Hillsborough & UKIP

February 15, 2017

by Martin Odoni

This blog has, to this point, treated the Hillsborough Disaster and the UK Independence Racket-… er, sorry, I mean the UK Independence Party, as two completely unrelated subjects. I suspect that they still are, in fact. But over the last few days there has been an unmissable furore over whether claims of the new leader of UKIP, Paul Nuttall, to have been in the stadium on the day of Hillsborough are true or not.

NOTE: I have chosen to link to the Skwawkbox blog, because I am getting a little fed-up of the Guardian getting all the credit for identifying the anomalies in Nuttall’s story when the SB blog got there way earlier.

I do not wish to spend too long speculating on whether Nuttall’s claims are true. I myself, despite long years studying the Disaster, was not there, and so I have no possible way of knowing for certain. Even so, I can say that I was skeptical for a long time about Nuttall’s claims, and events over the last week or so have only served to increase my doubts. (His latest attempt to explain away a proven falsity in his claims has been debunked with astonishing speed and ease.) I disagree with suggestions that Nuttall’s account of being at Hillsborough was actually contradictory, but even so I doubt he was there, for reasons I have little need to explain, as they are being discussed widely elsewhere.

nuttal-htt

Whether he was actually there or not, Paul Nuttall has clearly lied about, or at least heavily embellished, his involvement in the Hillsborough Disaster.

So I want to discuss the response of some of Nuttall’s defenders, rather than his detractors. Particularly noticeable and crass was of course the intervention of UKIP’s chief funder (and, some would argue, real leader) Arron Banks, who tweeted last night that he was “sick to death of hearing about” Hillsborough.

For my own part, I have stated more than once in the past that I am sick of hearing people say that they are sick of hearing about Hillsborough. This is not least because there is something nauseatingly insufferable about anyone who imagines their personal boredom-threshold is more important than the grisly deaths of almost a hundred people. It says something about Banks’ self-centred arrogance – always in long supply – that he could put his wish for a change of subject before the fact that, even with the new Inquest verdict last year, there has still not been a single successful prosecution over the Disaster or the cover-up that followed.

Banks’ remarks are also startling vacuous at other points. He tweeted, “if a policemen opens a gate trying to help and makes a bad decision it’s an accident. As for a cover up it was the 80’s.”

Now, the first sentence is just stupid, because it is an implied strawman argument contradicted by the drearily obvious. Nobody is suggesting that the South Yorkshire Police were deliberately trying to get someone killed at Hillsborough. (At Orgreave, probably, but let us leave that on one side.) Everybody knows that the crush was unintentional. That does not satisfy the definition of an ‘Accident’ in a Coroner’s Court, I should mention. But even so, no one imagines that David Duckenfield was stood in the police control box next to the Leppings Lane end, tweaking his non-existent moustache and rubbing his hands together in evil glee, like a stereotype Bond-villain, as over three thousand people were crammed into a space suited for about seventeen-hundred. It is beyond stupid to imply that people are arguing Hillsborough was a deliberate attempt to take lives.

But if the first sentence is stupid, the second sentence is just meaningless. It was the 80’s, you say, Mr Banks? Well knock me down with a feather! Say, Arron, have you noticed? The year was called “1989”! Could that be connected with these “80’s” things you are talking about? There must be some link, right? EUREKA!

Sarcasm aside; again, we already know. Just saying, “It was the 80’s” does not explain anything, nor does it constitute a particularly clear reason for just shrugging the shoulders and dropping the whole subject.

Banks then tried to clarify his ‘point’ (for want of a better word), by adding, “It was the 80’s” [thank goodness he repeated that, there was a real danger we might not have figured out which decade 1989 was in without his repeated information] “I been[sic] at some matches that were squeezed beyond belief. This could have happened anywhere anytime.”

Sadly, this only intensifies the impression of crass stupidity. Again, Banks is saying nothing that has not been said countless times before, so he is enlightening nobody; it is perfectly true that almost all stadia in Britain and Ireland at the time were at least as unsafe and poorly policed as Hillsborough. But also, he in fact defeats his own argument in saying it. It is precisely because the Disaster at Hillsborough could have happened anywhere that the issues surrounding it remain relevant today. These issues are; –

  • Prejudiced, heavy-handed policing against presumed hooligans.
  • Complacency among football clubs and authorities, and again by the police, on matters of public safety.
  • Corruption of public and private institutions who are more concerned with protecting their own reputations than with honesty or transparency.

These matters have never been brought properly into the light-of-day, never given adequate official scrutiny or in-depth reform, and quite probably are still not properly guarded against even today. Simply saying, “Oh it was the 80’s” is merely giving this culture-of-shabbiness a name, not explaining or resolving anything. Wrongdoing remains wrongdoing, no matter the decade in which it happened, and a failure to fulfil one’s responsibilities, compounded by a subsequent attempt to shift the blame for that failure onto the people who suffered because of it, is only more wrongdoing.

As for feeling “sick to death”, I can tell Banks this; I’m “sick-to-death” of Banks and his allies lying to us non-stop about how much better off we will all be once we are out of the European Union, but that has never stopped them.

Inevitably, far lower-profile ‘Kippers than Banks have been leaping with partisan fervour to Nuttall’s defence. I have seen UKIP supporters registering squealing objections all over social media. One theme that seems to be popular among ‘Kippers is the notion that the British Left is somehow ‘exploiting’ the way Nuttall has been caught red-handed.

I find this argument vomitous. For a start, how can condemning Nuttall’s dishonesty (this chapter is just part of a far wider pattern of, shall we say, ‘seriously embellished’ claims Nuttall has made for himself) be called ‘exploitative’? Surely it is Nuttall’s manipulation of the Hillsborough Disaster, in an apparent attempt to associate himself with one of the British public’s greatest ever victories over institutionalised injustice, that is exploitative? He is standing in the Stoke-On-Trent Central By-Election next week, and the people there need to know the sorts of confections he is capable of. They must consider whether it is safe to elect a man who would lie to the whole nation about something like this, and in order to deliberate on that, they need to know he has done it.

But equally, let us remember that this whiny objection is coming from supporters of UKIP! Which is to say, from the party and support-base that have spent most of the last five years or so constantly trying to score cheap and cruel political points against other parties over alleged widespread child abuse by politicians. That UKIP supporters get so outraged about child abuse, but never seem to remember the alleged victims after the desired political damage has been inflicted on opponents, should tell us all just how much they really care about those same victims. So how is that not exploitation of a far, far lower order than merely pointing out when someone is using the tragedies of others to gain publicity? In fact, Nuttall has been pulling the same trick by trying to tap into outrage over the police cover-up after Hillsborough. If he was not there – and on balance it seems ever more likely that he was not – then he is being exploitative in one of the ugliest ways I can imagine, and so if you want to say that giving him a public caning for it is also ‘exploitative’ (it is not), well, swings-and-roundabouts.

No, the exploitation is very much on one side. Whether Nuttall was at Hillsborough or not, it is clear he was little-affected by it, but still he tries to associate himself with the campaign for justice after remaining silent about it for well over twenty years. Nuttall did not have to use Hillsborough to gain publicity, he chose to. He has exploited, he has not been exploited. He deserves vilification, for, after all the horrendous agonies Hillsborough campaigners have been put through over the last twenty-eight years, they did not deserve to be used like this.

It was their battle, not his.

Advertisements

by Martin Odoni

The rebooted Inquest into the Hillsborough Disaster has at least finally produced a verdict that tallies with what really happened. Considerable new information was unveiled during the proceedings, adding to public understanding. But there is much about the tragedy, both before and after, that still requires accounting for, and the South Yorkshire Police Service, with its delaying tactics throughout, made clear it has no wish to help with them. The police priority ultimately remained, as it has always been, to shift responsibility onto others, and so mysteries about the Disaster that should have been resolved long before now remain mysteries.

Perhaps this is as much an exercise in curiosity as it is in articulating the ongoing quest for justice (no, an Unlawful Killing verdict in a Coroner’s court does not constitute justice in itself), but I have decided to offer up some questions that I was hoping the authorities might answer at the Inquest. To the best of my knowledge, they have still not been answered after twenty-seven years, and as they are important and relevant issues, truth, justice and accountability will require explanations for all of them – and much else besides.


1) Who in the South Yorkshire Police decided to appoint David Duckenfield to be Match Commander at an FA Cup semi-final, when it was so patently obvious that he was ill-equipped for such a complex role, and why?

Much has rightly been made down the years of the then-newly-promoted Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield being horrendously inexperienced and ill-prepared for the job of directing the police operation at Hillsborough. This lack of know-how certainly explains why Duckenfield made such a dreadful hash of the role, and arguably one can even feel just a tiny, rare twinge of sympathy for him as a result of the position in which he was placed.

But in turn, no one has yet properly explained why he was given such a glaringly-unsuitable role in the first place. The Hillsborough Independent Panel, in their Report in 2012, explicitly stated that they could find no documentation at all in South Yorkshire Police files explaining the thinking behind the appointment. I was therefore hoping that someone might ‘de-cloak’ that subject a little during the Inquest. It never really happened though, and Duckenfield himself was, characteristically, of little help on the subject.

The late Peter Wright, Chief Constable of South Yorkshire in 1989, stated nearly a week after the Disaster that he accepted ‘full responsibility’ for the actions of the police at Hillsborough due to them being his own appointments. But in the 22 years that followed before his death, Wright never gave any coherent explanation for the most critical appointment of all.

Surely there is still someone alive who was in the South Yorkshire Police at the time who can at least shed a little light on this? It is a very important matter, as it raises serious questions about the adequacy of the processes by which roles are assigned in the South Yorkshire Police, perhaps even in the British Police as a whole. What process did Wright follow that led him to choose Duckenfield? Was it just laziness? Did he just assume that, now Duckenfield was the same rank as his predecessor, Brian Mole, he would automatically be able to do all of the same jobs to the same standard? Was it, as some suspect, because Duckenfield was a freemason, and ‘fellow travellers’ high up in the police hierarchy were giving him an easy climb?

It is possible that selection processes have changed in the long years since the Disaster of course, but rather than just complacently acknowledging the possibility, I for one would be a lot happier if we made sure. Especially so, given the, frankly, comical aftermath of the recent Inquest verdict; soon-to-retire Chief Constable David Crompton was suspended due to police conduct during the Inquest, and Dawn Copley, an officer under investigation for possible corruption (no, this is not a joke, at least not an intentional one), was appointed to fill in for him until a permanent successor could be found. Hardly surprisingly, she lasted little more than twenty-four hours in the position before a new public outcry chased her from office.

This little chapter has more than a faint echo of Duckenfield’s ill-considered appointment, in that whoever is making these decisions in South Yorkshire still does not appear to be checking very carefully or thinking through the implications very far.

The country really does need to know, and, where appropriate, to demand substantial changes to selection processes.

2) Having stated in advance that the Taylor Inquiry would ‘undoubtedly reveal the true nature and cause’ of the Disaster, why did the South Yorkshire Police higher echelons so aggressively attempt to ‘un-write’ the Taylor Interim Report during the Coroner’s Inquest, instead of just accepting its findings?

Chief Constable Peter Wright was unequivocal in the days after the Disaster in his confidence that the Taylor Inquiry would successfully get to the root of what went wrong at Hillsborough. This surely can only be interpreted as a commitment to accept Taylor’s quality-of-judgement and impartiality, and so to respect whatever findings at which he might arrive.

In the event, the Taylor Interim Report concluded that the police were the hapless creators of the Disaster, and in response, Wright offered his resignation.

But the then-Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, was unhappy at Taylor’s ‘devastating criticism of the police’. While not formally rejecting the findings, nor actively participating in the renewed cover-up that followed, Thatcher refused to offer any public endorsement of the Taylor Report, and that made it very easy for the authorities in South Yorkshire to reject Wright’s resignation.

From that point on, the force became very aggressive in disputing and trying to discredit Taylor’s findings, especially in the original Coroner’s Inquest. This was in flat contradiction of Wright’s original declaration. Wright himself gave a very irresponsible interview to the Sheffield Star in February 1990, in which he explicitly dismissed the Interim Report. These sorts of articles were prominent in the South Yorkshire media around this time, and showed that the police were manipulating their contacts in the press in a way that was liable to have an unfair influence on the locally-selected jury at the Coroner’s Inquest. Lord Justice Taylor had gone from being a man in whom Wright had confidence to being a man Wright was determined to discredit.

There must be someone who was in the command structure of the South Yorkshire Police at that time who can account for such a stark reversal-of-position. As matters stand, the likeliest and most tempting explanation by far is that Wright had originally just assumed that Taylor would hand his force a ‘Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free card’ and whitewash the Inquiry, hence the prior endorsement. Having instead carried out a genuine investigation, Taylor came to a conclusion that Wright had not wanted, and so higher-ups in the South Yorkshire Police decided they were not as confident in him as they had previously sounded.

It is worth noting that, in the aftermath of the original Coroner’s Inquest, when campaigners disputed the verdict of Accidental Death, the loathsome Paul Middup of the South Yorkshire Police Federation (the police ‘trade union’) publicly, and with characteristic tactlessness and accusatory wording, suggested that they did not really want justice.

“It makes one wonder whether it’s justice that they do want. You see, they’ve had justice, it’s been through the full judicial process. But because it hasn’t come out the way they would like, then they don’t feel they’ve had justice. And really I think most people will take that for what it is.”

Setting aside the cheap insult implied in that final sentence, and Middup’s utterly mysterious definition of ‘having justice’, the barefaced hypocrisy of his words beggars belief. He effectively accuses Hillsborough campaigners of ‘sour grapes’, as though they were upset about a refereeing decision in a football match instead of grieving the deaths of loved ones. He berates their refusal to accept the judge’s verdict as final. And yet he and his own police force had done exactly the same in response to the Taylor Interim Report’s findings, and based on far less evidence than the objections of Hillsborough campaigners to the Inquest verdict.

Quite simply, if the police declared that the Taylor Inquiry would ‘undoubtedly’ find the truth, and if they are going to imply that rejection of the original Inquest verdict is spiteful behaviour, then they are clearly going to have to explain how their own change of stance is any less spiteful – or admit that they should have kept their promise in the first place.

3) David Duckenfield’s predecessor, Chief Superintendent Brian Mole, offered to come back to Hillsborough for the semi-final to serve as Match Commander. Given Duckenfield’s comparative inadequacy in the command role, why was Mole’s offer refused?

Chief Superintendent Brian Mole was moved from Sheffield to Barnsley just three weeks prior to the FA Cup semi-final, due to a very cruel prank played by some of his officers on one of their colleagues. It was a prank that Mole had had nothing to do with, and had it not happened, it is fair to suggest that the Disaster would have been avoided, as the police effort at Hillsborough would have had experienced leadership.

It is rumoured that officials at Sheffield Wednesday Football Club were so alarmed at the thought of a novice taking over from the expert at such short notice that they offered Mole free tickets to coax him back for the day. This story sounds doubtful to me, as there was surely nothing to stop the club from lodging a formal protest, which does not appear to have happened, instead of trying cajolery. (In fact, surely the club had a moral duty to make such a protest?)

But whether the rumour is true or not, there is evidence to indicate that Mole himself did offer to attend the semi-final as Match Commander. For reasons that have never been made particularly clear, Duckenfield declined. He did apparently counter-propose that Mole attend the match in an advisory role, but Mole, perhaps worried that his advice might be ignored but that he could still become implicated in anything that might go wrong, was not keen on that suggestion.

NOTE: The precise order of these events is not clear, and so we do not know for sure which offer was made first. But whatever the case, there seems no doubt that Mole did offer to perform the Match Commander duties, and that Duckenfield said no.

It could even be argued that it was a generous offer by Mole, given that he was offering to give up a day off to make sure that one of the toughest jobs on the South Yorkshire Police’s calendar was kept in experienced hands, despite the fact he had recently been demoted by the force for horseplay that he had not been involved in at all.

We cannot ask Mole, as he is no longer with us, but we really do need to know why Duckenfield turned down such an eminently sensible suggestion. Were it a matter of ego for instance – say Duckenfield felt insecure in his new position as Chief Superintendent and so wanted to ‘prove his manhood’ as it were – it is important we make sure that the police in future do not treat their jobs as vehicles for their own self-esteem.

4) Why did the Football Association never, as a matter of policy, check the safety certificates of stadia considered for FA Cup semi-final venues, even after such stadia had undergone very public modifications?

It is a well-recorded concern of the Hillsborough Disaster that, it emerged during the Inquiries that followed, the safety certificate for the stadium was eight years out-of-date by 1989. The certificate in effect at the time reflected the stadium’s lay-out as it was from the date-of-issue in 1979 through to the summer of 1981. A wide variety of changes were made to the stadium in the years that followed, especially on the Leppings Lane terrace, all of which required an assessment and corresponding update to the certificate.

These changes started with the installation of radial fences on the terrace, dividing it into three enclosures, or ‘pens’ in 1981. Such fences of course constitute a severe obstacle to movement, and so the terrace should immediately have been re-assessed to establish how much of a hindrance they might be to evacuations in an emergency. Further, the terrace had three entrances, and therefore three potential evacuation routes. But once it was divided into pens, each enclosure now had just one evacuation route – the way spectators had come in. If that route were cut off for any reason, the certificate would need updating with details of what alternative escape routes – if any – could be made available in a hurry. (And if none could be made available in a hurry, surely the certificate would have to be withheld?)

But no re-assessment was performed. Even the official terrace capacity of ten thousand one hundred – considered by the police to be an over-estimate from the outset – was not re-calculated.

Further changes were made in the years ahead, including installation, removal, or re-positioning of crush barriers. All of these needed assessing to make sure that the new lay-outs did not jeopardise safety of spectators, and to make sure that the barriers were well-connected to the terrace floor, set at good heights, and were in a strong enough condition. But again, no such assessment was carried out.

A roof was put on the ‘Spion Kop’ stand at the east end of the stadium. The Leppings Lane terrace was re-divided into five pens in 1985. The entry concourse at the west end of the stadium was divided up by a complex series of diagonal walls, to help with segregation. All of these were major changes that would have serious implications for safety and evacuation, and yet not one re-assessment was performed.

When the Football Association was mulling over whether or not to award Hillsborough an FA Cup semi-final in 1987, you might imagine that the first question they would have asked would be, “All these changes the club has made to the stadium, are we sure they are safe?” There had been no semi-final held there in six years, after thirty-eight Tottenham Hotspur fans were injured in a crush on the Leppings Lane terrace in 1981. On reflection of that, you might expect safety considerations to be the first priority for the FA when weighing up the decision.

And you would be quite wrong.

There was in fact no formal policy at the FA of assessing safety before assigning venues for semi-finals each year. According to Adrian Titcombe, who was Head of Competitions at the Association in the 1980’s, safety was the responsibility of the clubs hosting the matches, the local authorities, and the police. It was not the responsibility, he insisted at the Inquest in July 2014, of the FA. He further said, without a trace of irony or ‘regret-in-hindsight’,

“My understanding is we always steered clear of anything to do with safety.”

Titcombe may not realise it, but this remark is frightening in the extreme. On one level, he is correct, safety certainly was a responsibility principally of the club, local authorities, and police. But if the Football Association – the body governing the sport in England and running the FA Cup competition itself – refused to have anything to do with safety matters at all, that would mean it would not even accept the duty of enforcing safety rules, the job of making sure clubs were complying with them. And if the FA was refusing to do that, that would mean nobody was. How effective could the safety laws introduced in the 1970’s be if no official body or individual was making sure that they were being carried out? They were reduced to text in books, no more effective at laying down the law than a Qur’an in a Christian country.

So why was the FA taking such a remote stance that its people would not even pause to check safety documentation? Disinterest? Fear? Lazy concern that to do so would imply acceptance of responsibility? In the absence of a clear answer from the FA, the only reasons I can think of are all overwhelmingly negative ones, suggesting an authority that cared nothing for its own supporters. Given it was routinely accepting money from them, that in itself could constitute criminal negligence, possibly even a form of fraud.

Unless the Association can come up with a genuinely good explanation for this ‘steer-clear-of-safety-issues’ policy – and by ‘good’ I mean an explanation that does not boil down to evading responsibility – it will have members past and present in the dock alongside the South Yorkshire Police when criminal prosecutions begin.

5) Chief Constable Peter Wright admitted on the BBC’s Match Of The Day, just hours after the Disaster, that the number of people on the Leppings Lane terrace did not appear to exceed its capacity, making wide ticketlessness a remote possibility at best. So why over the next few days did he order his force to find evidence that would place the blame on ‘drunken, ticketless individuals’?

Peter Wright’s appearance on Match Of The Day on 15th April 1989 can be quite instructive for anyone trying to measure the South Yorkshire Police mentality in the aftermath of the Disaster. This is partly because he revealed details that he and his officers later tried to contradict, implying defensiveness and denial. Most particularly, while interviewed by Gerald Sinstadt, Wright admitted that visual indicators suggested the stadium was not over its capacity. Such an observation made the presumed presence of ticketless fans unlikely. This interview was just four days before Wright said, at a meeting with the Police Federation,

“if anybody should be blamed, it should be the drunken ticketless individuals.” (Emphasis mine.)

That instruction heavily shaped the South Yorkshire Police’s conduct in relation to the Disaster over the next several years, even though subsequent analysis by the Health & Safety Executive found that the attendance was indeed very close to the ticket allocation.

One cannot help but imagine Wright putting his hand over his own mouth after the interview with Sinstadt and muttering, “Damn, why did I say that?” as it potentially undermined his force’s later efforts to shift blame for the Disaster onto the Liverpool supporters. Wright’s observation that the ground was not over capacity was clearly inconvenient to those efforts, and he was therefore perhaps fortunate that no one in the media noticed the inconsistency and took him to task over it.

It is notable that, during the 19th April meeting mentioned above, Wright was told a variety of tall stories about fan behaviour by his officers. He seems to have gone along with them out of sheer convenience; it is quite impossible to see any honourable rationale, as matters stand, for Wright’s speedy change-of-stance. The only plausible explanation is that a narrative about ticketlessness suited his defence, while his earlier observation of the physical facts did not.

For the posterity of the late Peter Wright, maybe one of his former colleagues can shed light on other, presently-unclear reasons why he did it? If not, he will be forever remembered as a toxic liar.

6) What possible reason did the Coroner of South Yorkshire West, Dr Stefan Popper, have for taking blood alcohol levels from children?

One of the most notorious actions carried out by the authorities on the night after the Disaster was done on the orders of the Coroner, Dr Stefan Popper. Blood samples were taken from all ninety-four fatalities, as the total was at that point, and tested for alcohol levels.

Now, this instruction was highly unusual and very intrusive, as it was an order to test the victims of a disaster. It is a little like a captain crashing a passenger ferry, and the stewards and stewardesses being tested for substances instead of the crew. (While we are on this subject, surely the Coroner should have ordered blood alcohol tests for the police at the same time? It was their guidance of the crowd that had gone wrong, after all, and objectively, if he was going to suspect alcohol might be a cause of that, there is no reason just to assume that all the police were sober.)

Nonetheless, the instruction might be seen as at least comprehensible in most cases. The truly disturbing and unsettling aspect of the instruction was that it was completely indiscriminate. All of the victims were tested for their blood alcohol levels, including children. The youngest of the victims, Jon-Paul Gilhooley – cousin of the future Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard – was just ten years old, and even he was tested for blood alcohol levels!

This does not suggest a very objective mindset on the part of Stefan Popper. He clearly saw football fans in an ugly, yobbish light, which is a distorting enough prejudice. But to extend that to the point that he assumed any football fan with an age in double-digits is a candidate to be a heavy drinker is beyond insulting.

Even if Gilhooley, by some incredibly remote happenstance, genuinely had had a drop of something inappropriate added to his lemonade, it is still hard to see how it would be relevant, for a reason that should have crossed Popper’s mind; drink or no drink, how much pressure can really be added to a human crush of several thousand adults by a boy whose number of years on Earth probably exceeded the number of stones he weighed?

The instruction, at least without getting permission from the next-of-kin, was insulting and invasive, but extending it to children was also pointless. It caused completely unnecessary extra distress to bereaved families, who, if nothing else, could have at least been spared that.

So Popper, who died just weeks before the new Inquest verdict, was guilty of gross insensitivity and impropriety. If anyone who worked closely with him on the night of Hillsborough is still alive, they really need to explain what the blazes he was thinking.

(It seems unlikely that we will get any constructive or informed input from Popper’s embittered widow.)

7) Various officers in the South Yorkshire Police repeatedly told bereaved relatives of the dead that the deceased were “now the property of the Coroner”. Who was responsible for choosing such incredibly crass, almost-bullying wording?

The often-mentioned experience of the bereaved families of Hillsborough on the night after the Disaster of the South Yorkshire Police treating them like criminals remains one of the most shameful aspects of the Disaster’s aftermath. When traumatised survivors and relatives most needed understanding and support, they were herded around Sheffield like sheep, interrogated crudely and accusingly about alcohol-consumption, forced to identify the dead by a hugely insensitive and undignified photographic process, and refused leave even to make any physical contact with their lost loved ones.

It would be no exaggeration to call the above behaviour ‘police bullying’, but perhaps the most stunningly dehumanising treatment of all was the wording police officers used when barring physical contact. It was used time and again, officer after officer, speaking to bereaved relative after bereaved relative, and it speaks of utter disdain for the dead, the injured, and the grieving; –

[Your relative] is no longer your property, he/she is now the property of the South Yorkshire Coroner.”

I have been aware of the stories of that night for well over twenty years, and even now, as I am typing that very quotation, still I struggle to comprehend it, still I struggle to picture such astonishing lack of human feeling when talking to people who are in a state of shock and grief. Referring to the dead as anyone’s ‘property’ is utterly dehumanising, as I say, but the subtext of what the police were saying was even worse; it suggested that the bond between the dead and their families had been severed, and all rights surrendered with it. It was authoritarianism, not public service, and it is beyond doubt that this mistreatment severely and irrevocably disrupted the grieving process for many of the families.

Now, as so many of the officers used that exact same terminology, literally verbatim, we can safely assume they were ordered to use it any time one of the bereaved started asking awkward questions. What we need to know is which particular police officer gave that instruction, and what possible reason they could offer to justify the use of such insensitive wording.

8) The FA received over a hundred letters of complaint from Liverpool supporters after the 1988 semi-final, warning that the Leppings Lane terrace was very dangerous; why did the FA not reply to the letters, or apparently not take them into consideration when selecting the semi-final venue for the following year?

It is unclear who was responsible at the FA for dealing with correspondence in the late-1980’s, but one thing that is known is that Liverpool supporters had such a horrible experience on the Leppings Lane terrace at the FA Cup semi-final in 1988 that the FA received a deluge of letters of complaint.

As an example, one Liverpool supporter wrote,

…it was impossible to move sideways as the momentum of the crowd continued to push us forward. We were forced to duck under metal barriers or suffer even more crushing. Finally we were forced right up against the barriers which prevent the fans from getting on to the pitch.

During the match we had to constantly bear the crushing force of the crowd swaying forward from behind. It would not have been so bad if we had been able to move sideways, away from this central part, but it was so packed, and the constant pushing, jostling and surging of the fans made this prospect appear even more dangerous.

During the game some fans actually collapsed or fainted and were passed over peoples [sic] heads towards the front of this section of the ground.

Another wrote,

“The whole area was packed solid to the point where it was impossible to move and where I, and others around me, felt considerable concern for personal safety (as a result of the crush an umbrella I was holding in my hand was snapped in half against the crush barrier in front of me). I would emphasise that the concern over safety related to the sheer numbers admitted, and not to crowd behaviour which was good.”

There is no indication of anyone within the Association responding to any of the one-hundred-plus letters, nor of anyone taking the details revealed in the letters into account before deciding whether to award Hillsborough a third successive semi-final in 1989. The aforementioned Adrian Titcombe described the selection process in depressingly casual terms, when asked at the Inquest. He said that the selection committee in 1989 spent “not more than ten minutes” debating before deciding to award another semi-final to Hillsborough.

So little attention was paid to the complaints, indeed, that in the aftermath of the Disaster, an internal FA memo actually declared that,

“There were no complaints whatsoever about last year’s game with regard to supporters, police or MPs etc. There was some speculation in the press about dissatisfaction with the Leppings Lane end but the FA had not received anything.”

This memo appears to have been honestly believed by whoever wrote it; as it was only meant for internal eyes at the FA, why would they bother to lie?

But for the writer of the memo to believe such a reversal of the plain facts would mean that there must have been a number of people at the FA who had not been made aware of the correspondence warning of the dangers on the Leppings Lane terrace. How was it not a regular, serious and Association-wide subject of discussion, given the size of the occasion, the degree of hazard revealed, and the terrace’s dangerous history of ‘near misses’?

Who at the FA first read these letters, and what did he or she do with them? Did he or she tell anybody in authority about them, and if they did, what did the person in authority do? Above all, how does the FA deal with letters-of-complaint today? Does it respond by investigating the complaints and making its findings known? Or does it quietly file the letters away and pretend not to have received them?

Once more, we have to know if there are lingering failings that need fixing.

9) Why did Sheffield Wednesday Football Club have no record of the age of crush barriers at the Hillsborough Stadium, and how was the corrosion on the barrier that collapsed repeatedly missed?

(For a more detailed discussion of this issue, please click here.) One of the crush barriers in pen 3, designated barrier 124a, collapsed during the crush, causing scores of people to go to ground in a giant pile-up, substantially adding to the death-toll. Subsequent analysis of the barrier’s wreckage revealed significant corrosion on the joint connecting it to the terrace floor, and large amounts of old litter that had been disposed of inside the barrier-pole down the years. One item of litter was particularly worrisome – a page from a newspaper, The Yorkshire Telegraph and Star, dated 24th October 1931. It was therefore printed roughly fifty-eight years before the Disaster, and on balance, it would seem to indicate that the barrier in which it was ‘binned’ was probably even older.

There is no hard-and-fast rule on how long a crush barrier’s serviceable lifespan should be, but as a ballpark figure, twenty years is probably the point after which it becomes risky to keep using the same one. Sixty years, or thereabouts, is clearly well beyond any reasonable expectation of it being fit-for-purpose. Sure enough, the heavy rust and corrosion damage found below the thirteen coats of paint (a number of coats again implying extreme age) was enough to suggest that 124a should probably have been replaced by around 1955. Instead, it was still in full use in 1989.

broken barrier support

Eastwood & Partners, the safety engineers, claimed in the days after the crush that tests were carried out on crush barriers routinely every year. But if that were the case, how did both E&P and Sheffield Wednesday Football Club manage to keep missing the corrosion on barrier 124a? Inspection by the Health & Safety Executive found that some of the corrosion was visible to the naked eye.

Further, Sheffield Wednesday Football Club’s documentation shows no apparent record of the age of any of the crush barriers used at Hillsborough. Why not? Was it a calamitous oversight? Was it just naivety, a silly assumption that a crush barrier had an unlimited lifespan? Or was it something more sinister? For instance, was corrosion damage deliberately painted over to hide it, in order to avoid the cost of replacing old and worn-out facilities?

Any of the above explanations would be grounds for criminal charges.

Or is there a more reasonable explanation? Once again, it would be good for the club’s posterity if it can offer one, as this is yet another question that invites seedier explanations the longer it remains unanswered.

10) Why were South Yorkshire Police officers instructed in the hours after the crush not to write any details of what they had seen in their pocketbooks?

Whether South Yorkshire Police behaviour after the Hillsborough Disaster was explicitly illegal, we shall only know for sure in the months ahead. What is quite beyond doubt though is that an awful lot of it was deeply irregular, and one of the ‘quirks’ that continues to cause great concern among Hillsborough campaigners and researchers to this day is an instruction given to officers within a couple of hours of the crush.

Martin McLoughlin, who was a constable in the force at the time, recalls the scene; –

This chief inspector came walking past, and one of the lads from our serial said, ‘Sir, what shall we put in our pocketbooks?’ And this chief inspector turns round and he says, ‘Oh, you don’t need to put anything in your pocketbooks, it’ll all be covered in the Disaster Log.’ “

This may not sound like a big deal to the man-in-the-street, hardly more than a bureaucratic nicety. In fact, this was an absolutely extraordinary instruction, and seems to imply a determination, even at this early stage, for absolute control-of-message by senior officers within the South Yorkshire Police.

In itself, the policeman’s pocketbook is a vital ‘tool’ for gathering observations made by officers on duty, which makes this instruction bewildering enough. But what makes it thoroughly startling is the reference to the Disaster Log; how could the chief inspector, or any police officer in authority that day, possibly know what details to put in the Disaster Log without the observations noted down by officers in their pocketbooks? Without the observations of officers to inform the Log, it would become an exercise in Creative Writing, just making up a largely-imagined version of events. Maybe that was the whole point though?

As a police pocketbook is state property, any notes taken in it cannot simply be ‘hidden’, ‘buried’ or altered. One way of getting the Disaster Log to say what senior officers wanted it to say would of course be to make sure there were no other police records available to contradict it. Such as those normally written in pocketbooks by officers.

That is the most obvious, most plausible explanation for why this incredibly irregular order was given. If it is not correct, I for one will be very willing to hear the South Yorkshire Police’s ‘real‘ explanation for it. We have, after all, been waiting for it for the better part of thirty years, and no one is stopping them from revealing it.

I would further hope that stricter and clearer guidelines on the ‘sovereignty’ (for want of a better word) of police pocketbooks on duty can be introduced, to make sure no senior police officer can just casually pick-and-choose when they should be employed.


I need to stress that this list is by no means comprehensive, nor are the questions intended to be seen as a ‘definitive top ten’. There are many other questions that still need to be answered for full accountability to be achieved, and some campaigners may well feel that other ones are more important. I have simply listed the ten questions that I find most pressing. (If you have others to contribute, feel free to submit them in the comments section below.) I would say that until these questions and others are answered, justice and accountability will remain incomplete, as will the lessons to be learned for the future.

With criminal investigations such as Operation: Resolve and the Independent Police Complaints Commission’s investigation into the conduct of the South Yorkshire and West Midlands Police forces, there is much still to be revealed in the months ahead. But if the above questions are not all answered, I for one will feel that the investigations have not really completed their work.

by Martin Odoni

As I type, it is the evening of the 11th of March 2015, although it will be a long while yet before anyone gets to read this. The revived Inquests into the causes of the Hillsborough Disaster of 1989 have been in progress for a little under eleven months – nearly twelve if you count the opening day of 31st March 2014, although that day was only used for the appointment of the jury. The last two days have been amongst the most nervously anticipated of the entire proceedings, for the Match Commander at the Hillsborough Stadium on the day of the Disaster, then-Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield of the South Yorkshire Police, has taken to the stand to answer questions about his handling of the police operation that fateful day.

There was a considerable hullabaloo on social media in the later afternoon today, especially on the Twittersphere, after Duckenfield expressed his apologies to the survivors of the Disaster, and the families of its victims, and for his various failures on the day. Most particularly, he apologised for the notorious lie he told to Graham Kelly and Glen Kirton, then of the Football Association, that “Liverpool fans without tickets had forced open an exit gate” in order to get into the stadium without paying. There was some excitement among many Hillsborough campaign-supporters about this apology, as though it were a resounding new development.

Well, I hardly imagine that I can ‘rain on the parade’, given that the current blackout on social media discussion of the Disaster for the duration of the Inquests means I will probably not be able to publish this until long after next Christmas, but I feel there is a record that must be put straight here sooner or later. While I certainly do not feel any impulse actually to defend the man, for the sake of historical accuracy, I do feel compelled to point out that there is nothing new whatever in Duckenfield apologising for his shambolic role at Hillsborough. It is therefore not really fair that his words today are being spoken of in some quarters as the first time he has swallowed his pride. He has unquestionably been evading attempts to hold him fully to account down the years, but he has used the simple words “I’m sorry” before now. In fact, his first apology, even though it was not really directed to the victims or the bereaved families, was made not long after the Disaster itself; the Interim Report into Hillsborough, published by Lord Justice Peter Taylor in August 1989, makes quite explicit on page 50 that Duckenfield had apologised for the lie during cross-examination at the first Inquiry; –

apology

Taylor’s description make it sound like the apology had to be rather pulled out of Duckenfield like teeth from healthy gums, but fair is fair; Duckenfield did apologise, and long ago.

Indeed, today was not even the first time Duckenfield had apologised during the rebooted Inquest. He apologised, somewhat half-heartedly again it must be said, just yesterday, when acknowledging in rather fudged, rambling terms the failings in the way he led the police operation at Hillsborough. His use of the conditional words ‘If there was a failing’ beforehand perhaps gives the apology a grudging, not-very-magnanimous quality – as though hoping to play on any lingering doubts there might still be that he had failed – but even so, he quite definitely used the words ‘I apologise’.

No, this latest apology is not a big deal in itself. The only aspect that makes it significant is the fact that, for the first time, Duckenfield directed the words quite explicitly towards the families of the victims. That is long, long overdue, as is the fact that this time, unlike during the Taylor Inquiry and the original Coroner’s Inquests, where he was an evasive and unhelpful witness, he has made some kind of effort to offer account for what he did twenty-six years ago. Studying it, the account he gives is at times confused and contradictory, or stands in stark contradiction of what he has said previously. But even so, the account is of far more substance than his previous attempts, and he has at last shown a willingness to acknowledge mistakes and omissions in his conduct, and that he was not the right man to lead the police effort on the day. Whether that will ever be enough for his apologies to be accepted is not for me to decide, but it needs acknowledging that it is far more than he has ever conceded previously.

by Martin Odoni

I have come to realise that, the other day, when I wrote that Monday’s Panorama documentary about the Hillsborough Disaster – Hillsborough: How They Buried The Truth – all seemed a bit of a generic re-tread of old ground (see https://thegreatcritique.wordpress.com/2013/05/21/hillsborough-meet-a-silly-old-dear/), I’d managed to miss something quite substantial in the newly-released footage from the BBC archives. The main reason for missing it is that the BBC didn’t really do anything to draw attention to it, but having studied one particular clip, and checked it against official records, I have noticed there may be a very serious issue that the documentary quietly raised.

You can watch the documentary at this URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T2L_8sj6Wyc

Now, at roughly twelve minutes and thirty seconds into the programme, the following monologue from the Match Of The Day commentary track on the day of the Disaster is played; –

JOHN MOTSON: “Yeah, I’ve got an explanation for what’s happened here, Peter. I’m going to give you a line… … … And the story emerges that one of the outside gates leading into that terrace was broken. People without tickets got in… were therefore overcrowding the people with tickets, and that’s why the crush occurred.”

This snippet of commentary is a very familiar explanation, discredited within hours, for what caused the crush in the central pens. But the interesting thing about it is that, according to the graphic that appears on the screen, the time that Motson said it was 3:13pm.

The notorious established story has it that the lie about a broken gate began when it was spun by Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield of the South Yorkshire Police to Graham Kelly and Glen Kirton of the Football Association. This was supposed to have happened when they confronted him in the Police control box, even as the tragedy was playing itself out on the terraces below. This is even iterated in very damning terms in the Taylor Interim Report.

The problem is that all sources detailing that confrontation between Duckenfield and the FA officials, including the FA officials themselves, agree that he told them the lie at 3:15pm. Therefore, Motson’s commentary, unwittingly propagating the myth of ticketless fans taking advantage of a broken exit gate, was given voice some two minutes before Duckenfield so infamously peddled the same lie.

Now this would in no way at all exonerate Duckenfield, who was still knowingly spreading lies to shift blame for his mishandling of the crowd onto the victims, but it does raise a rather chilling question as to whether or not he really was the one who invented the ‘Broken-exit-gate’ red herring after all. It is now possible that somebody else invented the idea, and that he just went along with it.

Therefore, we now need to know who exactly passed this false information to Motson at such an early stage. Did somebody in the South Yorkshire Police other than Duckenfield spin this lie? If so, who was it? The Independent Police Complaints Commission needs to investigate and find out. It would constitute evidence that the blame-shifting was not just being improvised by an individual officer in a moment of panic, but was becoming actually orchestrated, even conspiratorial, at an even earlier stage than was previously demonstrated by the Report of the Hillsborough Independent Panel.

And above all, whoever did it needs to answer for it.

EDIT 26-5-2013: According to the Taylor Interim Report, Assistant Chief Constable Walter Jackson entered the control box to find out what was going on, around the time the players were taken off the field. He might have known something about this, and was high enough in authority to orchestrate a blame-shift story in a moment of panic.

The tale in the following link, although not directly relevant to this, does give suggestion that his behaviour on the day of the Hillsborough Disaster was erratic at best; –

http://sheffield.indymedia.org.uk/2011/10/487332.html

I must stress that we have no way of verifying whether the anecdote is true. Interestingly, it has loud echoes of a frequently-told apocryphal story about Duckenfield himself supposedly hiding under a table as the Disaster unfolded, a story that is clearly untrue.

________

Other essays about the Hillsborough Disaster; –

Ticketlessness Was Not A Factor, And This Is How We Know

Discursive Types

In Its Correct Historical Context

Is Thatcher Guilty? And If So, What Of?

Digging The Dirt

Anne Williams – A Real World Heroine

The Toppling Gate

The Crush Barrier – A Smoking Gun?

The Name That Became A Moment

Oh, It’s The Drunken Fans Chestnut Again, Is It? Don’t Even Go There

Forged Tickets? Only If You Think Star Wars Is A Documentary