Last week over 450,00 pages of official documents relating to the Hillsborough disaster in 1989 were released into the public domain, most of them for the first time. Some of the documents are illuminating, some of them are harrowing. If you have an interest in stadia, crowds or 1980’s politics and society, I would strongly reccomend having a read of some of the documents available here.
96 men, women and children were killed in crushing at the Leppings Lane End on 15 April 1989, at the FA Cup Semi-Final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest. The Taylor Report immediately after the disaster largely absolved the authorities, principally the South Yorkshire Police, of any serious culpability, and senior police officers on the day have escaped responsibility in the decades since. Crucially, in 1989 Taylor did not have the wealth of material that we have available to us now.
There are hundreds of witness statements, from survivors, police officers, medics, Kenny Dalglish, Forest supporters, local Sheffield residents and many expert witnesses. There are official letters, reports and other documents covering organisations such as 10 Downing Street, the BBC, the Crown Prosecution Service, the FA, Home Office, Liverpool Echo, Liverpool City Council, Liverpool Football Club, Nottingham Forest Football Club, Sheffield Hospitals, South Yorkshire Police, Sheffield Wednesday Football Club and UEFA.
However, resolute campaigning on Merseyside led to the release of official documents before the 30 year rule, and the outcome has been significant. For years there had almost been an un-written, un-spoken assumption that Hillsborough was caused by hooliganism and crowd disorder, and the Liverpool fans in particular came in for much criticism, unfair as it turned out. Of course many fans who go to football matches drink alcohol, but having a couple of pints doesn’t mean that you are incapable. And it’s always been a common problem that fans wait until the last minute to enter the stadium, but that was well known and should have been adequately planned for and managed.
Whilst the South Yorkshire Constabulary have come in for particular criticism for their approach and crowd management, one wonders how much of this goes back to something that will be harder to trace – the attitude of the Thatcher Government to working class disorder, and football supporters in particular, and the pressure that was exerted on police forces post Heysel. This surely shaped how local police forces handled football matches, and how grounds were constructed. True to form Thatcher was no fan of a working class sport such as football, and it showed. After the dramatic summer of 1985 – which after riots at Luton-Millwall, Birmingham-Leeds and at Heysel, not to mention the Bradford fire, the Prime Minister is well known to have vowed to ‘sort out’ football. Post Heysel she even lobbied UEFA to ban English teams from European competitions. Was the prologue – and the epilogue – to Hillsborough a part of this campaign?
Viewed against the wider background of the 1980’s, the Hillsborough disaster and its aftermath can be placed very firmly in the context of class tensions at the time. There was significant civil unrest throughout the period, including riots on Merseyside that would have politicised many a young working class Liverpudlian, and also and the miners strike which encompassed much of Yorkshire and involved much of South Yorkshire Police in resisting what was working class movement. It is hardly surprising that a police force that had been involved in what was essentially counter-insurgency on behalf of the government viewed football fans as a de-humanised rabble. Through all stages of the planning for the day, the dealing with the disaster and in the immediate aftermath, the Police emphasised again and again hooliganism, even when it was clear afterwards that hooliganism had not played a part. That the blood alcohol levels of those who were killed were thought relevant is telling indeed – they would have died whether that had drunk ten pints or a couple of cokes.
Witness statements suggest that most of the rank and file emergency service personnel on duty at Hillsborough performed admirably, given the nature of their training, briefing and leadership, which gave scant priority to safety and huge emphasis on hooliganism. Many police officers suffered serious psychological problems after their frantic work pulling bodies out of the crush and attempting to resucitate victims. By contrast, many of the senior commanders were paralysed, and not effectively in command and unable to make informed decisions. The match commander had minimal experience of policing football crowds. The Police Control Room was closely overlooking the Leppings Lane End, but even after the match was stopped it was still thought that a pitch invasion was underway. Consequently many police officers were deployed forming a cordon on the pitch, when they could have been assisting in the rescue.
What is even more inexcusable is that having caused the disaster by their ineptitude, senior officers in South Yorkshire Police then presided over what was a formally organised cover-up, consisting of altering large parts of police officers statements of their recollections of the day. Statements were reviewed by commanders and the force’s solicitors, and many damming and critical statements were deleted. Why did the police feel the need to cover themselves? Some sources in South Yorkshire Police referred to the force as having its ‘backs against the wall’, and this might have led to officers to wish to give themselves some breathing space. Whilst people always want to defend their corner, to go to the extent of a de-facto smear campaign against innocent victims is inexcusable. Certainly, in the 1980’s the police had been deployed by the Government to police working class unrest and disorder, and for a police force to be found guilty in such a situation would not have fitted in with the prevailing political mood regarding class tensions and football being plagued by hooliganism. Hence, there was probably not any significant pressure from above to investigate South Yorkshire Police further.
Against this background of new material, it is difficult not to look back on many of the developments of the past 23 years – not least the Taylor report, the inadequate inquests, and the lack of criminal charges – and conclude that much of the prevailing wisdom regarding Hillsborough has been undermined. The disaster was caused by inadequate and incompetent policing, combined with the perimeter fences and dividing of the Leppings Lane terrace into pens with radial fences. Factors that were supposedly contributory – drinking, late arrival for example – are still present in football grounds today. German football grounds still have terracing, and have some of the best safety records in world stadia. Whilst I know acknowledge that Taylor did not have the benefit of much of the evidence that we do have now, and was probably under much political pressure to reach certain conclusions, I remain convinced that the introduction of all-seater stadia was more about gentrifying football than ensuring that there was no repeat of Hillsborough.
As a historian, a football enthusiast and someone who keeps a close eye on access to official documents, the Hillsborough case is a landmark. It demonstrates that those in authority can no longer expect to hide behind the closure of official papers, and that they should be held accountable to the general public whom they are paid to serve and protect. It should teach people in responsible positions that they can no longer sweep problems under the carpet for them to re-emerge 30 years later when it is too late.