Twenty-three years too late, the real truth is finally being told about the Hillsborough disaster of April 15, 1989, which killed 96 football fans and injured hundreds more.
A new 354-page report, released by the Hillsborough Independent Panel after accessing more than 400,000 pages of secret documents, has implicated the police, media and British government in what has been described as “the biggest cover-up of British legal history”.
Importantly, it cleared Liverpool fans of the vile accusations that the media, police and politicians have thrown at them for more than two decades. It has opened the way for justice to finally be won.
On April 15, 1989, Sheffield’s Hillsborough football stadium played host to the FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool FC and Nottingham Forest.
At 2.52pm, Chief superintendent David Duckenfield directed South Yorkshire police to herd thousands of Liverpool fans into an already dangerously over-packed part of the stands on the Lepping’s Lane end of the ground.
As they surged forward, those being crushed at the front sought to have the gates opened to the nearly-empty neighbouring stands, and tried to climb over the high fences to safety.
The police refused to open the gates or help fans. Instead, they beat them back with truncheons into the deadly crush.
As the bodies of the injured and dying began to pile up on the field, police lined up, three rows deep, to keep fans off the pitch. They called in dog-handlers and assaulted and arrested those trying to give first aid to the injured.
What followed was a monstrous and monumental cover-up. From the moment things began to get out of control, while people lay dying on the pitch, South Yorkshire police turned their efforts to blaming fans for the disaster.
All but two of the 48 ambulances that raced to the scene were denied entry to the ground by police.
While denying medical aid to the victims, police took blood samples from the dying and injured, trying to manufacture “evidence” of drunken hooliganism.
The police and local Conservative MP Irvine Patnick began to spread foul lies in the press: that violent drunken Liverpool fans without tickets had forced the gates; that they had urinated on their own dead and on those trying to help them; that they had pickpocketed and molested the corpses.
These lies were published unquestioned on the front cover of the Murdoch tabloid The Sun under the headline “The Truth”, as well as in other media, which set about vilifying Liverpool fans with a vengeance.
The real story of that day could not be more different from the official lies.
Liverpool fans organised themselves, ripping down sideboards to ferry victims to the ambulances denied entry by the police. There were tales of people keeping others alive, only to die themselves.
The working people of Sheffield showed their solidarity in the face of state hostility ― throwing open their doors and hearts to help the worried friends and relatives of victims.
Their response to Hillsborough made a lie of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s dictum that there is “no such thing as society”.
Thatcher was hated by the people of Liverpool and Yorkshire. For for her, their militant working class communities remained “the enemy within”.
With the eager assistance of police, Thatcher had brutally crushed the 1984-85 miners’ strikes ― centred on Yorkshire.
Liverpool in the 1980s was a stronghold of working class militancy and activism. Liverpool voters elected a Militant-led socialist council that openly defied Thatcher’s attacks.
At the time of Hillsborough, Thatcher was also smarting from the nationwide protests that had defeated the Poll Tax. Her government was in danger of electoral defeat.
When Thatcher tried to visit Hillsborough survivors in hospital, many discharged themselves to avoid meeting her.
One of those unable to leave reacted to her presence by shouting: “I was alright until I saw your fucking face. Now go on, fuck off from this bed!”
The cover-up revealed by the panel was much more widespread and calculated than anyone realised.
When the first inquiry was launched into Hillsborough in 1990, the police edited their own statements to remove any hint of wrongdoing.
The conspiracy of silence reached all the way to the top of British society. Thatcher met with police the day after Hillsborough, although apparently “no records remain” of that meeting.
The South Yorkshire police had been willing accomplices to Thatcher’s attacks on the working class and acted with a sense of impunity.
These were the same police that violently attacked striking Yorkshire miners at Orgreave five years previously, and tried to set up 95 of them on bogus charges.
South Yorkshire Chief Constable Peter Wright, who oversaw Hillsborough, also commanded police operations at Orgeave in 1984, and during the Toxteth riots in 1981.
When the inquiry’s report was published, Thatcher immediately took steps to water down any possible backlash against the police or her government.
The official death toll was arbitrarily cut short to minimise the public relations damage, with the coroner at the inquest refusing to look at any deaths that occurred after 3.15pm.
Once the dust from Hillsborough had settled, police conduct was also “investigated” by the West Midlands Police ― the same police that framed the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four, innocent Irish men jailed for bombings they had nothing to do with.
Unsurprisingly, the police exonerated their colleagues.
This tangled web of lies and slander continued for 23 years, perpetuated by subsequent governments that insisted fans were the perpetrators, not the victims.
When the Independent Panel released its report the sense of victory and exoneration in Liverpool was palpable.
The panel said that, of the 96 men, women and children who died as a result of that day ― the youngest of them only 10 ― 41 might have been saved had the police acted to help, instead of continuing to harass Liverpool fans.
Trevor Hicks, who lost two daughters, reported that three family members fainted when that evidence was revealed.
Despite a spectacle of apologies, many politicians and media commentators have tried to limit blame to a few individuals.
The report is also very much an establishment account ― the panel did not hear from survivors and relied only upon official documents and expert opinions.
Hillsborough campaigner Sheila Coleman feels that the report also let Thatcher off the hook. She told British Socialist Worker on September 22: “We have no doubt whatsoever that the cover-up came from the top.”
Nonetheless, the report means that for the families and the survivors, there is now the recognition that they were right all along.
Criminal charges are being prepared in the wake of the report, and there are calls for new inquiries to be held, to identify the details of what happened on that April day.
Until there is justice for the 96 and those who stood beside them that day, we say to the families and survivors ― You'll Never Walk Alone!
[This article first appeared at Duroyan Fertl's blog.]