Following two years of harrowing evidence, the verdicts in the inquest into the Hillsborough disaster in 1989 are a complete vindication of the 27-year campaign for justice for the 96 victims and their families. It is difficult to imagine the fortitude required to continue their fight for justice against the arrayed institutional might of the police, government and even sections of the media for so long.
But this fight for the truth did not take almost three decades, millions of pounds, and the longest court hearing in UK history because of its complexity. It was because within hours, the South Yorkshire police organised a conspiracy to protect themselves by defaming the dead and injured.
It is now clear that the police did not take blood from children to run alcohol tests or send a photographer to find empty beer cans because they wanted to understand what had really happened. It was simply to find any prop that could support the false narrative that the fans were drunk and abusive and were somehow responsible for their own deaths, and that the police had done their best under the circumstances.
We now know, from evidence heard at the inquest and admissions of senior police officers themselves, that this was so far from reality that the police had to collude to invent evidence. But even that wasn’t enough to hide the truth. There were thousands of fans there that day who knew what really happened – even in an age before everyone carried a phone with a camera, images existed that didn’t tally with the police’s claims.
But at the time the police had the most powerful allies there were: South Yorkshire police had been instrumental in breaking the miners’ strikes in 1984-1985, during which then prime minister Margaret Thatcher deployed them like her army in the north of England. The force also had form for blaming victims: we now know that South Yorkshire police had committed perjury during failed prosecutions of miners following the battle between police and strikers at Orgreave in 1984, and that senior officers were well aware of it and said nothing.
In 1989, the police needed support for their cover-up, and the Conservative government was happy to help. Thatcher herself toured the ground the morning after the disaster, and was aware that privately there were serious questions about the police propaganda, but it didn’t stop her government from backing the police. Her press secretary, Bernard Ingham, relied upon what he was told about the disaster by the police and blamed “tanked-up yobs” for the deaths. “Liverpool,” he later said, “should shut up about Hillsborough.”
With the government onside, the police needed another ally, and they found it in The Sun. The paper’s infamous headline “The Truth” probably caused more pain and anger in Liverpool than the government’s collusion, where thousands of residents knew the truth because they had seen it with their own eyes. In 1996, Ingham advised Liverpool to ignore “ambulance-chasing lawyers” and that “least said, soonest mended for Liverpool”. But fortunately for the victims, and for the cause of justice, the families ignored that advice. Anne Williams, whose son Kevin was killed in the disaster aged just 15, literally fought for the rest of her life, until she died of cancer in 2013. Her work was instrumental in the establishment of the Hillsborough Independent Panel, chaired by the Bishop of Liverpool. The panel’s report led to the previous accidental death verdicts being quashed in the High Court in 2012, paving the way for today’s verdicts.
Today, after so long, the only issue worthy of consideration is that the families have finally received a verdict that can be called justice. But even in these proceedings the police refused to be accountable, or even decent. When the then Lord Chief Justice Igor Judge quashed the previous inquests, he said:
Notwithstanding its falsity, the tendency to blame the fans was disappointingly tenacious and lingered for many years … [in fact] each one was a helpless victim of those terrible events.
But over almost two years of hearings, the police forced the families to endure a final performance of the cover-up. Lawyers for both the South Yorkshire Police and the Police Federation argued forcefully that the fans were drunk, non-compliant and contributed to their own deaths.
In the end, the inquest has found that every one of the 96 were victims of unlawful killing, opening up the possibility of criminal prosecutions against the police and individual officers. The police could have spared the families and their own reputations by admitting their conspiracy and finally renouncing the shameful claim that the dead were anything but victims. That, decades on, the police and the Federation are still unable to accept their mistakes makes it all too clear that these verdicts do not simply record historical failures of police accountability, but are evidence that it is still a problem today.