by Martin Odoni

“They were throwing stones at us, so we had to charge them with horses!” – Battle of Orgreave, 1984.

“Fans forced the gate, they were an uncontrollable mob!!!” – Hillsborough Disaster, 1989.

“The protesters were so violent, our officers had broken bones, one had a punctured lung!!!!!” – Bristol Kill-The-Bill protests, 2021.

The Hillsborough Indpendent Panel give a Press Conference at Liverpool Cathedral about their findings in September 2012

Nine years ago, Professor Phil Scraton and his colleagues on the Hillsborough Independent Panel published their report reviewing nearly half a million pages of state-held evidence regarding the Hillsborough Disaster of 1989. Their investigation concluded once and for all that the South Yorkshire Police Force and Sheffield Wednesday Football Club were to blame for the disaster, that the spectators were blameless victims, and that the British Legal Establishment had subsequently embarked on a crude cover-up of the Disaster’s real causes. They were assisted in this by an overly-compliant media, who were more interested in money-spinning shock headlines than in finding the truth.

The findings caused shockwaves of anger and disgust all around the country, and even to an extent worldwide. The then-Prime Minister, David Cameron, issued a formal apology to the people of Liverpool in the House of Commons. Football fans, irrespective of their favoured clubs, largely (though not entirely) united in a cry for justice.

Purely from the perspective of Hillsborough, this was a big turning point, as for the first time in 23 years, the state had finally had its many denials through the South Yorkshire Police disproven and debunked beyond redemption. Even now, some people still cling stubbornly to the mythological version of what caused the Disaster, but most people recognise the truth and increasingly see the nay-sayers as tedious bigots.

But the turning-point ran deeper for many. This was not just a breakthrough for the survivors of Hillsborough, and for the families of those who died. It was also a breakthrough for people who had broader grievances with the way the UK is policed. Corruption in the force is not exactly a scant commodity, and had become an increasing concern for a growing minority of the public since at least the 1970s. The culture of British policing, more even than American policing, had become so sordid and so mired in corrupt practices, corner-cutting and dirty trickery that the law-enforcers had themselves to a very significant degree become the law-breakers.

After Hillsborough, the South Yorkshire Police had carried out a regimented rigging of witness statements to submit to the various inquiries into the Disaster, put together with a diligence that, had they applied half-so-well at the stadium, no Disaster would ever have happened. The rigged statements were edited in such a way as to play up implications of crowd misbehaviour, and remove references to failures in the policing operation. What is most interesting about this process when looked at in a broader context, is that we have clear evidence that this was not the first time such falsification of witness statements had happened.

Five years earlier, at the height of the Miners’ Strike, the notorious “Battle of Orgreave” saw thousands of police officers, co-ordinated by the selfsame South Yorkshire Police, attack pickets from the National Union of Mineworkers at the Orgreave coking plant, including the deployment of officers on horseback.

At Orgreave, police on horseback charged picketing miners indiscriminately

The media, again compliant and uncritical, defended the police as being violently attacked by the miners, and ninety-five picketers were eventually charged under the archaic Riot Act. Evidence presented in court appeared to support the view that the police were defending themselves, but was later shown to have been doctored. This included videotape clips of the fighting presented in the wrong order to make causes appear to be effects and vice versa, and dozens upon dozens of witness statements provided by police officers that showed clear indicators of being rigged by dictation. The police evidence was ruled unsafe by the court, and the case against the miners was dismissed with all ninety-five accused acquitted without a stain on their characters. But none of the officers involved in the shamelessly corrupt embroidering of evidence was ever prosecuted. And perhaps most disturbingly, the BBC and other media outlets appeared to have co-operated with the doctoring process.

To add to the despair of the left, the Labour Party was in the midst of its Second Great Civil War, and then-leader Neil Kinnock was desperate not to appear sympathetic to the Trade Unions. He therefore refused to speak up in Parliament in support of the miners or to demand a proper inquiry into the scenes at Orgreave.

This culture of the police lying, fabricating evidence, and manipulating contacts in the media was clearly very firmly established before Hillsborough, therefore. But the worry is also that there is no indication at all that it has been cleared away since. David Cameron, in the same speech as he issued his apology to the people of Liverpool, claimed that the South Yorkshire Police was “a very different organisation today from what it was then.” But all the signs are that what changes there have been in all police forces around the UK since the 1980s have been superficial, and largely concerned with changes of personnel. The culture, and the structural dishonesty of the system, remains very similar, with promotion of officers largely being a business of who is best at Public Relations trickery. Such a system always results in the most dishonest and unscrupulous officers climbing the career ladder, while those officers with integrity remain lower down.

The findings of the Hillsborough Independent Panel should have led to reforms away from that shabby culture. But it is very clear that this has not happened, and by now we can also see that it is not going to.

The first evidence of this lies in how, after nine years since the panel published their report, still not a single officer has been successfully prosecuted for either the disaster or for the cover-up. The lack of real concern among Conservatives in the House of Commons, even as they made a fine show of appearing distraught during debates of the panel’s report, is underlined by how a couple of years later, they needlessly ruled out a similar independent investigation into Orgreave.

But the worst evidence that the Hillsborough Independent Panel is just an anomaly rather than the start of a precedent is what has happened in Bristol this week. Everything this week has echoes of both the Battle of Orgreave and the Hillsborough Disaster. On three nights, people in Bristol have taken to the streets to protest draconian new legislation being introduced by the Government. Each protest has descended into violence.

And the evidence is getting clearer and clearer that the Avon & Somerset Police attacked the protesters, while the police, the media, and politicians have conspired to condemn the protesters, claiming that they were the attackers.

Notice how the Home Secretary with the most expensive eyebrows in Europe is only listening to reports from the police and refusing to listen to the protesters’ side of the story? This is a vintage politician’s mistake, as the police should be investigated as much as the protesters

Just like Kinnock before him, Labour leader Keir Starmer, fighting the Third Great Labour Civil War, clearly wants to avoid association with real opposition, and condemns the protesters on the police’s say-so as well.

The suspicion is that MPs are backing the police by reflex, but if they are doing so in response to evidence the police are presenting, that is still incredibly lazy thinking, especially after what happened after Orgreave. Did the police, for instance, share the below examples from Friday night with Priti Patel before she tweeted her unequivocal support?

These officers are using the sharp edges of their shields to strike kneeling protesters over the heads with
We’re not stupid, A&S Police…
“Cry havoc, and let slip the dogs of war!!!” – Chief Constable, Avon & Somerset Police
He was just STANDING there! As part of the press. What the hell is the reason for hitting him?

At best, this is repeated excessive force, and it is difficult to believe that anything the crowd did can really justify what we see in these examples. Why also did police leak claims to the media last weekend that officers had suffered broken bones and one had a punctured lung? Which officer told this lie, and what punishment will he/she face?

Does this lie not echo loudly the lie at Orgreave that the miners threw stones at the police and only then did the police responde by charging the miners with horses?

Does this lie not echo loudly the lie at Hillsborough that Liverpool fans forced a gate to gain entry to the ground, or that they urinated on police officers and stole from the dead?

And why, even when the police admit that their big claim last weekend was untrue, are media and politicians continuing to take police claims at face-value? Surely the police conduct should be investigated?

If anything really has changed since the 1980s, why does this bit of history rhyme so similarly with Orgreave and Hillsborough?

Have none of the lessons of the Hillsborough cover-up been learned at all then? Is the culture of British policing still dominated by cynical control-of-message, damage-limitation liars, and is the naive British self-demand ‘we must always trust the police’ still not broken yet?

If so, and it certainly appears so, it can only mean that nothing substantial is ever going to come from the big turning-point in Hillsborough campaigning nine years ago. The only lessons learned are the lessons about what the events were on the day. The implications they have for all other situations have missed most of the UK entirely. The deceitfulness of the police at Hillsborough is just lazily assumed to be an anomaly and not a warning sign about how dangerous it is to trust the police in literally any other situation.

It would be wrong to say that all those decades of fighting for Hillsborough justice were for nothing. But what should have come of it has been lost in a haze of misfocused outrage, and a narrowness of deductive vision that frankly sums up modern Britain almost completely.