- The panel found evidence that South Yorkshire Police carried out a systematic cover-up to exonerate senior officers and took part in a smear operation to put the blame on fans for being drunk and violent – Independent
It is one of those events which precludes forgetting where I was at the time I heard the news: in a H Block cell on a Saturday afternoon having just settled down to listen to radio coverage of the FA Cup semi final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest. 25 years ago to this day 96 fans who made their way into Sheffield’s Hillsborough Stadium failed to make it back out. 766 others sustained injuries at the same venue: victims of a frenetically engineered crush for which many in officialdom sought to blame the victims in their need to crush the truth.
In 2012 ‘the Hillsborough Independent Panel said that 164 accounts from South Yorkshire police had been changed, apparently to shift the blame from the police on to fans.’ Since then ‘the Independent Police Complaints Commission said it had uncovered evidence that a further 55 officers had amended their statements.’
Rewriting history for sure. A pervasive feature of law enforcement it would seem is lie enforcement, as people with even scant knowledge of policing in the North of Ireland can readily testify. Whether it is soccer fans crushing themselves in football stadia or Irish republicans beating themselves up in RUC interrogations centres, the police lie is both generic and institutional. Cover up and smearing is a universal police trait, one reason the policing institutions should never be trusted despite society deeming their existence vital to the good order. The public good and the police good are concepts that often clash with each other. The need to scrutinise police behaviour and discourse is an intrinsic element of a democratic ethos.
Fans who survived the event of 25 years past have spoken of intimidation by police who threatened them with prosecution. They were branded criminals and left wing agitators by a force determined to avoid the truth.One neutral fan who attended the game because he had been given a free ticket spoke of his experience of trying to assist police inquiries.
I'd been wearing a Free Mandela T-shirt ... This prompted aggressive questions. "Was I a student agitator? Was I a member of the Socialist Workers Party? I'm just a fan at a game of football. He then turned on me and said I was a criminal with a grudge against the police.
Nor of course were the police alone in smearing Liverpool fans. Extremely dispiriting was finding that one of the harshest critics of Liverpool fans was Brian Clough, the manager of Nottingham Forest on the day of the disaster. A man who often poked officialdom in the eye, took down class snobbery, was frequently praised for his left wing perspective and disdained from on high for his working class earthiness, Clough seemed to have purged his soul of the any residual radicalism when on page 260 of his autobiography he fed into the narrative of officialdom with the comment:
I will always remain convinced that those Liverpool fans who died were killed by Liverpool people. This is my opinion, made not in the heat of the moment, or the immediate angry aftermath. But following all the publicity and the official inquiry. All those lives were lost needlessly ... if all the Liverpool supporters had turned up at the stadium in good time, in orderly manner and each with a ticket, there would have been no Hillsborough disaster.
Clough’s sentiments were those of someone who had clearly uprooted and relocated elsewhere in the social milieu. Many people boycotted his book but his response was ‘half of them can’t read and the other half are pinching hub caps.’ It looked as if Clough was trying to outshine Sun editor Kelvin MacKenzie whose paper had, amongst other slurs, labelled the fans as flashers, accused them of thieving from the dead, and exonerated the police whom the fans were blasted for supposedly attacking.
Even he later accused the police of lying:
Now I know – you know, we all know – that the fans were right ... but it took 23 years, two inquiries, one inquest and research into 400,000 documents, many of which were kept secret under the 30-year no-publication rule, to discover there was a vast cover-up by South Yorkshire Police about the disaster.
For those interested, a great book that tackles the issues associated with the disaster is Hillsborough The Truth by Phil Scraton. On its back cover a reviewer for The Independent is quoted: ‘I read this book in a fog of anger ... a scarcely believable story of incompetence and mendacity.’ People familiar with Professor Scraton’s work on prison related issues in the North will recognise immediately a rare bird in academia, someone who is not a push over professor ever eager to acquiesce in the power of the state. First published in 1999 Hillsborough The Truth is a searing indictment of the scurrilous institutions of the powerful to whom truth was very much a liability. Since then a Panorama feature, Hillsborough: How They Buried The Truth, has added to police discomfort.
Yet long before both it and the Hillsborough Independent Panel, which ultimately damned the police, Scraton had uncovered the cover-up. Indeed he was ‘the force behind the 398-page report’ which the panel unanimously delivered.
From August 1990 when 'the DPP decided not to bring criminal prosecutions against the police or any officials at Hillsborough’ it was clear the battle would be long and hard. But as the journalist and lifelong Liverpool supporter Brian Reade would write ‘Hillsborough mothers refused to let their lost children down.’ The police driven criminal conspiracy to deny justice was upended: crooked cops stopped in their crooked tracks.
Like the Mothers of the Disappeared who relentlessly deconstructed to the point of destruction the narrative of the Argentine military regime, the mothers of Liverpool persevered in search of a missing truth, buried by the police. Today they should be honoured as their children are remembered.