Hillsborough: Oh, It’s The Drunken Fans Chestnut Again, Is It? Don’t Even Go There.
February 9, 2014
by Martin Odoni
There has been a considerable, shall we say, ‘kerfuffle’ over the last few days vis a vis the re-booted Coroner’s Inquest into the Hillsborough Disaster. For those not in the know, the original Inquest into the 1989 stadium disaster in Sheffield, concluded in the spring of 1991, was the longest Inquest in English legal history. The verdict reached at its culmination for the ninety-five victims (later ninety-six, after the life-support machine of the permanently-comatose Tony Bland was switched off in 1993) was Accidental Death, thus effectively ruling that their deaths were ‘unfortunate-but-legal’.
However, severe flaws in the Inquest proceedings, and serious anomalies and omissions from much of the information presented therein, caused a furore on Merseyside and, to a lesser extent, all around the UK. The most notorious of the conditions-of-inquiry was the decision of the Coroner, Dr Stefan Popper, to impose a ‘cut-off’ time of 3:15pm on the day of the Disaster – any evidence from after that point was not to be discussed or presented at the Inquest, which strongly limited the scope of the investigation, and barred all analysis of the emergency response. The cut-off had been based on the assumption that all the victims were dead of traumatic asphyxia, or at least that their fates had already been sealed, by 3:15pm. Traumatic asphyxia is the result of the victim’s airway becoming closed off, and, if not re-opened, it leads to unconsciousness within seconds, and death within about six minutes. Taking the logic of the cut-off time to its fullest length, all the victims would have been dead well before 3:30pm.
After twenty years of campaigning against the legal decisions, the survivors of the Disaster and the bereaved families of the victims won a major breakthrough in 2009 when the Hillsborough Independent Panel was set up to investigate all state-held documentation relating to Hillsborough ahead of the (thoroughly anachronistic) Thirty-Years-Rule. After many months of rigorous study and research into nearly half-a-million documents, the Panel finally published its findings in September 2012, and among other revelations fit to make faces turn the colour of snow, the Panel concluded that the Inquest had indeed been fundamentally mishandled, that critical evidence had indeed been kept hidden from it. And yes, the 3:15pm cut-off had been wrong; there was clear evidence of some victims still being alive well after 3:30pm. From analysing post-mortem records, the Panel’s chief medical expert, Dr Bill Kirkup, concluded that at least forty-one, possibly even fifty-eight, of the victims still had the potential to be saved after the cut-off time, had the emergency response been handled better. The outcome of the Inquest was simply unsustainable.
In December 2012, the Inquest verdict of Accidental Death was quashed in a remarkably quick hearing at the High Court – so quick in fact that one can’t help but wonder whether it was a symptom of embarrassment on the part of the British Legal Industry for having made such a dreadful hash of the original process – and a fresh Inquest was ordered, one that is scheduled to begin at the end of March 2014. At the time of writing, the pre-Inquest hearings are in progress.
This week, legal representatives of the South Yorkshire Police – the force that had run the policing operation that went so badly wrong at Hillsborough – announced to the fifth preliminary hearing that they would assert at the Inquest that putative ‘drunken behaviour’ by fans was a significant factor in the Disaster. There were loud cries of disgust from people observing the court proceedings as this announcement was made, and there was uproar when the news spread to Merseyside.
The non-issue of drunkenness at Hillsborough has become particularly strong and cloying salt-in-the-wounds of the people of Liverpool, and with good reason. That police neglect led to nearly a hundred deaths was a horrendous injury in itself, but the strenuous attempts the South Yorkshire Police made in the aftermath to shift the blame for the deaths onto the very people they had neglected – attempts that the aforementioned Independent Panel had exposed in considerable damning detail – was one of the most shameful chapters in Britain’s tiresome history of scapegoating, and of kicking people when they are down. At the core of these attempts were apocryphal stories leaked to the press by the police about drunken fans causing chaos that was beyond the officers’ power to contain. There is no doubt at all that these malicious rumours left a very deep mark on the public perception of the Disaster around the country.
But was there any truth to these stories? Are any of them substantiated by the facts at all?
Quite simply, the answer appears to be no. Or at least that, if they are true, they were events that somehow only the police were able to see. As Professor Phil Scraton has noted, in his account of the Disaster Hillsborough: The Truth, hundreds of witness statements taken from the police and members of the public exist, and almost all of the ones that speak of high alcohol consumption or drunken behaviour come from the police. Indeed, some witnesses outside the police force commented that they were surprised at how little drunken behaviour was in evidence.
One of the insidious aspects of the Disaster’s aftermath was that Popper, apparently in response to what he was being told by the police themselves, had given orders that the blood alcohol levels of all the victims, including children (one of whom was just ten years old!) should be tested to try and ascertain the levels of drunkenness in the crowd at Hillsborough.
This instruction was scandalously intrusive, and betrayed the reality that Popper’s view of the Disaster had been prejudiced from a very early stage, rendering him unfit to conduct any investigation into it. But what is interesting to note is that when the Hillsborough Independent Panel studied the results of these blood-tests, they found that the alcohol level was unusually low for a leisure event with a high attendance of young adult males.
Blood-alcohol tests were also performed on survivors of the crush, apparently without their knowledge, while they were in hospital. The results of these tests are unknown – any documents referring to them did not reach the Panel – but that again suggests the alcohol consumption on the day was nothing to write home about; given all the other hysterical, far-fetched and offensive rumours that the South Yorkshire Police were leaking to the press in the days after the tragedy, had they procured actual evidence of high levels of drunkenness in fans, they would surely have shouted it from the rooftops instead of quietly allowing the documents just to go missing. (As I have pointed out before on the Discursive Types essay – see Category 12 – some of the rumours that officers started giving voice to in knee-jerk response to the Taylor Interim Report were nothing short of bizarre, and completely devoid of any supporting evidence, but that didn’t stop them from telling them.)
Within hours of the Disaster, officers of the South Yorkshire Police began searching through the outer confines of the stadium, looking for litter to be used as ‘evidence’ of fan drunkenness. Inevitably with such a large crowd, a lot of litter was found, and photos were taken, but not to quite the effect the police perhaps desired.
As we can see from this picture…
… and indeed from this one…
… an awful lot of the cans and bottles found lying around the ground were for soft drinks only, especially quite a lot of coca-cola. Unless the recipe for colas really was astonishingly (and indeed illegally) different back in the 1980’s from what it is now, there was very little danger of people getting tipsy on this evidence.
The police did claim in response to the Taylor Interim Report that they found over three hundred cans for alcoholic drinks around the stadium. Given that there were over fifty-four thousand people at Hillsborough that day, that really is a negligible number of cans; by my calculations, that would be one can for every one hundred-and-eighty spectators.
Nothing daunted, in the days after the Disaster, officers of the South Yorkshire Police actually went as far as to drive west from Sheffield and over the Pennines with a video camera, trying to find more discarded beer cans and bottles on the roads to use as evidence of excessive drinking. Precious little did they find, but even if they had found more, it would have been something of a dangerous leap to assume that football fans had been responsible for them being there. Equally, the point must be repeated that there would have been no way of establishing how many fans around whom all of the alcohol would have been shared. Say the police had managed to find another two thousand empty beer cans (no, Manchester United fans, they did not find them really, this is just what is called ‘a hypothetical’ – look the word up on dictionary.com if you don’t understand it). Two thousand may sound like a lot at first, until you remember that there were over twenty-four thousand Liverpool supporters at Hillsborough, which means that we would in fact be talking about less than a single can of beer for every twelve people.
Neither one can in one hundred-and-eighty, nor even one can in twelve, is a proportion likely to get too many people steaming really, is it? And in the event, the police hardly found any cans or bottles at all. For them to go to such lengths to find evidence of drunkenness and to come back with so little should tell us exactly how unlikely the rumours are to be true.
It would stand to reason that at least a few of the fans at Hillsborough were the worse for drink, as was the case at most football matches at the time, but not enough to affect the course of events. And the attempts to project the behaviour of a tiny minority onto the majority is like trying to re-write a Jane Austen novel as science-fiction; exaggeration so wild that it lurches repeatedly into the impossible. For certain, given how thoroughly both the interior and exterior of the Hillsborough Stadium were filmed by the CCTV system, if any of the anecdotes of wild behaviour by the fans were true, the recorded footage would surely have captured at least some of them. But no. The nearest that has ever been found are isolated incidents that were misinterpreted e.g. fans supposedly ‘diving under a police horse’ in order to get to the turnstiles more quickly, when in fact the press of the crowd made it impossible for them not to be propelled towards the horse, and so they dived underneath just to get past it without being trampled.
Another point that is not often raised, but I would assert needs to be at least considered, is that drunkenness does not necessarily mean disorder or violence. Studies into football hooliganism in the mid-1990’s were conducted to investigate this frequently-begged question as to whether drink is necessarily a contributory factor when there is disorder among spectators. As the Football Violence In Europe study reported to The Amsterdam Group in 1996; –
“Football violence in Britain is often reported in the media as resulting from excessive alcohol consumption. This view, however, is not shared by the large majority of social scientists who have conducted research on hooliganism. Neither is it the view popularly held in many other European countries. Little research has focused specifically on the role of alcohol in football hooliganism. This is because it has been considered, at best, a peripheral issue in most studies. Some investigators, however, have recently claimed that drinking can ‘aggravate’ football violence and have supported calls for further restrictions at football grounds. Little evidence has been provided to support their claims.” (Bold emphasis mine.)
In short, there is no particular correlation, and therefore no reason to assume that just because a football crowd has plenty of people who have been drinking, it is ipso facto more likely to lapse into hooliganism. (Nor, for that matter, is there reason to assume that a football crowd that is largely sober is particularly less likely to lapse into hooliganism. All we can do is see what the evidence from the day of an incident tells us, and what the evidence from Hillsborough tells us is that the crowd largely behaved well, and did nothing to make a disaster any more likely to happen. What misbehaviour there was was largely in response to the crush rather than a cause of it.)
So here is the inevitable question; why are the then-officers of the South Yorkshire Police trying to play the discredited ‘drunken yobs’ card yet again? Are they just unaware of how completely the notion has been debunked? Or of how clearly it has been established that the behaviour of the fans as a whole had no bearing whatever on the course of events?
Well in fact that lack of awareness may just be possible, at least in one case. One of the officers in question is none other than the Match Commander from that fateful day, then-Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield. His mishandling of the police effort was what led to the Disaster, most particularly his failure to monitor the crowd build-up on the terraces, leading him to shepherd thousands of spectators into enclosures that were already dangerously full. Within minutes of the Disaster unfolding, he was falsely, and in full knowledge of the real truth, accusing the Liverpool fans of forcing open an exit gate that he himself had ordered open. That part of the story was soon set straight, but Duckenfield never faced any repercussions either for the initial mistake, or for the blame-shifting lie he told. And since that time, Duckenfield’s general behaviour on the subject of Hillsborough could be summed up in the two words, ‘Guilty silence.’ At the Inquests, he showed a remarkable propensity for not really answering questions about his decision-making (and occasional lack thereof), usually responding with evasions like, “I have no recollection.”
He avoided all public prosecutions, and when he faced internal disciplinary action by the police for misconduct, he dodged that by retiring on grounds of ‘ill-health’, taking a £25,000 per year pension at the expense of the public purse, and terminating the investigation into his conduct before it could begin. In subsequent years, many attempts have been made by members of the media to get him to speak out about what happened, and about what he said and did. They have all been met with a cold silence. As the attempt to interrogate him in The Cook Report in 1994 showed, he will simply turn his back and walk away whenever he is confronted about the Disaster. He is clearly terrified of even being made to think about Hillsborough, let alone to discuss it.
Therefore, he could be genuinely unaware of the specifics of what was revealed by the Hillsborough Independent Panel, and the many other details uncovered subsequently – because he has been deliberately covering his ears against it.
Well, that is Duckenfield for you. He is plainly a coward, and will put anyone and anything between himself and the blame for his failure.
If the South Yorkshire Police really must try to extenuate their failings on the day of the Disaster, then instead they could – indeed they should – point the finger at Sheffield Wednesday Football Club, the owners of the Hillsborough Stadium. That would be a better move, both strategically and morally. It was Sheffield Wednesday, after all, that had fitted out the stadium throughout the 1980’s in a way that made it increasingly dangerous and rather more difficult to police than it needed to be. Given that Sheffield Wednesday publicly apologised for its failings on the morning that the Independent Panel’s Report was published, the club can hardly start denying it now, so it would seem a more workable approach for the police than trying to resuscitate a myth whose entire credibility has clearly breathed its last. Perhaps the police just don’t think that the shoddiness of the stadium will be enough of a ‘patsy’ on its own? Ultimately, as Lord Justice Taylor concluded, while the stadium was unsafe, history had shown that it could be policed to a level adequate to prevent major emergencies.
The difficulty for the South Yorkshire Police former officers is that they do not really have much else to put between themselves and the line of fire. The fans were always the easy scapegoats from the very first moment, and after nearly a quarter of a century, the police still haven’t found an alternative. But to revert to Plan A like this when it depends on a myth that has completely lost its traction is not the answer. All it does is confirm exactly the narrow-minded, stubborn deceitfulness that the Report of the Hillsborough Independent Panel had detailed, while making the perpetrators seem even more cynical, cruel, prejudiced and deluded than ever. It is only likely to erode still further any public sympathy that remains for the South Yorkshire Police.
What I suggest they try instead is a departure so radical and so alien to them in concept that they probably won’t even understand it.
They could actually try telling the truth.
They could try admitting that they got almost everything wrong in their attempts to direct the crowd at Hillsborough. They could try accepting that the mistakes were the result of their own negligence and carelessness. And finally, most importantly, they could concede that they have to take the consequences of their bungling. Having delayed their comeuppance for a quarter of a century, usually by illegal means, they should feel that they have already been allowed to dodge and evade for far longer than they could ever be entitled to. They have been allowed to get on with their lives for a long time, a free purchase of time, while the bereaved and the survivors have been left to suffer and to bear the burden of the South Yorkshire Police’s guilt. I am sure that the denial of that guilt is itself a burden on the consciences of the former police officers themselves, and even if the price of lifting that burden is finally to accept the prosecutions they have evaded for so long, I imagine that would hurt them less than carrying on on their present course.
Time is up on that, South Yorkshire Police. If you try to evade the penalty you owe society any further, that penalty will only be made greater when it is finally imposed on you – and it will be, too much of the real story has already been exposed now. It is already beyond the bounds of reason to expect any reconciliation with those you have failed and sullied. But continue to fight them and all you will achieve is more pain, more suffering, more frustration, more animosity, and more inner feelings of guilt.
Tell us, Duckenfield et al, would that really be preferable to simply accepting the numbingly obvious at long last?
More on Hillsborough; –
Mike Nicholson shares similar sentiments about David Duckenfield on the Hillsborough Disaster Documentary blog;-