes of the incident” could have been understandable had it been given in the aftermath of Hillsborough. However it was given 15 years later, a long time after the truth was known, by Boris Johnson, the current Mayor of London and probably the next UK Prime Minister.

Successive governments, from different sides of the political spectrum completely let the families down with inadequate investigations which assumed there was nothing more to investigate before they had even began. Some of those families were put under police surveillance. In 2011 a senior judge told the families that they should behave in a more dignified manner i.e. shut the hell up.  Letters like this one from the then-Press Secretary Sir Bernard Ingham were common

Finally, in 2012, a proper investigation into Hillsborough took place where an independent panel had access to previously unreleased documents. The result of that was the real truth was finally accepted, and the previous inquest was thrown out and a new one ordered.

When that inquest opened in 2014, It became apparent that, despite the apologies from the Chief Constable of South Yorkshire Police previously, the tactic from South Yorkshire Police hadn’t changed in all these years and that they were still standing behind the long-since discredited slurs and blamed fans actions for what happened that day.

This tactic has been criticised by politicians such as the Home Secretary Teresa May and Shadow Home Secretary Andy Burnham, who accused South Yorkshire Police of putting the families through hell and wasting millions of pounds of taxpayer’s money by recycling discredited lies throughout the inquest.

During the inquest, Gordon Sykes admitted to making up the allegations about Liverpool fans behaviour after the crush had happened. Duckenfield admitted to having panicked and invented the lie that Liverpool fans had forced open the gate which led to the crush, a lie he had stuck to for 26 years. A lie which caused unimaginable pain to the families of the victims, on top of the pain they were already in. A lie which, despite the person who told it having admitted making the whole thing up, Bernard Ingham still believes in.

Accountability has to follow. A massive cover up has been uncovered. Collusion between the police, the government and the media to perpetuate a lie for 27 years cannot go unchecked. There is an investigation into the conduct of the police which is going on at present and is due to wrap up later this year. Criminal charges may follow.

What Hillsborough has shown us all is that it is possible to be completely let down by the institutions that are supposed to support us. It has also taught us that we should never stop asking questions of our governments and media to never assume any answers we receive are always going to be truthful.

It also teaches us that it is possible for people to make a difference, even when faced with seemingly insurmountable situations. No matter how many times you are told to shut up, how many times you are called a fantasist or how many times someone will try to fob you off, if you keep fighting and asking the right questions, eventually you will get the true answer. Because to quote Shakespeare, truth will out.