The word “Hillsborough” has become synonymous not only with one of the worst sporting disasters of all time but also with one of the most appalling cover-ups in British history.
The home of Sheffield Wednesday Football Club, Hillsborough Stadium was opened on 2 September 1899, when Wednesday moved from their original ground at Olive Grove. On 15 April 1989, it was used as a neutral venue for the ill-fated FA Cup semi-final encounter between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest.
Shortly before kick-off, the police became aware of congestion at the Leppings Lane turnstiles where Liverpool fans were admitted into their designated stand, a terrace divided into five pens and enclosed by high blue-painted steel fencing. With ten minutes to go before kick-off, the two central pens were full, but thousands of fans were still waiting to get in. Two minutes later, police ordered a large exit gate (Gate C) to be opened to alleviate the crush outside the ground. Around 2000 fans surged through and headed straight for a tunnel leading directly to the full pens. The inevitable crushing prompted fans to clamber over side fences into the three relatively less packed adjoining pens.
The match kicked off as scheduled at 3pm. Six minutes later, a policeman ran on to the pitch and ordered the referee to stop the game as the extent of the problem became clear. Some people were climbing the perimeter fencing onto the pitch. Others were being pulled up into the seated area of the West Stand above the terrace. In the chaos that ensued, it was clear that the authorities’ response to the incident was woefully inadequate. Supporters took it upon themselves to administer first aid to the injured. They wrenched off advertising hoardings to use as makeshift stretchers while ambulance crews and firefighters with cutting gear assembled outside the ground waiting for the “crowd trouble” to abate. 96 Liverpool fans died. Only 14 of them were ever admitted to hospital.
A smear campaign quickly focused on the behaviour of the fans themselves. Four days after the disaster, The Sun, a British tabloid newspaper owned by Rupert Murdoch, used “THE TRUTH” as its front page headline, followed by three sub-headlines: “Some fans picked pockets of victims”, “Some fans urinated on the brave cops” and “Some fans beat up PC giving kiss of life”.
An inquiry led by Lord Chief Justice Taylor established the main cause of the disaster as a failure of police crowd control. The key factor was deemed to be the failure to close off the tunnel leading to the central pens once Gate C had been opened. Taylor’s findings criticised police for their failure to properly handle the congestion outside the ground and their slow reaction to the unfolding events. Some of his strongest criticism was reserved for Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield for “failing to take effective control”, and South Yorkshire Police for attempting to blame supporters arriving at the ground “late and drunk”.
On 14 August 1990, the director of public prosecutions decided not to bring criminal charges against any individual, group or body on the grounds of insufficient evidence. In 1991, effectively contradicting the findings of the Taylor Report, inquests into the deaths of the victims returned a majority verdict of accidental death and ruled they were all dead by 3.15pm.
As years went by, the British Government, the police and the media continued to peddle a narrative that pinned the blame on football supporters rather than the authorities.
But the people of Liverpool were having none of it. Many families campaigned for justice and a fresh inquiry. In 2006, Anne Williams, the mother of 15-year-old victim Kevin Williams, took a case to the European Court of Human Rights challenging the verdict of the original inquest. She claimed her son was still alive at 4pm on the day of the disaster and did not die from traumatic asphyxia.
On 12 September 2012, an independent panel published thousands of previously unseen documents relating to the tragedy. The accompanying report delivered a devastating verdict on the police and the emergency services. It disclosed that evidence had been tampered with and that “strenuous attempts” had been made to deflect blame onto the fans. Alterations had been made to 164 police statements, 116 of them “to remove or alter comments unfavourable” to South Yorkshire Police. Sadly, the officers concerned had allowed narrow loyalties to prevail over their broader humanity and sense of propriety. The report also concluded that 41 of the victims could potentially have survived if they had been treated promptly.
Among the new documents released was a memo from a senior civil servant to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher informing her that the interim Taylor Report had found that the chief superintendent had “behaved in an indecisive fashion” and that senior officers had infuriated the judge by seeking to “duck all responsibility when giving evidence” to his inquiry. The memo warned her about the extent to which the inquiry blamed the police and referred to “deceitful, behaviour by the senior officers”. The memo suggested that the report would “sap confidence in the police force” and could encourage aggressive behaviour by fans who would feel “vindicated” by its conclusions. In a handwritten note, Mrs Thatcher made it clear she did not want to give the government’s full backing to Lord Taylor’s criticisms, only to the way in which he had conducted the inquiry. She wrote: “What do we mean by ‘welcoming the broad thrust of the report’? The broad thrust is devastating criticism of the police. Is that for us to welcome?”
In the context of the revelations exposed in the rest of the report, Thatcher’s comments are very revealing.