Richie Venton, SSP national trade union organiser, is a Liverpool supporter and was the Merseyside regional organiser of the socialist organisation Militant from 1980-1992
Words can only begin to hint at what the Hillsborough Independent Panel’s Report signifies.
A victory for the truth over the pernicious lies poured out by police chiefs, press and politicians – who tried to frame the 96 who died that terrible day in April 1989.
A victory for the superhuman tenacity, courage and heroism of the victims’ families and other fans who have fought for justice for 23 years – overwhelmingly working class people, with no resources but a deep well of determination and strong principles.
Overwhelming relief and vindication, tinged with renewed sadness, for the families of the 96 who perished in this man-made disaster: at last their loved ones’ names have been cleared.
A new wave of bitter outrage at the revelation 41 of the 96 could still be alive today, but for the incompetence of the police chiefs, which meant only 2 of 48 ambulances that arrived actually reached the pitch.
A renewed unity and sense of their own strength in challenging the authorities – not just for the indescribably brave family campaigners, but for all Liverpool fans, and indeed the whole city’s working class population.
Fury, and for some, utter disbelief at the blatant, corrupt cover-up by police chiefs, as they crudely doctored documents and witness statements – with successive Tory and Labour governments aiding and abetting their inhuman smearing of the dead in order to camouflage their own responsibility for the slaughter 23 years ago.
And after an initial attempt to palm off the clamour for justice with 24 hours of apologies and a shift back to trivial ‘business as usual‘ in the media, this naked expose of corruption in ‘high’ places has now forced the Crown Prosecution Office and Independent Police Complaints Commission to initiate an unprecedented scale of inquiry into police officers and the football authorities, with the potential of it leading to charges of gross misconduct and even manslaughter.
At last, a generation later, some hope of justice for those who died and those who have tirelessly challenged the most monstrous lie-machine in modern Britain.
Whilst pressing for prosecutions of those responsible, and re-opening of the inquests on the 96, we should not lose sight of the wider and deeper implications of this appalling episode.
It reveals a system that is steeped in class hatred for working class people, with the establishment, all the various arms of the state, implicated – a brutal reminder of just how low these people in power are prepared to stoop to retain their power and privileges.
In some respects a great deal that is in the Report was known already 23 years ago. But its great merit is to have documented 450,000 pages of documentary evidence, piecing together the horror story and bringing it all out in the open.
Millions of people have been touched by the revelations, shaken to the core in their assumptions about the police, press and ruling powers.
Back in 1989, many of us warned of a monstrous cover-up by the police authorities, senior judges, Tory government and the media – the various arms of the ‘establishment’. Little did any of us know that it would take a whole generation, 23 years, for the truth to come out, after successive Tory and Labour governments had helped to keep the lid on what was known to those at the top.
At the time, in articles in the socialist press, I branded the initial West Midlands police inquiry into the South Yorkshire policing operation at Hillsborough as being a case of the Devil investigating the actions of Satan.
Some of us had lived through the savage class brutality of the Tories during the miners’ strike four years before Hillsborough – with Thatcher’s use of South Yorkshire and other police forces as a well-fed, well-paid, beefed-up government militia that treated working class people as scum, rampaging like uniformed thugs in the pit villages.
But even veteran socialists are still gob-smacked at the crudely blatant corruption of the police, who altered 164 police statements – in 116 cases to completely remove anything critical of the police actions at Hillsborough.
Top rank forgers
>Senior police officers, including the subsequently knighted Sir Norman Bettison, and the solicitor representing South Yorkshire police, supervised the recording of junior police officers’ recollections of events that day. In contrast to the normal procedure of writing up their notes in official police notebooks – which can then be legally requisitioned as evidence in any court case – the police were instructed to write them on loose sheets of paper. Then they were doctored under the vigilant eye of police chiefs.
Later, these top-rank forgers offered the excuse that amendments were made to remove ‘opinion’ about the fans.
That was a cynical, dirty lie: the documents published by the Independent Panel reveal that not a single case of this happened; plenty of vicious ‘opinions’ about fans remained in the amended statements – but in 116 junior officers’ statements, all their original comments critical of the policing that tragic day were removed.
Similar corrupt doctoring of eye-witness statements by ambulance workers were conducted by the chiefs of the ambulance service.
Tragedy waiting to happen
This was literally a tragedy waiting to happen, mostly through a combination of the blatant failure of the football owners to invest in crowd safety measures, and the refusal by police chiefs to learn from and act on their own incompetent performance.
They had plenty of fresh warning: the very same FA semi-final, between the same Liverpool and Notts Forest, had been held at the very same Hillsborough ground the previous season, 1988. Overcrowding, lack of ground safety measures and incompetent policing had led to a near-disaster, with fans being crushed, but no fatalities.
But absolutely nothing was done to improve matters after the review of these events, either by Sheffield Wednesday’s profit-conscious owners or the heads of the South Yorkshire Police.
They framed the dead!
People at the match told me 23 years ago how they arrived to scenes of utter chaos at the turnstiles. Liverpool supporters had complained in advance about ticket allocation not reflecting the respective numbers from Liverpool and Nottingham Forest. There was no proper direction of fans to turnstiles, with only two policemen outside Leppings Lane!
Fans thronged into the middle terraces, even though the side terraces were half empty: stewarding was almost non-existent.
Overcrowding in the middle terraces was clearly visible by at least 2.30pm, or earlier; a clear half hour before the 3pm kick-off. But whilst doing nothing to address this, failing to usher fans into the plentiful spaces on the side terraces, the police officers in charge vastly compounded the crush by ordering the opening of Gate C (one of the Leppings Lane exits) – to reduce the logjam at the turnstiles, where it was clear fans would not gain access until at least 3.30.
Instead of delaying the kick-off, they tried to shove thousands of fans through Gate C as well as turnstiles like cattle, with the added disastrous result that Gate C led them straight down a steep tunnel and back up into the already-overcrowded middle sections.
And in their vilification of the dead and injured, the same police chiefs who ordered the opening of Gate C then told the media that afternoon that the gate had been broken down by fans – a malicious strand to their lies about “drunken, ticketless Liverpool fans” being the cause of the disaster.
Prisons not palaces
The root cause of this human tragedy was the way the football authorities regarded working class people as sources of vast profit, but also inherently violent thugs.
In the years before, there had been a sustained vilification of fans – and in those days football was almost exclusively the sport of the working class – by the media and government, branding them as hooligans, forging ahead with plans to introduce ID cards, in tandem with plans for ID Cards for the hated poll tax.
They built high perimeter fences, with narrow emergency exit gates that acted as traps rather than escape routes in any emergency…because they regarded it as an issue of crowd control, rather that one of crowd safety for people investing their modest weekly incomes in ‘the beautiful game’.
Profits before lives
The clubs failed to re-invest their profits in ground safety and comfort for the people who made the pools companies £661m profits from football the year before Hillsborough alone.
Many of the grounds were more like clapped out cowsheds, prisons with their perimeter fences, rather than palaces of entertainment. Hillsborough, capacity 54,000, had no proper medical facilities.
Fans had no say; football is like any other capitalist enterprise.
They fenced fans into pens, more accurately cages, like a sub-human species. The police were drilled to treat them with contempt, and arrests, rather than cooperate with supporters’ organizations in protection of crowd health and safety.
41 could have lived
As the crush began, the police stopped ambulances getting onto the pitch, falsely telling them that it wasn’t safe as the fans were rioting. That’s why many of the 41 who could have survived died that day.
Rows of police, three deep, were lined up outside the cages at the goalmouth where people were dying. Eyewitnesses at the time told us how police ignored pleas for help: shoving the fence back into position when fans desperately tried to smash it down as a means of escape; refusing to help a child gasping for breath who was passed over the heads of the fans; truncheoning a group of fans who managed to get onto the pitch to try and rip down the railings.
This callous failure to act as a rescue service largely lay in the previous training of police as unthinking, obedient servants of the police chiefs, who in turn deployed their forces on behalf of the Tories against mining communities and disaffected young people, and whose attitude to Liverpool working class people in particular was steeped in class hatred.
Tory hatred of Liverpool
It is no mere coincidence that the police mercilessly doctored the evidence in order to smear Liverpool fans and hide their own scandalous role. And Thatcher’s Tory government’s fingerprints are all over this monstrous frame up.
Only four years earlier, hundreds of thousands of the city’s working class, led in mass action for jobs and services by socialists, had inflicted a decisive defeat on the Iron Lady of capitalist reaction.
Mass demos of 50-60,000, general strikes and a determined, militant upsurge of workers united in action had won £60m in government funds to create massive improvements in jobs, housing and public services.
Liverpool was an inspiration to workers across the UK and beyond – and the target of ruthless revenge by the Tories and their media lickspittles.
They portrayed Liverpool people as violent dole-cheats, mindlessly militant, worthy of being taught a harsh lesson.
They discussed in the Tory Cabinet about organising the “managed decline” of Liverpool – something pursued through systematic workplace closures.
Thatcher made the trip north the day after the Hillsborough Disaster, 16th April 1989, to meet with South Yorkshire Police chiefs, no doubt to endorse their launch of a propaganda offensive against the victims. In part this was to protect her loyal protectors during the momentous class confrontation of the 1984-5 miners’ strike – the civil war without bullets – but it was further fuelled by Thatcher’s and the Tories’ desire to avenge their government’s defeat by the rebellious Scouse working class, led by socialists, in 1984.
The demonisation of Liverpool’s working class came out in its full inglorious venom after Hillsborough.
The press didn’t even have the decency to wait until the dead were buried before spewing out their vitriol.
A Sheffield Tory MP, Irvine Patnick, passed the Sun a packet of vicious lies, peddled by police chiefs to a local Sheffield press agency (White‘s), which the Murdoch rag gleefully published. This accused Liverpool fans of being “drunken animals”, of “urinating on the dead and police”, of “mugging dead bodies”, of “assaulting firefighters”.
The Report confirms what we argued in 1989: this was a monstrous lie on a monumental scale – designed to blame the victims for their own deaths and stop awkward questions being asked about the role of the FA, the unsafe state of the football grounds, and especially the role of the police. In fact it further reveals that the police tested dead children for evidence of drunkenness.
Boris Johnson, the extreme rightwing Tory London Mayor who basks in a carefully created disguise of buffoonery, wrote in the Spectator magazine editorial that Liverpool “is wallowing in victim status” after Hillsborough.
Edward Pearce of the Times thundered “Liverpool is the world capital city of self pity…why are you treated like animals? The plain answer is that a good and sufficient minority of you behave like animals.”
The fangs of these Tory animals were revealed, and working class people should never forget that that is the true face of capitalist politicians and their pet press.
Re-open the Inquests
>One of the multiple bodies of the establishment knee-deep in this obscene cover up was the Crown Prosecution Services’ mini-inquests and Coroner‘s Court, presided over by the CPS’s Dr Stefan Popper.
The evidence at the mini-inquests was viciously slanted and selective, feeding the media’s line about drunken disorder by announcing the alcohol level in each of the victims.
Popper took an arbitrary decision to assume all the victims had died in the first few minutes of the crush, and therefore refused to investigate anything that happened after 3.15pm, the time the first ambulance arrived on the pitch.
This was instrumental in the cover-up; the 3.15pm cut-off time meant all evidence regarding the response of the emergency services (and therefore whether some of the 96 could have survived even after the crush) was ruled “inadmissible” by the Coroner‘s Court.
The Hillsborough Families consistently challenged this decision, but to no avail – until the Independent Panel’s documentation blew apart the authorities’ excuses for the 3.15 cut-off point.
The Coroner’s verdict for all the victims was ‘accidental death’, attributed to asphyxiation. The assertion was that nobody could have survived for more than a couple of minutes. That is perhaps the most cruel revelation of the Independent Panel Report: medical evidence, involving cloning of the brain, shows that 41 of those who died did not die almost instantaneously, but survived long enough to have been revived, given the right and punctual medical attention.
And other medical experts have subsequently estimated the toll could be as high as 58 out of the 96.
That fact has been deliberately buried for 23 years so as to avoid the finger of blame pointing at the incompetence of senior police and senior ambulance service officers – both of whom doctored junior staff statements to remove all reference to the appalling chaos caused by those in charge of the emergency response.
Labour betrayal of working class
One of the most appalling recent revelations, hot on the heals of the Independent Panel’s Report, is the documentary confirmation that the Labour government which replaced the Tories in 1997 sustained the cover up of the real facts, prolonging the pain and indignity of the victims’ families and the vilification of the reputations of the 96 by a clear extra 15 years.
Within five weeks of taking office, Labour Home Secretary Jack Straw had made up his mind there was no need for a further Inquiry into the causes of the tragedy.
Whilst assuring Hillsborough Family campaigners he would leave no stone unturned in seeking the truth, he cynically organised Labour’s own cover-up, in connivance with PM Blair.
On 5th June 1997 Straw wrote to Attorney General John Morris:
“I am certain that continuing public concern will not be allayed with a reassurance from the Home Office that there is no new evidence. I therefore propose that there should be an independent examination of the alleged new evidence by a senior legal figure.”
On 9th June he rammed home the same cynical calculation in a secret Memo to Tony Blair, fearing the public would refuse to accept their verdict from the government, and that it had to come from an independent source instead.
Late in June Straw met the hand-picked ‘senior legal figure/independent source’, Lord Justice Stuart-Smith, appointed to lead the review. Straw told him his officials had already looked at the case and concluded “there was not sufficient evidence to justify a new inquiry”. So he conveyed his scepticism to the judge before he even started his Review.
On 26th June, a Note of a discussion between Home Office Minister Alun Michael (Straw’s junior) with Des Parkinson, secretary of the Police Association of England and Wales, reveals that:
“Jack Straw was very concerned to avoid starting a hare running. As a result there had been some ‘creative thinking’ in the Home Office to find a way of testing the evidence without reopening the whole affair.”
This is in stark contrast to the weasel words of Straw in a statement to the House of Commons four days later, on 30th June:
“I am determined to go as far as I can to ensure that no matter of significance is overlooked and that we do not reach a final conclusion without a full and independent examination of the evidence.”
The Stuart-Smith Inquiry dragged out for seven months and predictably concluded there was no case for a new Inquiry – and utterly failed to investigate evidence that police statements from the fateful day had been substantially rewritten.
No wonder Margaret Aspinall, whose 18-year-old son James died, responded to these recent revelations by stating: “What he [Straw] did was deceitful. All governments let us down, not just the Conservatives.”
This was an appalling example of Labour’s betrayal of working class people in their devoted defense of all arms of the capitalist establishment.
Successive Inquiries and successive Tory and Labour governments buried the truth, terrified of the backlash against institutions that the rich rely on to maintain their power. But they reckoned without the Hillsborough Justice campaigners, who were adamant in their demand ‘Never again – justice for the 96′.
This victory for working class people in exposing the truth should not be the end of the matter. Apologies without justice mean nothing. The Hillsborough families are rightly demanding the reopening of the inquests, which were part of the cover-up, with their ‘accidental deaths’ verdict. That, and the call for prosecutions of those who were in charge of this man-made disaster, are the next steps towards justice.
The apologies from the Sun editor of the time, some police chiefs (though even now, not all of them), Boris Johnson and David Cameron are too little, too late. They had little choice but to apologise, given the devastating impact of the truth revealed; not to do so could have led to the Tory government’s downfall, and irreversible damage to the standing of the police.
But already within 24 hours of the Report, there were signs they wanted to make this a one-day wonder of apologies, swiftly followed by days of distraction with stories of tasteless, intrusive pictures of topless Royals. For the sake of those who perished, they must not succeed.
Justice at last??
In the wake of the damning, irrefutable public exposé of the role of senior police in the Independent Panel’s Report, unprecedented investigations of serving and retired police officers and bosses of the football authorities has been launched by both the Crown Prosecution Service and the Independent Police Complaints Commission.
Those facing potential charges of gross misconduct or even manslaughter include Chief Constable Sir Norman Bettison, who had tried to dodge the full consequences of his role in the unforgivable cover-up by first of all apologizing whilst provoking fury with the remark that “Liverpool fans had made policing more difficult than it should have been”, and then by announcing his retirement on a full, generous pension next March.
The scale of the CPS and IPCC investigations have the potential, at least, of starting to bring about some measure of justice – although the public outcry at the revelations of the truth which has been instrumental in forcing this action from the authorities will need to remain as eternal vigilance to ensure justice is done.
And the mid-September Panel Report’s damning revelations to millions has been joined by the current flood of revelations about the despicable sexual abuse by Jimmy Saville, and in particular the cover-up by that pivotal wing of the media, the BBC.
Taken together, these monumental scandals mean the powers-that-be will be terrified of a complete meltdown in the public’s faith in the media, police, prosecution services, allegedly independent complaints bodies, judiciary and governments; hence their obligation to be seen to do something about it, even if it has taken them 23 long, cruel years to even start.
Monument to the 96
In continuing the struggle for justice, democracy, accountability and socialism, I stand by the words I wrote in April 1989:
“They are desperate to cover up the real culprits – the police, the Tory ministers, the football clubs who just want our ticket money. They do nothing about the clapped out, unsafe grounds, which are part of the whole rotten free enterprise system which the Tories and their press uphold…
The unity of working class people in this hour of sorrow cuts across the rivalries which big business fosters in order to reap profits…
The messages on the sympathy cards are careful not to appear controversial in deference to the bereaved. But the collective grief does not prevent the collective rage. The anger at the treatment of fans by the football authorities peeps through even in sympathy cards…
One day the silent, choked up rage of these two million people [the number who poured into Anfield to pay tribute to the 96 in the first week after the tragedy -RV] will be turned on the authorities responsible for this needless suffering and death. They will erect the best possible monument to the fallen 96 – a society where men, women and children can work, rest and play without fear of poverty or death for profit’s sake.”