Why did it take so long? That’s the question that most people are asking. Why did it take so long for the relatives of the 96 victims of the Hillsborough disaster to get to the root of what happened to their loved ones that Saturday afternoon in 1989.
The core reason is simple enough, the lie was so big and had so much invested in it that most people, especially the powers that be, were prepared to believe it.
I say the lie was big, what I mean is that it was not just the leadership, meaning the upper ranks, of the South Yorkshire Police that were putting it about that drunken, loutish and ticketless Liverpool fans were behind the breakdown in crowd control. Within days, the Chief of Merseyside Police, yes, Liverpool’s finest, was corroborating the story to Downing Street that it was his own city’s football thugs that were at fault. Then when questions were raised (and they were), the West Midland Police investigated and gave the South Yorkshire Police a clean bill of health.
We might be comforted that the same procedure would not be allowed to happen now, but it is a fact that three separate police forces contributed, over time, to the big lie and that many senior officers staked their reputations on it.
There were, of course, many who just wanted to believe it. Most people either love or loathe Liverpool, Scousers and their ready wit. The source of the Beatles, home of two great northern football teams, the Grand National and those iconic docks – Liverpool was in vogue in the sixties but by the eighties was out of fashion, was the seat of much industrial unrest and the butt of many jokes. There often seems to be no middle ground in attitudes towards Merseyside and so when such a tragedy as Hillsborough happened there were those who not only wanted to believe the big lie but were willing to propagate it. That’s why The Sun never checked the story being fed to them by a Sheffield news agency and a local hang ’em’, flog ’em Tory MP – both of course being spoon-fed by the South Yorkshire Police officers behind the myth.
We now know that while the lie was big and in its telling was simple, its execution was highly complex, with some 164 police statements altered by superiors and their lawyers (yes, lawyers were involved at taxpayers’ expense) taking out not just sentences but whole paragraphs that might expose the utter disorganisation, the abdication of duty and the failure to take commend when it was needed most.
If senior officers had shown just half of the ability that they deployed in altering the countless statements on doing their real job of policing with humanity then the disaster might well not have happened and certainly would not have cost the lives of 96 innocent football supporters.
Any mention of the scenes being chaotic, the lack of leadership, the absence of senior figures on the pitch, the failure of the police radios, not even using the ground’s PA system, were expunged – to give the impression that all had been well with the policing so the problems must have lain with the football supporters.
Even the dead were not left alone in dignity but everyone – including children – had their blood tested for alcohol and national records were searched to see if victims had a criminal past. No stone was left unturned to paint the innocent as guilty.
Most shocking, of course, is the revelation that some 41 of the victims might have lived had the supporters been allowed out of the penned terracing earlier, had they received help and assistance sooner, and had the emergency services been better at responding and applying their emergency plans. The fact that we now know that 49 of 101 statements by those working in the ambulance service were also doctored to protect their superiors is equally reprehensible.
We should be careful not to fall into the same mistake of stereotyping South Yorkshire police constables and ambulance workers as beyond the pale, as bad people who did not want to take responsibility, like too many were game for the stereotyping of Liverpool fans as regularly drunk and out of control. After all, those 213 statements that were doctored were written by people wanting to blow the whistle on what had gone wrong, on how their superiors had let them and the victims down.
No, we should be careful to not see everyone in a uniform at fault, but we should be forensic in establishing just who was giving the orders to pervert the course of justice – and if jail was good enough for a politician like Tommy Sheridan (and it was) then it should be good enough for the highest ranks in the police too.
First, the Attorney General should make an application to the High Court to have the Coroner’s Inquest quashed and a new series of inquests reopened, then proceedings against those that sought to cover up the failures of policing can begin, and not held in Sheffield either.
Apologies are not enough. Justice is required before closure can be found.