After thirty years, the families of the Hillsborough victims are still looking for justice. The “not guilty” verdict in the trial of David Duckenfield, the police commander on the day of the disaster, means that no individual has been held legally responsible for the deaths of 96 Liverpool fans — even though an inquest three years ago found the victims to have been “unlawfully killed” as a result of “gross negligence manslaughter”.
Duckenfield himself admitted to having started the lie — notoriously taken up by the Sun — that drunken Liverpool fans were responsible for the crush that claimed almost a hundred lives.
There are still trials to come of police officers who are accused of organizing a cover-up. But Margaret Aspinall of the Hillsborough Family Support Group was right to stress what they’ve really been fighting against for so many years: “I blame a system that’s so morally wrong within this country, that’s a disgrace to this nation.”
The Road from Orgreave
Hillsborough came at the end of a decade in which the Tory government had singled out whole regions of Britain for “managed decline”. That was the phrase used by Thatcher’s Chancellor Geoffrey Howe in 1981 to describe the fate he had in mind for Liverpool: for Howe, any attempt to help the city would be like “trying to make water flow uphill”.
Liverpudlians suffered more than most from an economic agenda that left much of northern England, Wales and Scotland devastated. When working-class people tried to resist that agenda, Thatcher denounced them as “the enemy within” and mobilised the full resources of the state, including the police and the intelligence services.
The brutal policing tactics used during the miners’ strike unquestionably paved the way for the Hillsborough disaster and the subsequent cover-up. The same South Yorkshire police force that was responsible for crowd control at Hillsborough had provoked the infamous “Battle of Orgreave” five years earlier. Police officers on horseback attacked striking miners after luring them into open ground, then charged the victims with “riot” and “unlawful assembly”.
The BBC doctored footage to make it seem as if the police were acting in self-defence. Three decades later, a BBC spokesman claimed there was “no evidence of any deliberate attempt to mislead viewers”, but admitted that the broadcaster had “failed to record some of the violence due to a camera error”. (That kind of excuse will have a familiar sound for those following the BBC’s coverage of this year’s election.)
Senior officers fabricated evidence to try and make the bogus charges they had brought against the miners stand up in court. The case fell apart under scrutiny from defence lawyers, and the South Yorkshire police force eventually had to pay nearly half a million pounds in compensation to the defendants.
But they learnt some valuable lessons in perverting the course of justice that were applied to the Hillsborough whitewash. Junior officers received instructions to doctor their witness statements, just as they had after Orgreave. A special unit took charge of this misinformation campaign.
The Murdoch press gave them invaluable support. The Sun editor Kelvin MacKenzie faithfully regurgitated the lies in one of the most infamous front-page stories the British media has ever produced, claiming that Liverpool fans had stolen from the dead and attacked police officers who were trying to save lives.
MacKenzie’s sleazy attack on the victims flowed from the same mentality of class hatred and contempt that made the disaster and cover-up possible. Of course, it provoked a fierce backlash in Liverpool, where a boycott of the Sun has been in place for decades, costing Rupert Murdoch millions — a more effective campaign of resistance to Murdoch’s empire than any political party has managed to organise in Britain, Australia or the US. And the Hillsborough families fought tenaciously to expose the truth about what really happened that day. Their efforts proved that it was criminal negligence on the part of the police that caused the deaths, and also shone a wider light on the record of British policing in the 1980s — including Orgreave.
That record of defiance enraged the Spectator editor Boris Johnson, who commissioned a poisonous editorial in 2004 that vilified the people of Liverpool as whinging scroungers:
“A combination of economic misfortune — its docks were, fundamentally, on the wrong side of England when Britain entered what is now the European Union — and an excessive predilection for welfarism have created a peculiar, and deeply unattractive, psyche among many Liverpudlians. They see themselves whenever possible as victims, and resent their victim status; yet at the same time they wallow in it.”
Johnson’s messenger-boy Simon Heffer went on to denounce the Hillsborough families for refusing to accept police lies about “the part played in the disaster by drunken fans . . . the police became a convenient scapegoat, and the Sun newspaper a whipping-boy for daring, albeit in a tasteless fashion, to hint at the wider causes of the incident.”
That Spectator editorial was the authentic voice of Britain’s ruling establishment, from newspaper editors to police chiefs to cabinet ministers. Nothing encapsulates their disdain for the country’s working class better than cases of social murder like Hillsborough and Grenfell, when the first priority is always to ensure that no-one in a position of responsibility has to suffer any consequences. In contrast, the Hillsborough families represent the most hopeful side of British society, and their long struggle should be an inspiration to us all.