A catalogue of lies - The truth about Hillsborough at last

The Hillsborough Independent Panel’s report has completely exposed the way the forces of the state tried to cover up their culpability for the disaster when 96 Liverpool football fans died. From the beginning, the police tried to blame the victims. What the state had not reckoned with was the determination of a small group of working class people organised in the Hillsborough Justice Campaign to get hold of the truth. David Hetfield reports.

The disaster took place at an FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest at the Hillsborough stadium in Sheffield in April 1989. When two central pens in the Liverpool standing area became over-crowded and fans were already being crushed, police threw open the stadium gates to allow in more fans, who piled into the over-crowded pens, adding to the lethal pressure. The police then delayed opening gates onto the pitch and allowed only one of 44 ambulances into the ground, telling emergency crews that there was fighting inside. The dead and the injured had to be taken to the stadium’s gym where there were only two doctors.

In the immediate aftermath, lies were deliberately spread about drunken, ticketless and violent Liverpool fans, with The Sun writing under the front-page headline ‘The Truth’ that the fans had robbed the dead and urinated on police as they helped the injured. The sources for this slander were high-ranking officers in the South Yorkshire Police and the Tory MP of a Sheffield constituency, Sir Irvine Patnick. The police ran criminal record checks on the dead in order to smear them.

The interim report of the Taylor Inquiry into the disaster cited ‘a failure of police control’ as the main cause, but this conclusion was lost in the final report amongst claims about hooliganism, alcohol and the main recommendation for all-seated stadiums. Unprecedented ‘mini-inquests’ were held during the wait for the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) to decide if there would be any prosecutions. These inquests deliberately tried to associate the dead fans with drunkenness in the minds of the jury, since the coroner insisted that the blood alcohol level of each victim – including a boy of ten – were the first details read out, even though they were ‘unremarkable’.

West Midlands police’s investigation into the actions of South Yorkshire police was another complete cover-up. When, after a year, the DPP concluded there was no evidence to justify criminal charges against the police or anyone else, the main inquest resumed. The coroner, Dr Stefan Popper, announced he would not hear any evidence about events after 3.15pm because ‘no one could have survived after this time’, making evidence about the emergency services’ response inadmissible. It is now clear that 41 people could have been saved. A picture was painted of drunken, ticketless fans. Popper advised police officers that they need not answer anything that was prejudicial. When families and survivors protested against the blanket verdict of accidental death, the coroner threatened to throw them out.

In response the families and survivors set up the Hillsborough Justice Campaign. They won a judicial review to have the inquest verdict quashed, only to have it dismissed by openly partisan judges. The Labour Party promised a new inquiry, but within five weeks of getting into power in 1997, Home Secretary Jack Straw ruled it unnecessary. It was not until 2009 that Liverpool Labour MP Andy Burnham set up the Hillsborough Independent Panel (HIP).

The findings of the HIP are a devastating critique of ruling class contempt for working class people. Sheffield Wednesday did not have a valid safety certificate for its ground, a gross dereliction of duty by the club, the police, Sheffield City Council and the Football Association. The match day police commander was inexperienced, and, despite previous warnings of over-crowding and crushing, the police prioritised crowd control, compromising safety ‘at every level’. The panel found that 164 police statements were substantially amended, of which 116 were to ‘remove or alter comments unfavourable to South Yorkshire Police’. No evidence was found to support allegations of drunkenness, of fans without tickets or of violence, but the report found that high-ranking police officers, including Norman Bettison (now chief constable of West Yorkshire police), ensured these lies were fed to the media. These smears were repeated by Boris Johnson as editor of The Spectator magazine in 2004. This followed what Michael Mansfield QC, representing the families, called a historical pattern of ‘institutional denial followed by institutional deceit’.

Nauseating apologies have been offered by David Cameron, Boris Johnson, Ed Miliband, Sheffield Wednesday, Sheffield City Council, South Yorkshire Police, the FA, the Sun and Sir Norman Bettison. Not one has called for those guilty of corporate manslaughter and perverting the course of justice to be punished.

Liverpool MPs Andy Burnham and Steve Rotherham argued that this kind of cover-up could not happen now. This is all part of the ‘institutional deceit’. After Ian Tomlinson died, the police reported that they came under attack while trying to save him – a lie. When Mark Duggan was shot, the police and IPCC issued statements saying there had been an exchange of shots – a lie. They suggested Jean Charles de Menezes was an illegal immigrant and a drug dealer – more lies. Smear campaigns are just one of the ways the state denies justice to the working class. However, the Hillsborough Justice Campaign has shown what working class people organised together can achieve. They are now demanding a new inquest, and the prosecution of those who led the cover-up.

Killing Ian Tomlinson – another police whitewash

The Metropolitan Police disciplinary hearing against PC Simon Harwood ended up once again hiding the truth about police responsibility for Ian Tomlinson’s death at the G20 demonstration on 1 April 2009. The Tomlinson family walked out of the hearing calling it a ‘whitewash’. The hearing found Harwood guilty of gross misconduct on his own admission and sack­ed him, but they refused to make the connection between Harwood’s unprovoked assault on Tomlinson and the cause of his death. Immediately following the killing, the police tried to cover up the facts by telling lies and spreading slanderous press stories blaming Tomlinson and the G20 demonstrators. Despite the inquest in 2011 ruling that Tomlinson was killed unlawfully, Harwood was found not guilty of manslaughter at the subsequent criminal trial. The truth about Harwood’s career as a police thug was kept secret from the jury. As a result of the disciplinary hearing, Harwood will keep his pension, while the Tomlinson family, just like the Hillsborough families, will still have to fight for justice.

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 229 October/November 2012


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