Hillsborough report: a victory for truth?

The focus on ‘who did what’ back in April 1989 obscures the authorities' long-standing war on football fans.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Politics

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On 15 April 1989, Hillsborough football stadium played host to an FA cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest. With the game about to kick off, and an increasing number of Liverpool fans being funnelled into the smaller end of the stadium, the overcrowding became acute. For those struggling to breathe, there was no way out: the then ubiquitous perimeter fencing, designed to stop fans from running on to the pitch, had seen to that. What happened next was truly horrific. Ninety-five Liverpool fans were effectively crushed to death; a ninety-sixth, who had been in a coma, had his life-support machine switched off in 1993.

There have been inquests, inquiries and campaigns to establish what really happened ever since. For the families and friends of those who died, this is understandable. And yesterday, in the form of an independent, government-commissioned report based on access to over 400,000 hitherto classified government documents, it seemed that campaigners at last got what they have long fought for: the truth.

The report certainly did not hold back. The main cause of death was not ‘accident’; it was a ‘failure of police control’, exacerbated by ‘multiple failures in other organisations’. These include a coroner declaring people dead before they were dead, an absence of ambulances, and an active unwillingness on the part of the police to do anything but treat the unfolding disaster as a public-order problem. The evidence shows ‘conclusively’, the report continued, that Liverpool fans ‘neither caused nor contributed to the deaths’.

Moreover, in the aftermath, South Yorkshire police, aided and abetted by the ambulance services, attempted to cover up their complicity in the deaths of nearly a hundred people by altering evidence statements, omitting criticisms, and launching a concerted PR campaign to demonise Liverpool fans. This involved telling parliament and the media that ‘drunken’, ‘violent’, ‘ticketless’ fans were to blame. Even the infamous Sun story, ‘The Truth’, where Liverpool fans were accused of robbing the dead, originated as part of the authorities’ attempt to cook up an alternative version of events: ‘Documents disclosed to the panel show that the allegations were filed by White’s News Agency, a Sheffield-based company. They were based on meetings over three days between agency staff and several police officers, together with interviews with Irvine Patnick MP and the South Yorkshire Police Federation secretary, Paul Middup.’

It is a damning portrait of police, politicians and the emergency services. And for those who have long fought to hold the authorities to account, perhaps this report does approach the truth of what happened. But in focusing on the micro detail, the near technical ‘who did what’ back in April 1989, a larger truth is obscured. For at that social and historical moment, the authorities were, in effect, arrayed against football fans. That ambulances were not forthcoming, that the police were ready for a riot rather than to help, that fans were caged in at all, was not specific to the Hillsborough disaster. It was all too typical of the time. Under the gaze of the ruling elite, football was not a leisure activity; it was, above all, a law-and-order issue.

And why? Because those who watched football – by and large, the working classes – were considered at best as a problem to be managed, and at worst, given the class-based conflicts of the era, as part of ‘the enemy within’. A piece in The Sunday Times from 1983 captures such fear and loathing well: ‘The game drifts slowly into the possession of what we are now supposed to call the underclass; and a whole middle-class public grows up without ever dreaming of visiting a football league ground.’ Football fans, you see, were not like ‘Us’, they were deemed a hostile ‘Them’.

After the Bradford City stadium fire in May 1985, which killed 56 people, the disdain for football fans was given its classic formulation not in the Sun, but in a Sunday Times editorial: ‘British football is in crisis; a slum sport played in slum stadiums increasingly watched by slum people, who deter decent folk from turning up.’ (1) The Heysel stadium disaster later that same month, when 39 Italians died when a wall collapsed as Liverpool fans fought their Juventus counterparts, merely confirmed to the British authorities that football supporters were, and ought to be treated like, a perpetual threat to the peace. Hence the cages in grounds, the mounted police at grounds, and even a plan for football fans to carry ID cards (an ID card bill was passed a few weeks before Hillsborough, but aborted in its aftermath). At a press conference in June 1986, then prime minister Margaret Thatcher was keen to highlight how well the war on fans was going, giving special ‘thanks to the police’ for ‘bringing good behaviour and good crowd behaviour to football over this last year’.

As the New Statesman put it in the week following the Hillsborough disaster, football was ‘irredeemably tied to the old industrial north, yobs and slum cultures of the stricken inner cities’ (2). It’s a revealing admission. The treatment of fans like animals, even as they tried to escape their enclosure on that terrible April day, was the product of the political and media classes’ long-standing antipathy towards the ‘type of people’ that watch football. This is why the truth of Hillsborough, of what caused the disaster, cannot be found solely in government documents from April 1989; it is to be discovered in that political context in which the callousness of police and the reluctance of ambulance-drivers made sense to the protagonists. In these football fans, they merely saw the enemy, not people in need of succour.

In some ways, it feels a very long time ago. Which of course it is. Gazza’s tears, Fever Pitch, all-seater stadia, Tony Blair playing head tennis with Kevin Keegan, David Cameron becoming an Aston Villa fan… football’s image is softer now, more sanitised. Politicians no longer look askance at football fans; instead they (disingenuously) claim they are football fans. Perhaps that’s why Cameron now feels able to draw a line under the Hillsborough disaster, as he did yesterday, and issue a public apology to the bereaved. ‘That was then, this is now’, he is saying.

Yet, here’s the rub. While the antagonism between fans and the authorities has, like the class tension that in part fuelled it, changed in character and content, the elite disdain persists. As spiked‘s Duleep Allirajah put it, fans are no longer treated like threatening beasts, they’re disciplined like stupid children. The common view today is that fans swear too much, sing rude songs and act too partisan during games. One commentator recently called fans ‘idiotically tribal’; another reckoned that ‘the mentality of the football fan is essentially that of a child’.

Likewise, the policing is not as aggressive as it used to be. Monitoring has replaced confrontation and coercion, and fans are arrested for speech crimes rather than violent crimes. But the intent to discipline is still there. Football fans are still a social constituency to be dealt with. In the words of the Crown Prosecution Service’s sports prosecutor earlier this year, the authorities now need to clamp down on ‘inappropriate crowd behaviour and in particular chanting’: ‘Football authorities have dealt with violent crowd behaviour this way. I would strongly urge clubs to seek to stop their fans singing some of their more choice chants.’

So make no mistake – while the situation that gave rise to Hillsborough has gone the way of caged-in terraces, the underlying attitude of the authorities remains disdainful. The people who watch football are still a ‘Them’, a problem to be managed.

Tim Black is senior writer for spiked.

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Topics Politics


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