Hillsborough – finally a catalyst for change?

The sheer scale of the tragedy of Hillsborough is difficult to comprehend, cutting across so many aspects of the relationship between the people and the state. It starkly set out how justice is not applied equally across our society and how agencies of the state persistently close rank and prioritise reputational protection over the safety and well-being of the people that they serve.

This blog discusses whether the Hillsborough disaster has been a catalyst for real change in our society, real change among the state agencies who are tasked to protect us, and whether it has prompted a change in attitude among those who are elected to govern us.

Football, and the culture around it, have changed significantly since 1989. The advent of the ‘Premier League’ in 1992, along with the stadium improvements that followed on from the disaster, mean that a repeat of a similar incident at a sports stadium is very unlikely. However, Hillsborough was no accident, although disgracefully it took an agonising 27 years for the deaths of the 961 Liverpool fans to be legally recognised as being ‘unlawfully killed’ at the conclusion of the second set of inquests held between 2014 and 2016 in Warrington.

1Sean Devine who passed away on 27th July 2021, suffered life changing injuries at Hillsborough and a coroner ruled that he had been unlawfully killed and was the disaster’s 97th fatality.

Anyone who went to watch football in the late 1980s is likely to have memories of being treated like second class citizens by police, whose attitude was at best indifferent and at worst hostile to football fans. However, I am not suggesting that the South Yorkshire Police deliberately set out to inflict injury and death. The concept of ‘othering is a complex phenomenon, but in the case of Hillsborough, I believe it led to the dehumanisation of the football fans that attended the FA Cup semi-final on 15th April 1989. Further, this mindset of the police in relation to football fans as a collective, certainly resulted in an indifference that contributed to the tragic events of that day. How else can the inaction of the police, standing just a few feet away from people dying in pens 3 and 4 of the Leppings Lane End be explained?

Hillsborough is of course so much more than a football disaster. It exposed the imbalance of power across UK society and how the state, the media and politicians, whether wittingly or unwittingly, fail to adequately represent the interests of significant sections of the public. While there hasn’t been another incident of a similar nature to Hillsborough, the ‘othering’ described above can be seen in tragic events such as the Grenfell fire and the Windrush Scandal.

The fact that these tragedies and injustices predominantly involved working class people, people of colour, or were the result of corruption within the police and media cannot be put down to mere coincidence. This collusion between the state, the police and the media intimidates and suppresses the voices of ordinary people who have no one to stand up for them.

This makes the relentless determination of the Hillsborough families, in the face of injustice heaped on injustice in a torturously drawn out process that took place over decades, all the more worthy of the deepest respect and admiration. That you could in the last sentence interchange ‘Hillsborough’ with Daniel Morgan, the Shrewsbury 24, Orgreave, Stephen Lawrence, the Windrush Scandal victims, the contaminated blood scandal victims, The Post Office Horizon miscarriages of justice and the atomic bomb test victims, demonstrates that there is something seriously wrong with the relationship between the state on the public. It seems that all the forces of the establishment are combined to ensure that justice is denied to those most in need of it.

For an in depth look at both the events on the day and the aftermath of it, the definitive resource is the Hillsborough Independent Panel Report, released in 2012, which can be found here: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/the-report-of-the-hillsborough-independent-panel I would also highly recommend reading Phil Scraton’s book on Hillsborough. ‘Hillsborough – The Truth’, available here.

For those people who don’t believe that an individual can affect change, it is worth mentioning an incident that took place at the 20th Anniversary Memorial Service at Anfield. Andy Burnham MP, an Everton supporter who was present at the other FA Cup semi-final being played on the day of the Hillsborough disaster, was invited to speak on behalf of the then Labour government.

I hope that Andy Burnham, whom I have the greatest respect for, wouldn’t mind too much if I said that while heartfelt, the beginning of his speech sounded like the rhetoric of many other politicians, rather than the compassionate Liverpudlian that he is. Andy’s pledge that the 96 football supporters who died will never be forgotten was met by a lone shout from the crowd: “We want justice!” This was in turn met by a sizeable portion of the crowd breaking into a prolonged chant of “Justice for the 96”.

It was clear that it had a profound impact on Andy Burnham, who did well to carry on his speech with such composure, and it set off a chain of events that led to, if not justice for the 96, at least the truth about Hillsborough to become more widely known. I would say to anyone who underestimates the change that their voice can make to watch the clip below. One lone voice did this.

Andy Burnham MP speaking at the 20th Anniversary Memorial Service at Anfield on 15th April 2009

As was very belatedly acknowledged in 2016 by the then Prime Minister David Cameron, the victims and the families suffered a double injustice. Not only did they suffer the pain of bereavement, but also the narrative, fed by the very agencies that should have protected their loved ones, that the victims were themselves to blame for their own deaths. This inflicted unbearable and prolonged pain on the families of the victims. It should be noted that this pain continued during the second set of inquests that took place between 2013 and 2016, when the police and the ambulance service continued to mount a determined defence of their actions in spite of the overwhelming evidence of their wrongdoing gathered by the Hillsborough Independent Panel. Astonishingly they continued to apportion blame for the disaster on the Liverpool fans.

However, to date, there has been only one successful prosecution in relation to the Hillsborough disaster. The sanction? A fine of £6,500. You can read the sentencing remarks of the judge in Graham Mackrell’s case here. This lack of accountability and justice is a chilling indictment of how the state operates in the United Kingdom.

There were three main agencies involved in the aftermath of the disaster who contributed to the years of additional pain suffered by the families: the police, the media and politicians. Further to this, additional pain was caused to the families due to the nature of the legal processes endured in the attempt to find out both the truth and to obtain justice. A very brief summary of the issues is set out below. More details can be found in the Hillsborough Independent Panel report linked above.

The Police

While acknowledging that there were numerous outstanding individual actions by rank and file police officers on the day, as a body the police were responsible for the deaths of the 97 Liverpool football fans. This complicity was further and unforgivably compounded by a concerted attempt to build a narrative to blame the fans and deflect any blame from the South Yorkshire Police. The building of this narrative started almost immediately and was evidenced by the decision to take blood samples from all the victims, including children, to test for levels of alcohol in an attempt to push the ‘tanked up mob’ story, disgracefully repeated by Margaret Thatcher’s Press Secretary Bernhard Ingham. Further, the details of all those killed were run through the Police National Computer in order to attempt to back up a case that unruly and ticketless fans were to blame for the disaster. This behaviour of attacking the fans and defence of their actions continued in the decades following the disaster and prolonged the pain of the families. In addition, the industrial scale alteration of police statements delayed the truth about the disaster being revealed.

The Media

The media, particularly ‘The Sun’ publication, aided by contacts within the police, were complicit in promoting the lie that ticketless, drunk and violent Liverpool fans who had turned up late and had forced entry to the ground were to blame for the disaster. This lie persisted for many years after the disaster, becoming the accepted version of events, or at least a significant contributory factor in the eyes of many. Apart from causing the families of the victims unimaginable pain, there is little doubt that this smearing of the victims clouded the opinions of many.

The Politicians

While there have been notable exceptions, many MPs and others in political posts have been far too willing to accept the narrative pushed by state agencies, rather than the truth set out by the families of the victims. In this, they have sided with those who hold power, rather than those who do not have a voice. Further, some politicians rather than just passively accepting whatever their contacts in the media or the police peddle to them, have actively sought to denigrate the efforts of the families in their pursuit of the truth and justice. Examples of some of the comments are below:

In October 2011 David Cameron was widely reported to have said in relation to the Hillsborough families campaign for justice:

it was “like a blind man, in a dark room, looking for a black cat that isn’t there”.

In the interest of fairness, I provide a link to David Cameron’s full apology to the families given at Prime Minister’s Questions in September 2012. You can watch this apology which followed the publication of the Hillsborough Independent Panel report here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mavTTc21sCY

In 2004 Boris Johnson wrote in a ‘Spectator’ article:

“but that is no excuse for Liverpool’s failure to acknowledge, even to this day, the part played in the disaster by drunken fans at the back of the crowd who mindlessly tried to fight their way into the ground that Saturday afternoon. The police became a convenient scapegoat, and the Sun newspaper a whipping-boy for daring, albeit in a tasteless fashion, to hint at the wider causes of the incident.”

On 8th July 1996, Bernard Ingham, Margaret Thatcher’s Press Secretary wrote to a Liverpool fan stating:

After all, who if not the tanked up yobs who turned up late determined to get into the ground caused the disaster? To blame the police, even though they have made mistakes, is contemptible’.

Between 1997 and 1998 Jack Straw the then Labour Home Secretary discussed the examination of new evidence. Quotes and memos relating to this below:

5th June 1997 – Jack Straw to Attorney-General John Morris: “My officials have thoroughly examined the alleged new evidence … and have concluded that there are no grounds for establishing a new public inquiry. I am certain that continuing public concern will not be allayed with a reassurance from the Home Office that there is no new evidence. I therefore propose that there should be an independent examination of the alleged new evidence by a senior legal figure.”

9th June 1997 – Home Office memo to Tony Blair: “JS (Jack Straw) does not believe that there is sufficient new evidence for a) a new inquiry, b) reopening the inquest or c) prosecution of individuals.”

26th June 1997 – letter referring to a meeting between Mr. Straw and Lord Justice Stuart-Smith: “The Home Secretary said that officials had considered these questions and their view was that there was not sufficient evidence to justify a new inquiry.”

* It should be noted that just a week after the 26th June letter Mr. Straw met bereaved families and assured them that every aspect of the disaster would be looked into. You can read the full article from the ‘Independent’ newspaper here. After a 7 month inquiry Lord Justice Stuart Smith concluded that there was no case for a new investigation into the Hillsborough disaster.

The legal process

Quite apart from the tragedy of losing loved ones, further anguish was heaped on the families by the legal process which was weighted heavily in favour of those who bore responsibility for the disaster. State agencies such as the police were able to call on unlimited public resources to obtain the best legal counsel in the land, while the families had to raise funds to get legal representation. Only in the second inquest were the scales of justice evened up and the families received equal legal funding. However, the cover up continued in the second inquest as the legal teams reverted back to already discredited positions about responsibility for the disaster. Police officers could escape misconduct proceedings by taking early retirement and public bodies had no ‘duty of candour’ to tell the truth about their failings, or provide full disclosure of relevant documents in their possession. This continued adversarial approach and attempts to cover up the truth considerably lengthened the second inquest, causing yet more pain for the families.

In what is almost certainly to have been the final criminal proceedings following the Hillsborough tragedy, further dismay was heaped on the families as the trial collapsed. Once again the legal system was a stumbling block to justice, as the altered police statements were ruled inadmissible as legal evidence for the prosecution as they had been gathered for Lord Justice Taylor’s non-statutory (non-legal) public inquiry.

In the absence of any form of justice for the victims and families of the Hillsborough disaster, can any comfort be drawn from the tragedy at least being a catalyst for positive change in how ordinary people are treated by the state?

Sadly, it would seem not, although there is a beacon of hope in the proposals for a ‘Hillsborough Law’ which I will come to shortly. Collusion continued between the media and the police as evidenced by events surrounding the telephone hacking scandal, of which many of the victims were ordinary people out of the public eye. The media continue to hound individuals, Ben Stokes and Caroline Flack being two high profile examples, but again this extends to many people not in the public eye who have never sought fame or seen media coverage as a ‘quid pro quo’ for publicity. The police still remain unaccountable, as evidenced by the complete inaction following damning evidence of obstruction set out in the Daniel Morgan Independent Panel report, a murder case that had a number of parallels with the aftermath of Hillsborough. Politicians, fearful of the influence of a ruthless media, cancel inquiries into the relationships between the police and the media, as was the case with Leveson 2, cancelled by Matt Hancock in 2018. I also sense an unseen hand that seems to be a common theme through a number of prominent cases of injustice in the UK. The potential influence of freemasonry was discussed during the second inquest at Hillsborough and also in the Daniel Morgan report.

Disappointingly (with some notable exceptions) many politicians’ heads are turned, not by the most vulnerable in our communities, but by corporate lobbyists seeking to ensure it is their voice heard, above those and at the expense of all others. As a proud member of the Labour Party, it was crushing to hear in the recent TV series ‘Anne’, which covered Anne Williams fight for justice for her son who was killed at Hillsborough, the hope generated in the campaigners by the election of a Labour government in 1997, only to have these hopes dashed by its ready acceptance of the police driven narrative of events. Labour. Whether Labour leans to the left or the right, it must always retain its core values of empathy and compassion – and champion those that do not have a voice, over those that shout the loudest.

Andy Burnham MP speaking in the House of Commons on 27th April 2016

Thanks to the families and politicians like Andy Burnham, who kept his promise to them, we know the truth about Hillsborough. However, the absence of justice will remain an open wound on UK politics of which we should be ashamed. However, Hillsborough isn’t a one-off. The campaigners fighting for truth and justice around the events at Orgreave in the miners’ strike of 1984, again involving the South Yorkshire Police, will be familiar with many of the issues that arose from Hillsborough, such as false portrayal in the media and lack of police accountability.

Grenfell, like Hillsborough, wasn’t an accident, ‘an unforeseen sequence of events’. As with Hillsborough, the tragedy of Grenfell had been foretold, by the residents whose complaints about safety issues had been dismissed, and the Fire Brigades Union who had warned against the watering down of safety standards by both Labour and Conservative governments who, pressured by business interests, prioritised profits over people. 85% of the victims of Grenfell were people of colour, within a working class community situated in one of the richest boroughs in London. Once again the legal process is skewed against the victims as corporate witnesses are granted immunity from prosecution for any oral evidence they give to the Grenfell Inquiry, while residents of the tower block risked deportation.

Until we deal with outstanding historical injustices in the UK there is little prospect of ending the imbalance of power tipped in favour of the elites in politics, the media and the police – at the expense of everyone else in the UK.

The print media holds so much power that politicians are undoubtedly intimidated by the consequences of any attempts to rein in their influence. It is time for a form of ‘Leveson 2’ inquiry to shine a light on the relationship between the media, the police and politicians. Until the media is held to account by a genuinely independent and powerful regulator the lives of ordinary people, who have never sought or experienced the limelight, will continue to be destroyed.

We must press our politicians to stand up for those that don’t have a voice, not to be mouthpieces for those that already do. Second jobs for MPs should be banned in all circumstances unless specifically for the public good. Further, as well as a reform to lobbying rules, there should be a tightening up of the hospitality that is provided to MPs to avoid accusations of undue influence. Our political system is broken. We need fundamental reforms to rebalance power across the UK. This would include a fairer voting system and power being taken away from Westminster and placed in our communities.

We must also press for an accountable police force, which acts in the interests of the public, rather than one that prioritises its own reputation while adopting a siege mentality at the mere hint of any wrongdoing. Unless we fix the imbalance of power, we risk the continuation of the circumstances which will result in repeats of the double injustice faced by the Hillsborough families.

Finally, when inquiries do take place, there must be a levelling up of the mismatch between the legal representation of public bodies and the families of the bereaved.

Promisingly there is now cross-party support in Parliament for a ‘Hillsborough Law’ which has drawn heavily on the review of the experience of the Hillsborough families by former Bishop of Liverpool the Right Reverend James Jones – ‘The Patronising Disposition of Unaccountable Power’. It is hoped that this law if introduced will break the cycle of injustice for bereaved families.

It would bring in a number of measures including:

  • A Public Advocate to act for families of the deceased after major incidents.
  • Giving bereaved families better access to money for legal representation at inquests -the measure would allow families, who often find themselves facing expensive QCs, to afford lawyers themselves – creating an equal playing field.
  • Put in place a duty of candour for all police officers and public officials which means they must be open and honest when something goes wrong.
  • A Charter for families bereaved through public tragedy which would be binding on all public bodies.
  • A requirement that evidence and findings of major inquests must be taken fully into account at any subsequent criminal trials.
  • Clarification in law that major inquiries commissioned by government or other official bodies constitute “courses of public justice”.
  • A requirement that any criminal trials following a major inquest take place in a court with relevant expertise and status, rather than a crown court.

Andy Burnham, one of the main voices behind the law, says the law would be a major re-balancing of the justice system:

From Peterloo 200 years ago to Grenfell today, ordinary bereaved families continue to be treated in a cruel and dismissive way by a justice system which favours the powerful and the connected. It is a pattern that keeps on repeating itself and it is time to break it.

Andy Burnham, Mayor of Greater Manchester

If these measures are made into law, they will be a fitting tribute to the remarkable dignity and determination of the families, for whom I have the deepest respect. Never again must families have to wait decades to get to the truth and justice of why their loved ones were lost. No families should ever again have to walk alone. I urge you to contact your MP and ask them to support the Hillsborough Law.

#JFT97 #HillsboroughLawNow #DontbuytheSun

Julian Vaughan

January 2022

Twitter: @juliman66

Sources and further reading:

Hillsborough: The Report of the Hillsborough Independent Panel – September 2012 https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/229038/0581.pdf

‘The patronising disposition of unaccountable power’ A report to ensure the pain and suffering of the Hillsborough families is not repeated – The Right Reverend James Jones https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/656130/6_3860_HO_Hillsborough_Report_2017_FINAL_updated.pdf

Daniel Morgan Independent Panel Report – June 2021 https://www.danielmorganpanel.independent.gov.uk/

‘The Shrewsbury pickets, political policing and the state’ – March 2021 https://www.pilc.org.uk/news/story/the-shrewsbury-pickets-political-policing-and-the-state-report-released-today/

The Windrush Scandal explained – The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants https://www.jcwi.org.uk/windrush-scandal-explained

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