Unlawfully killed. After twenty-seven years, and despite the legal bar for such a verdict being very high indeed, the families of the victims have the beginnings of justice.
Some elements of the saga are tragic in their banality. A nasty, laddish prank is played by junior officers on one of their own. Though denied by senior officers with most to lose by admitting it, and whose honesty over other aspects of the Disaster has been found wanting, the prank is the likeliest explanation for an authoritarian Chief Constable moving Brian Mole, the pranksters’ popular chief super and one of the country’s foremost big match coppers, from Sheffield to Barnsley nineteen days before the 1989 FA Cup semi between Liverpool and Notts Forest at Hillsborough. In his place David Duckenfield is promoted to Mole’s rank. With it comes overall responsibility for match safety, though Duckenfield has no experience of overseeing matches, let alone one as big as this, and knows nothing of the ground layout – a shortcoming he’d do little to rectify in those nineteen days. He is out of his depth but no handover arrangements are made.
(The reason for Mole’s transfer is of course secondary to the facts that: (a) he was moved, not three weeks before one of the biggest fixtures in UK sport; (b) even after the transfer he could still have commanded the match; (c) there was no systematic briefing of Duckenfield and (d) Duckenfield was in any case the wrong man not just by want of experience but because he did so little to get up to speed, when familiarising himself with ground layout just might have made clear the folly of opening Gate C – see below).
Other elements are tragic in their familiarity. Not five years earlier, three senior South Yorkshire officers had, in the subsequent judgment of the Independent Police Complaints Commission, “made up an untrue account exaggerating the degree of [miner] violence” to justify the force’s thuggery at Orgreave during the miners’ strike. Now, at Hillsborough, with the tragedy still unfolding and men, women and children dying on the turf or in the pens, senior officers of the same force were framing ad hoc lies whose momentum, once begun, could lead only to full scale cover up.
Those lies began with Duckenfield’s panic-driven insistence – ethics aside, anyone thinking clearly would see the lie’s untenability – that he had not ordered Gate C to be opened. No: drunken fans had broken it down then stampeded into Pens 3 and 4 which, already packed tight, became death traps. The suffocated, like the victim of a python whose coils tighten further after each exhalation, were unable to draw breath. Though Chief Constable Peter Wright was forced within hours to concede that the gate had been opened on police orders, senior officers were now committed to an overarching account that blamed intoxicated fans. Next day, Wright would greet PM Margaret Thatcher and her Press Secretary Bernard Ingrams with this narrative. Ingrams pronounced the disaster the work of “a tanked up mob”. Now, 27 years on and even after today’s verdict, Ingrams refuses to apologise or retract those words.
For almost thirty years the suspicion lingered, even as counter evidence mounted, that the Liverpool fans ‘must have played at least some part’ in the tragedy. As those schooled in the black arts of PR know, when a narrative is put together fast enough – in this case on the day and with the death count still rising – it tends to stick.
Inexcusably for one who grew up in the area and still lives in the city, I never felt fully au fait with the Hillsborough story until yesterday, when I read David Conn’s coverage in the Guardian. (An hour later I heard Conn’s lengthy interview with Eddie Mair on R4’s PM. I’d missed the intro but was sure, from the depth and incisiveness of his replies and from his unmistakeable passion, this was the man whose piece I’d only just read.) Longer than your typical feature it’s the most lucid and compelling single account I’ve so far encountered on the Disaster and its cover-up: