Hillsborough: Result of lazy 1980s prejudices

 

The families of the victims want fresh inquests and criminal charges

If Wednesday was about truth, today is about justice. The report of the Hillsborough Independent Panel opens up a new path down which the campaigners are set to march.

There is now a very real possibility of prosecutions of police officers or others found to have been involved in the systematic amendment of key statements to the original Taylor inquiry in 1989. A case could be made that this was an attempt to pervert the course of justice, trying to airbrush out the evidence of potentially criminal negligence.

It seems likely that the attorney general will apply for the original inquest into the tragedy to be quashed and a new one opened. Were that fresh hearing to come to a different conclusion to the accidental death verdict recorded at the time, that might also open the way to criminal prosecutions.

There have been suggestions that Sheffield Wednesday FC and the city's council might face allegations of corporate manslaughter, were it to be demonstrated that they were criminally negligent in failing to protect the fans that fateful Saturday.

Jack Straw: Thatcher's government created a "culture of impunity" in the police force at the time

The former Labour Home Secretary Jack Straw said on Thursday it was "a matter of great regret" that he did not do more during his time in office to investigate the claims of the Hillsborough campaigners, while arguing that it was the Conservative Thatcher government which had created a "culture of impunity" within the police.

Interestingly, a letter from Mr Straw among the 450,000 pages scrutinised by the independent panel suggests he was not immune to that culture. He wrote to the then Attorney General John Morris in early 1998, just as Lord Justice Stuart-Smith's report was due to recommend no new inquiry into Hillsborough. Below is an excerpt.

1998 letter from Jack Straw to John Morris

PDF download 1998 letter from Jack Straw to John Morris[53.7KB]

Referring to the amendment of statements by South Yorkshire Police, Mr Straw said: "There are bound to be questions, however, about whether anything in this process might amount to misconduct of a criminal or disciplinary nature. Lord Justice Stuart-Smith considers it would not. It would in theory be possible to instigate a further police investigation to confirm this conclusively, but I think the outcome would be a foregone conclusion, and I do not consider that such an investigation should be instigated."

The disaster and its despicable aftermath were the consequences of lazy 1980s prejudice: that football was the preserve of yobs and drunks (this was an era when managing football crowds saw public order put before public safety) and that Liverpool was the city of rebels and chancers, with a reputation for harbouring a grievance.

It was useful for the authorities that there was a grain of truth in these simplistic portraits, caricatures that could be exploited by those engaged in official calumny.

Mark Easton on the devastating verdict on the police and emergency services

Even 10 years on when New Labour was looking to challenge what they saw as the crusty old establishment, the home secretary dismissed Liverpool's desperate pleas for a judicial inquiry.

Today those frames of reference have completely altered. Football, for all its faults, has won its reputation as "the beautiful game" and Liverpool can proudly boast it is a city of European culture.

The Hillsborough disaster and the fight for justice is now a tale that will be woven into the folk history of our islands. But it is a narrative that will be adapted to fit two competing liturgies.

More on the Hillsborough papers

Names and ages of the victims on a memorial

For some, it represents a rare and famous victory in the epic struggle of the down-trodden working class against a corrupt and contemptuous elite. In parts of Liverpool and beyond, the dead of Hillsborough will be held up as martyrs to the cause of British socialism.

For others, the story is about the spirit of the individual against an arrogant state machine, the citizen who takes on the system. Through this prism, the 23-year long march for justice for the 96 will be held up as a victory for British liberal values.

There is always a tension between citizens with a grievance and an establishment safeguarding its authority. The question is, perhaps, whether official promises of openness, honesty and accountability from our public institutions are more credible today than they were back in 1989.

The families of Jean Charles de Menezes, Ian Tomlinson and Mark Duggan will have their own views. The hope must be that in 2012 our systems are better at ensuring that truth will out and the path to justice will be short.

Arrows show direction of crowd into stadium 1430-1440: Several thousand Liverpool supporters are gathered outside the ground at the Leppings Lane end. Decrepit turnstiles mean admission to the ground is slow.
Shows crowd surging through gate into pens 3 and 4 1450: Pens 3 and 4 on the stand's lower terrace are full. Their official combined capacity was 2,200, though it is later discovered this should have been reduced to 1,600 as crush barriers did not meet official standards.
Crowd surges through newly-opened exit gate 1452: Police order Gate C - a large exit gate - to be opened to alleviate the crush outside the ground. Around 2,000 supporters enter the ground and make for a tunnel leading directly to pens 3 and 4.
Crowd continues to fill pens 3 and 4 1459: The influx of fans caused severe crushing in pens 3 and 4. Fans being climbing over fences to escape. It is later estimated that more than 3,000 supporters were admitted to the central pens, almost double the "safe" capacity.
Fans trying to get out of pens 3 and 4 1500: Match kicks off. Five minutes later, a crush barrier inside pen 3 give way, causing people to fall over. Supporters climb perimeter fences or are dragged to safety by fans in the stand's upper tiers.
As before, crowd trying to get out of 3 and 4 1506: Match stopped by referee. Some 730 people are injured, 96 fatally. In the chaotic aftermath, supporters desperately try to resuscitate the injured.
 
Mark Easton Article written by Mark Easton Mark Easton Home editor

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