LONDON – It is like blaming the passengers for an aircraft crash or the audience if a theater’s ceiling collapsed.
Twenty-three years after 96 Liverpool fans lost their lives during the F.A. Cup semifinal against Nottingham Forest, a report by the Hillsborough Independent Panel confirmed what we have known for two-plus decades: the disaster was a result of the failings of the South Yorkshire Police (SYP) and the emergency services, not so-called drunken fans or hooligans who were responsible for the loss of lives.
Human error is one thing but to amend or remove 116 of the 164 statements given to the SYP is another. South Yorkshire Ambulance Service documents were subjected to a similar process.
It is a throwback to the dark days of the Soviet Union when those in charge never did anything wrong. The lengths the SYP went to in order to deflect the blame from themselves is both staggering and illegal. Perverting the course of justice carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.
The independent panel did not so much reveal new evidence, rather it was existing evidence that has been concealed or manipulated. On the findings available two years after the disaster, pathologists decided on a verdict of accidental death. In fact, 41 of those who died could have survived with prompt medical care.
The SYP sought to deflect blame by pointing the finger at drunken or ticketless supporters. The panel found no evidence to back this up. Even a 10-year-old boy who died was tested for alcohol. The police also carried out background checks on the deceased, as if a conviction for stealing a bike would somehow justify death.
Why it has taken 23 years for the truth to be told is because of a failure, until three years ago when the panel was set up, of successive governments to believe there were sufficient grounds for previously secret official documents related to the tragedy to be released.
It is unthinkable that Prime Minister David Cameron will not pressurize the attorney general to instigate a new review and that belatedly those responsible for the disaster and resulting smear campaign will be named, shamed and brought to justice. It is naive to think that Operation Coverup was not known at the highest level in parliament.
Every police officer and those involved in the emergency service who were on duty that fateful day — 195 of the officers still work for SYP — must, under oath, be asked their role at the match, if their evidence was altered and if so, by whom. To date, there has not been a single prosecution.
The man in charge on April 15, 1989, was Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield who was the subject of a private prosecution 12 years ago. Duckenfield gave the order for the gates at the Leppings Lane end to be opened so that hundreds of fans could be herded on to the already crowded terraces at the stadium.
Prosecutor Alun Jones QC stated that minutes after the disaster, Duckenfield “deceitfully and dishonestly” told senior Football Association officials that the supporters had forced the gate open themselves. Duckenfield admitted that he had lied about certain statements regarding the cause of the disaster but the jury was unable to reach a verdict and the judge refused an application for a retrial. Duckenfield was retired on a full police pension.
The force’s current chief constable, David Crompton, said if statements have been falsified (IF!) against the law, prosecutions should be brought. In fact, the SYP is considering self-referral to the Independent Police Complaints Commission, which would require SYP to identify which individual officers should be investigated. Given what has happened — rather, not happened — over the past 23 years, only a completely independent inquiry would have any credibility with the public, not the police investigating the police.
THE FOOTBALL ASSOCIATION, former Sun editor Kelvin MacKenzie and Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, joined the government in apologizing for events of the past. Their words cut no ice with the families of the bereaved.
Days after the disaster, The Sun ran a story headlined “The Truth,” alleging, among other things, Liverpool fans urinated on corpses and stole from the dead. The story was supplied by White’s, a Sheffield-based news agency, based on police briefings.
Against the wishes of senior staff, MacKenzie used the story without his own reporters double-checking. “I published it in good faith and I am sorry it was so wrong,” he said. He should have added he was thinking only of sensationalism rather than presenting the facts.
Johnson wrote an editorial in the Spectator magazine which he edited in 2004. It read: “Liverpudlians see themselves whenever possible as victims, and resent their victim status; yet at the same time they wallow in it.”
Margaret Aspinall, chairwoman of the Hillsborough Families Support Group, who lost her son James, 18, in the tragedy, was critical of his comments.
She said: “What he has got to understand is that we were speaking the truth for 23 years and apologies have only started to come today from them because of yesterday. It’s too little, too late.”
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.