So I finally plucked up the courage to watch the BBC documentary about Hillsborough. It wasn’t a matter of being unprepared for what to expect; quite the contrary. I’ve read a lot of accounts of the day, the details unearthed by the Hillsborough Independent Panel and the outstanding investigative work of the likes of Phil Scraton and David Conn. The details of what happened remain harrowing beyond words; the descriptions of people crushed to death whilst watching a football match. They remain horrifying beyond the power of words to describe. The first hour of the documentary concentrates implacably on this; the confluence of circumstances which led to the deaths of 96 people. At each step in the process you can see where things happening slightly differently would have meant the terror of the day wouldn’t have happened at all; that it wasn’t inevitable. It’s a horror only real life could produce; miles ahead of the effect any filmmaker might achieve. Because it actually happened. Because a long chain of institutional incompetence and indifference led to the point where people died.
It takes as its starting point a police prank; a prank on a junior for which the officer normally in charge of big matches in Sheffield carries the can and is exiled from Sheffield to Barnsley. Instead, for a big match an inexperienced officer who has no experience of policing big matches is brought in – disastrously, as officers on duty that day recount, he’s overconfident of his own abilities. The ground itself doesn’t carry a safety certificate; it had expired three years before the game and never been renewed. Spurs fans at the 1981 semi-final had experienced a similar crush but no notice was taken; nothing happened so things could carry on. That’s one area the documentary soft pedals; the Football Association’s responsibility. It selected the ground and gave Liverpool, the club with the larger number of fans, the end with the poorest access. It didn’t even bother to check the existence of non-existence of the safety certificate (as apparently no-one in the organisation understood the concept). Liverpool’s chief executive Peter Robinson made protests against the choice of ground but, as four years earlier at Heysel, his concerns were ignored by authorities. If anything the conditions in the ground had been made worse for fans; the Leppings Lane terrace was not divided into three pens. That the word ‘pens’ is used tells you all you need to know about how football fans were regarded; as basically subhuman cattle, fit only to be fenced in. It’s a mercy that the suggestion of Chelsea’s reactionary chairman Ken Bates, that the fences separating fans from pitch should be electrified, was never taken up – what the casualties might have been if that had been the case is too horrifying to contemplate.
The thing that should be stressed at this point is a point made by the journalist Tony Evans (who was in the stands that day). That this was essentially a normal matchday; fans may have had one or two drinks before the game but there had been no serious traffic delays, nothing to cause a late rush of fans to arrive at the stadium. Yet thanks to the inadequate infrastructure of the ground a crush was beginning to develop outside the ground; an officer on the scene advised of the crush in no uncertain terms and that action needed to be taken. Sadly, with the inexperience of the officer in charge the most disastrous action that could be made was taken and a gate to the central pen of the Leppings Lane terrace was opened. At this point it should be stressed that the terraces were divided into three pens and the ones at either end were relatively underpopulated. Under pressure an inexperienced officer made a very human mistake. And because of that mistake a crush developed on the centre pen of the terrace as fans rushed to get out of the crush outside the ground to try and catch a match which had already started.
I remember playing football on the street that day, running in at three o’clock so we could be updated on the first half and hear the second half in full (the radio rights only covered second half commentary of most games in those days). Instead we heard the game had been stopped after six minutes and Peter Jones, one of the great radio sports commentators, became a disaster reporter for the afternoon. It was horribly unclear at first; fans apparently spilling onto the pitch but as the afternoon continued the horror slowly unfolded. Pictures of the day now show that central pen; a seething mass of humanity full beyond bursting and with people still trying to enter behind. It’s fairly calm and normal surrounding it; in the stand above and in the pens to either side. But the middle seethes like a bee hive that’s been attacked, a mass of humanity that looks impossibly tightly packed. John Motson even remarks on it in off-air comments; there’s no unruly mob rush, just a slow build of pressure. And what happened then remains impossibly horrific as Peter Beardsley hits the bar, the crowd naturally surges… people are packed so tight they can’t breather. Police officers recount how they can’t untangle the masses of limbs when they have to deal with the dead. All this time the initial mistake of opening the gate towards the central pen is compounded by inaction, by a lack of direction to open the gates that would allow exit. By total misunderstanding of what’s happening meaning that much of the police were directed to wait on the halfway line to stop a potential charge from the Forest fans. Some police help but it’s the other fans who help; the ones sitting above dragging people out, passing others over the fences, improvising stretchers… the human desire is to help. And the police at that end, when they realise what’s happening, also help desperately, attempting to save lives and get people out. Common humanity prevails, even if the official response remains inadequate with ambulances unable to reach the ground. It’s then a tale of coping with chaos and of relatives trying to discover what’s happened to loved ones. The documentary managed to clearly portray the chaos and horror of the day.
The conjuror’s trick lies in getting you to look where he wants. You know ‘look into my eyes; don’t look around the eyes…’ Their art, fundamentally, is misdirection and getting you to mistrust your own sensory evidence. It’s also the art of the PR man and advertiser, to get you to believe what they want you to, whatever you can see. The Hillsborough cover-up beings excusably; with the officer in charge on the day wanting to cover his own backside. It’s not pleasant, but it’s a human reaction. The fatal opening of the gate became an issue where it was forced by fans, not by police order. In a sane world this lie would soon have been uncovered and exposed by any remotely competent investigation. Instead it became a point to begin an institutional cover-up that wasn’t fully exposed for nearly three decades, blame dodging by the organisations which failed in any conception of a duty of care to the fans; the South Yorkshire Police, Sheffield Wednesday FC and the FA. The police, with the connivance of the local MP, began by blaming ‘tanked-up yobs’ for arriving late and causing the congestion which led to the crush. They compounded this with details of bodies being robbed and the police being assaulted and urinated on when they were bravely attempting to help. Liverpool fans, like any other set, are no angels, as is acknowledged, but viewing any footage of the day provides no evidence of such behaviour whatsoever. Quite the opposite; tragedy begat natural nobility rather than venal or aggressive instincts. It was fed via the local press association to national papers and widely reported. Most had the sense to frame them as unproven accusations; the editor of The Sun infamously declared them ‘The Truth’. As facts. That’s why the line from anyone asking why The Sun bore the brunt of Merseyside fury when everyone else reported the accusations is worthless; because only The Sun reported them as facts, a decision purely down to the editor. Again, Tony Evans points out that the first question a journalist should ask when considering whether these were truthful accusations is whether you’d do such a thing yourself; it’s almost impossible to imagine that any sane person would. It speaks volumes of the government of the day and the type of figure within it that one of them declared it to be the fault of tanked-up yobs; an accusation he’s never seen fit to retract despite it being challenged officially several times and always found groundless.
It was Lord Justice Taylor’s inquiry that first found it baseless. A subsequent coroner’s enquiry found the whole affair to be an accident; but this was another part of the cover-up with the coroner unscientifically declaring a cut off of 3.15 when considering time of death and causes of death. It was another aspect of establishment cover-up; a backroom deal that the South Yorkshire press officer tried to declare the end of the matter. An accident, of course, would mean that it was something that couldn’t ever have been foreseen or prevented without great foresight. Again, this was a great evasion of blame on the police’s part, but one apparently backed up by evidence from officers on the day. The reality was quite different. When Phil Scraton gained access to the statements from officers he found they’d been significantly altered to remove any criticism of police conduct on the day. One officer in the documentary recounted that the police officers of the time carried a little blue book; something sacred in which you recorded what had happened on the day, however minute. And yet… when they were being debriefed afterward they were told not to worry about this (creditably, one experienced officer when told this said to his colleagues to ignore that and record everything down to when they’d last used the toilet). This wasn’t unprecedented; the government was well aware that it needed the police support to survive pushing through unpopular actions and policies and as such had ensured the police became well-paid and backed-up in any investigations. South Yorkshire Police had form; after the notorious incident at Orgreave during the miner’s strike of the mid-1980s the government had backed them up and fed stories of rioting miners rather than investigating stories of police brutality. All this, naturally, led to a total lack of accountability which should be vital to any law-keeping institution. But there was no accountability. The deaths were declared an accident, the reputation of Liverpool fans were tarnished; the vile element of opposition fans provoking them with chants of ‘always the victims, it’s never your fault’ when Hillsborough was piled on top of the earlier Heysel tragedy (and in the interests of balance, certain elements of Liverpool fandom weren’t shy of replying with equally distasteful chants relating to deaths for other clubs). That it was all so easily believed; that the late 1990s would see it declared as useless to reopen a file on the case with no new evidence compounded a sense that the establishment had closed ranks and shifted the blame to what they seemed to view as a subhuman mass of fans.
Subhuman isn’t too strong a word there; English clubs were banned from European football for hooliganism; many city centres were damaged by fights between fans in the 1980s. The Prime Minister didn’t understand competitive sport or spectators; therefore she was all too ready to believe the worst of their behaviour (as were many members of her Cabinet). I’ve mentioned the Chelsea chairman’s proposal for electrified fences; measures taken only in terms of extreme security or fencing in cattle. Equally when questioned on the matter the FA admitted that no-one truly understood ground safety; no-one had even undertaken basic checks on the ground before it had a semi-final allocated. No-one listened to Peter Robinson’s warnings based on the semi-final of the previous year and the Spurs-Wolves game of earlier in the decade. No-one at Sheffield Wednesday cared enough about fans to ensure their ground was safe; if there was one positive thing to come out of that day it was the Taylor reports recommendations on improving ground safety. All this has one thing at the heart of it; a snobbish lack of concern for those with less money or whose pleasures are considered less highbrow. Hillsborough wasn’t inevitable; not until extremely close to the tragedy happening. But with those prevailing attitudes something like it was inevitable. Tony Evans point that it wasn’t a particularly exceptional day, that very little happened to cause the tragedy that didn’t normally happen on any matchday, is the key point. With those attitudes it was inevitable that something like Hillsborough would happen sooner or later. It may not have happened at Hillsborough; it may not have been Liverpool fans but sooner or later the total lack of concern for fans, for paying customers, meant that there would be crushes and that sooner or later mistakes would be made that meant people would be seriously injured or die. It was really a matter of time before some kind of tragedy occurred.
This, of course, is not thinking that would permeate establishment minds. As with most humans we’re locked in our own worldviews and don’t question them, instead fitting facts and events to them rather than letting inconvenient facts amend our perceptions. If the insistence of a terrible accident was made for long enough all this would eventually subside. And it nearly did; a private prosecution against the officer in charge of the day failed as it provided only a hung jury; funds raised by organisations supporting the families of the bereaved in the quest to find out what had happened to their loved ones seemed wasted on that failed case. But at a memorial service at Liverpool’s home ground of Anfield Cabinet Minister Andy Burnham was confronted with a wall of anger as he spoke and expressed official sympathy; creditably he took that on board and insisted on the case being reopened. Eventually that led to a two year long case which ended up utterly exonerating the fans and finding that official institutions had failed them dismally. Every death at Hillsborough was ruled an unlawful killing. The police and Sheffield Wednesday were at fault. The FA, which had issued a non-specific apology a few years earlier, kept very quiet. Sheffield Wednesday had failed in their neglect of their ground. It took more than twenty-seven years for the dead to be exonerated and for actual facts to be established; facts the police had even tried to deny in the courtroom. The Kop singing You’ll Never Walk Alone at a match is a grand and joyous thing but it was as nothing compared to the joy of the families being able to sing it on the steps of a nondescript modern courtroom after the verdicts were announced. Because the details that haunt you aren’t just the descriptions of the carnage on the Leppings Lane terraces; nor the police officer (and ex-paratrooper) involved in rescue efforts on the day suffering a nervous breakdown whilst on duty in his car. It’s the hair; grey, white or gone. It’s the lines time has etched onto their faces; grief and struggle against institutions which let them down. It’s the steel in the eyes; that anger and grief has been forced to fester there whilst the names of their family were dragged through the mud. That it took twenty-seven years to undo a lie originally spread in minutes. That justice took so long to serve some of those who got away with it lived out comfortable lives and died with their sins unaccounted. Twenty-seven years; not far short of ten thousand days. After watching the testimonies of the officers and fans you suddenly realise the importance of proper accountability and that there was no accountability whatsoever should make anyone deeply afraid. Because if there is no accountability in a situation so obvious, where evidence was clear… when can you trust any institution? How many people in power are actually fitted to it? When can you ever trust an institution again? The financial crash and subsequent actions of financial institutions certainly suggest the answer remains: ‘you can’t’. Hillsborough didn’t only cost 96 lives, it cost decades of other people’s lives (and contributed to many early deaths of those involved in the search for justice). And in the long term it cost a community their faith in society. It’s never a bad thing to learn to question how power is wielded but in the long run that lasting distrust is the establishment’s price for the short term saving of a few reputations.
So yes, I’ve had my heart broken and been rendered furious once more by it. It’s an astonishingly powerful film; almost as powerful as Jimmy McGovern’s 1996 dramatisation of events. If you’re remotely squeamish of strong emotions or descriptions then it may be unbearable but for those with a strong enough constitution it’s vital. Not just if you’re a football fan, or remember the game, but as an expose of a tragedy and how easy it was for the responsibility to be pinned on the innocent. Ultimately it tells you that in times of crisis you should put your faith in the quality of fellow human beings rather than in any uniform they wear or any power they hold. And that if you fight long enough and hard enough, eventually any lie can be undone. There’s no triumph in the verdicts; it’s simply the treatment of a festering wound that can finally be allowed to begin to heal. The tricks of the magicians have been explained and exposed; the charlatans are undone and all that’s left is the accounting. Maybe, just maybe, the institutions of society can be made to work as they should eventually. And 96 victims can rest in peace.