I first came across the name Phil Scraton while studying with the Open University as a republican prisoner in the H Blocks of Long Kesh. He was part of the team on D102, a social science course. It was distance teaching so I never got to meet him. I had no idea or reason to know that we had a shared passion: Liverpool FC.
He has been a Liverpool FC fan for 60 years, a frequent presence at games until the 1980s by which time he had:
grown weary of the often-appalling treatment meted out to committed fans whose hard earned money supported their clubs … disillusioned with being aggressively herded and policed.
He did not attend the ill-fated 1989 FA Cup semi-final at Sheffield’s Wednesday’s ground where 96 Liverpool fans from across England were crushed to death. He took up the cause of those who were, and vented his sense of outrage against the type of injustice described by the novelist and slave abolitionist Lydia Maria Francis Child: “we first crush people to the earth, and then claim the right of trampling on them forever, because they are prostrate.”
From shortly after the disaster, appalled by the way the fans had been treated in public discourse - maligned, smeared, lied about, denigrated - Scraton committed “to research and tell the story of Hillsborough with thoroughness, rigour and authority.” He succeeded and, with his work done, in December 2016 he refused an OBE, simply stating:
I could not receive an honour on the recommendation of those who remained unresponsive to the determined efforts of bereaved families and survivors to secure truth and justice.
The crime of unlawful killing was inflicted on one single day in April 1989: the crime of cover up and institutional lying continued for decades before being knocked off its lofty perch by a long process that culminated in the 2016 inquests. Phil Scraton was central to that, having “researched Hillsborough from 1989, publishing reports, articles and the first edition of Hillsborough The Truth in 1990.”
Crucially he served on the ground-breaking Hillsborough Independent Panel and ultimately “did more than anyone to expose the institutional deceit that hid the truth of why 96 Liverpool fans died at Hillsborough.”
Hillsborough The Truth, in its fourth and final edition, takes the reader to the point where the second inquest concludes in 2016, and the verdict of unlawful killing delivered. South Yorkshire Police were indicted, and the fans exonerated.
The book is an unrelenting blitzkrieg on the well-fortified ramparts of institutional lying and systemic resistance to truth recovery. Step by step the author advances into the citadel of power and bit by bit rescues truth from its midst. Then brick by brick he builds an edifice that towers over all before it, diminishing and overshadowing completely the phalanx of batons that so steadily sought to beat down the truth behind the crush at Hillsborough.
As Andy Burnham, MP, would put it:
The full truth about Hillsborough would never have been known were it not for Phil Scraton's meticulous efforts over many years - he has done a huge service not just to the Hillsborough families but to this country.
Over the course of my 61 years I have read thousands of books. Lengthy imprisonment tends to lend itself to voracious reading. To have gone so far before finding the best book I have ever read might in other circumstances be described as joyous. Every word absorbed, allowing for no meandering where the text is read but fails to make it beyond the cornea, and then have to be revisited in order to maintain the thread. There is no joy in this book. The satisfaction derived from the restorative accomplishment whereby the reputation of the tarnished Liverpool fans is rebuilt from the rubble of police, media and government lies, is not pleasurable. If pleasure can be compared to sustenance, there is not one calorie or nutrient to be drawn from this book. It is abundantly rich in many things, a literary tour de force, but justifiably impoverished in the delectation it serves up. It surpasses everything that has gone before because of its power to convey raw, ragged, painful truth. Engaging, absorbing, it draws the reader into a dark place where there is no redemption from a terrible knowledge about power and its willingness to crush human dignity.
There is only one light moment, if I dare to call it that. It is in the words of a father of a 14-year-old boy crushed to death in his arms as he tried desperately to save him, calling to a police officer yards away to open a gate so that his child might again breathe and be saved. The cop ignored him.
Eddie Spearritt slipped into unconsciousness. When he came to, he was in hospital, his son Adam dead, and placed in the makeshift mortuary – the gymnasium at Sheffield Wednesday’s ground. Nobody accounts for Eddie Spearritt getting to hospital. It has never been explained. His survival would become crucial to unearthing the truth that the coroner in the first, and subsequently quashed, inquest, Dr Stefan Popper had suppressed. Too close to the police for either comfort or objectivity, Popper ruled that everybody had died by 3:15. This was demonstrably wrong. Many had survived the immediate crush and medical evidence would later show that 41 might have been saved but for inadequate and tardy medical intervention. The myth of 3:15.
Eddie Spearritt, now dead, was fortunate, in a sense. In a dry comment he said he "could have crawled, unconscious, to the hospital. That would've taken about two hours:" the gap no one else has accounted for. Had he not regained consciousness in the hospital, instead slipping away to join his son sometime after 5 o'clock, the coroner would then have ruled he had died two hours earlier, so that the institutional lie could be protected.
It would take a book the size of Hillsborough The Truth to properly review it. There is so much to say. The reader will get little from this review other than an impressionistic account of the most powerful book I have ever had the sorrow to read.
Disaster at big sporting events were not a new phenomenon. There had been enough learned over the years but ignored in terms of implementing preventative measures. After Spurs fans had narrowly escaped with their lives in 1981 in the Leppings Lane end of the Wednesday ground, Hillsborough no longer qualified as a FA Cup semi-final venue. Restored in 1988, the then match commander was suspended from duty three weeks before the 1989 semi.
This is the backdrop to a narrative which takes the reader from the build up to the game, the dangerous congestion outside Leppings Lane occasioned by the dearth of turnstiles, the crush, and the immediate aftermath where the cover up was being crafted while the dead were still warm. It traces the failures of Sheffield Wednesday and its safety consultants who paid scant if any attention to the fact that the ground’s safety certificate was out of date, the "inefficient and dilatory" - terms employed by Justice Taylor - attitude of Sheffield City Council’s to the certificate. It carries on to South Yorkshire Ambulance Service’s dire response, the grossly insensitive police treatment of the bereaved in the makeshift mortuary, the lies of the Sun and South Yorkshire Police, the amending of police statements to shift the blame from cops to fans, the despicable decision of the coroner at the behest of the police to test all the victims including children for alcohol, the Taylor Inquiry that blamed the police but left so much unsaid, the Popper inquest which did to Liverpool what Widgery did to Derry, the Scrutiny by the Jack Straw appointed Justice Stuart-Smith, the failed private prosecution of two senior police officers, the perennial disappointment of relatives endlessly denied justice, many dying short of the goal. At times the narrative is painstakingly told though the voices of the bereaved. It was not ticketless, late or drunk fans who caused this disaster. The police did, and have lied about it ever since.
The match commander gave the order to open the exit gate, having earlier failed to filter the fans safely on the approach. Crucially, he negligently overlooked the dire necessity of blocking off the tunnel leading into the middle pen with a police line. A human tsunami, totally unaware that anything was wrong, surged into the pen from which there was no escape, only up for those lucky enough to be hauled into the stands by fellow fans. On the very same day the match commander blamed the fans, accusing them of forcing the very gate he had ordered to be opened. The lasting smear had begun.
Revenge is said to be a dish best served cold. This book shows how the concept could be applied. Scraton did not resort to it. His clinical approach was cold not vengeful. Although Scraton depicts match commander David Duckenfield as the bête noire of Hillsborough, "in public discourse, despised in print and song", he never actually takes advantage of the deflated hubris to target the disgraced police commander even further. It is destruction without degradation, the false narrative blasted, the real man not belittled gratuitously. His treatment of Duckenfield is dispassionate but fair. Duckenfield, whose response to people dying was to send in the dogs, emerges from the book as a match commander rookie out of his depth, undertrained, arrogant, limited, mendacious, but not as a hate figure. The forensic focus is on the institutional.
Phil Scraton, when in search of the truth about 96 people who entered a football stadium with no possible comprehension that they were stepping into a death chamber, was threatened in the most chilling manner by an anonymous caller, and menaced by Norman Bettison, now a former police chief with more to answer than he ever will. Resisting the Sinclair Lewis observed practice whereby “every compulsion is put upon writers to become safe, polite, obedient, and sterile”, Scraton remained undaunted. Hillsborough The Truth is the result of his fortitude, a courage that was matched by his readiness to confront the emotional volcano that he would have to descend into in order to complete an odyssey from which society would benefit immeasurably.
I have often taken my son to big football matches and held onto him tightly as I guided him out of the ground in the midst of milling fans, Hillsborough always in my mind. Everything can turn on a second. When he stumbled outside the Aviva but far enough removed not to be trampled on by an unsuspecting throng converging on him, two female American fans had him on his feet in seconds. At Hillsborough the fans were so pinned in they could not move their arms to help the person dying next to them. Now thirteen, a year younger than Adam Spearritt, Philip Hammond, Paul Brian Murray, Lee Nicol or Tommy Howard when their lives were crushed, I took him aside recently and spoke to him. It was April, the thirtieth anniversary of the crush, and his interest was stirred. I told him that every time he goes to a match, or in later years brings his own children to a venue where they are not penned in like caged animals, where their safety is increased immeasurably, he should remember a man called Phil Scraton for his very real part in making that possible.
A day or two later he asked me the name of the man again. I had got through.
Phil Scraton, 2016, Hillsborough The Truth. Mainstream Publishing. ISBN-13: 978-1910948019