25 years after the event, and after one of the most tenacious and courageous campaigns for justice ever to take place in Britain, a public inquest into the Hillsborough tragedy has begun.
Ninety-six Liverpool FC fans died during an FA Cup semi-final match against Nottingham Forest on 15 April 1989 at Sheffield’s stadium.
The 96 who died on that awful day were crushed to death when the police outside the stadium panicked at the size of the crowd trying to get in after the match had started. The police commander on the scene made the fateful decision to open an exit gate and let those fans stream into an already overcrowded standing section of the stand hosting Liverpool supporters.
Those who died and 766 who were injured at Hillsborough were the victims of a monumental policing failure and an attempted cover up in the aftermath. They were not killed by fellow supporters, nor were their bodies desecrated, violated or in any way criminally interfered with by their fellow supporters, as alleged by the police and supported by a section of the right wing press at the time. On the contrary, many lost their lives and many more were injured trying to save others. Indeed, many of the lucky ones who survived only did so because of the selfless actions of others on that awful day, their courage a stark contrast to the actions of the police, who initially refused to open the gates in the security fence separating the fans from the pitch as the disaster unfolded before their eyes.
The scenes of thousands of fans pleading with stewards and the police on the other side of the security fence as people are being crushed to death remain among the most harrowing ever broadcast. Penned in like animals, their fate was considered less important than preventing a pitch invasion, reflective of the disdain in which football fans were held by the authorities and the police at the time.
This criminal negligence continued when, of the forty-four ambulances that arrived at the stadium in response to the disaster, only one was allowed access, thus ensuring that many died who may have survived if they had received medical attention at the scene.
The theory put forward in the aftermath by the police that many supporters were drunk and disorderly, that more fans had turned up outside the stadium than had tickets and were attempting to push their way in, was refuted by Lord Justice Taylor in his 1990 report into the tragedy. He laid the main responsibility at the door of South Yorkshire Police and laid out recommendations for improving safety at football grounds. This proved the one positive thing to come out of Hillsborough and is the reason why today people attending football matches are treated with the respect and dignity they deserve in state of the art facilities, at which their safety and comfort is considered paramount.
Compounding the suffering of the families of the victims and the people of Liverpool in the aftermath were the obscene allegations carried in the Sun newspaper at the time, accusing Liverpool fans of urinating on the bodies of the dead and injured and rifling their pockets as they lay on the pitch. It marked a low point in British tabloid journalism and a low point in the sordid history of the Murdoch Press. Yet in a shocking inversion of justice, Kelvin MacKenzie, the editor of The Sun at the time and the man responsible for the smears that appeared on its front page, continues to enjoy a media career to this day. A boycott of the newspaper has been in place in Liverpool ever since, illustrating the kind of solidarity that the Kelvin MacKenzies of this world could never understand.
By contrast the courage, dignity, and commitment to justice demonstrated by the families over the two decades since the tragedy took place, has ensured that the victims have never been forgotten.
It was two years ago that the surviving family members of the Hillsborough victims first witnessed justice being served after so many years of disappointment, and of doors being slammed in their faces by the judicial system and British political establishment that had turned a deaf ear to their campaign. The victory came with the formation of the Hillsborough Independent Panel in response to growing pressure for the ambulance, police, and other agencies involved in dealing with the disaster to release previously withheld documents.
These previously withheld documents, new evidence which had been denied previous inquiries into Hillsborough, revealed the scale of the injustice, lies, and cover up that took place. It was found that 41 of the 96 deaths could have been avoided if medical attention had been administered on the pitch. It was also found that 116 statements regarding the disaster had been altered by the police. Along with this, the independent panel alleged there had been ‘multiple failures’ on the part of other emergency services involved at the scene, which contributed to the death toll. All in all, the findings of the Hillsborough Independent Panel were devastating, prompting Prime Minister David Cameron to make a public apology in Parliament for the injustice suffered by the victims and their families. More importantly, the Attorney General, Dominic Grieve MP, announced that in response he would consider the new evidence to decide if the initial verdict of accidental death should be overturned.
The result is the public inquest that is now underway.
The axiom that justice delayed is justice denied has never been more accurate when it comes to the campaign for justice for the victims of the Hillsborough disaster. It constitutes yet more evidence of the abiding disdain in which working people in the UK are held by those in positions of power.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.