In the wake of the television recreation od the day of the Hillsborough disaster, Rogan Taylor explains why the families of the deceased want a new public enquiry
Hillsborough won‘t go away. Nearly eight years after that fateful day which took the lives of ninety-six football fans, it is still a burning issue.Welcome fuel was added to the fire before Christmas with the transmission of Jimmy McGovern’s powerful film about the tragedy and its aftermath.
First, let’s establish one thing: what you saw on television was the truth. In fact, McGovern wanted to call the film, Hillsborough: The Truth in answer to the Sun’s infamous headline, but legal advice prevented it. Virtually every piece of dialogue was either from verbatim accounts by those whom the film portrayed (the Hicks, Glover and Spearritt families in particular) or drawn from transcribed statements already on record. For my book*, I interviewed at length many of those people featured in the film and I can confirm the accuracy of McGovern’s representations of them. I also witnessed the private screening of the film to an audience made up of those bereaved by Hillsborough and they broke out into spontaneous applause at the end.
I expect that many less involved people were shocked by what they learned about the day of the disaster. There were still folks around who thought that fans died in the tunnel (under some imagined ‘stampede’); who didn’t realise that a quarter of the dead came in through Gate C (at the invitation of the police).There were many watching the television programme who had no idea how close the police observation box was to pens 3 and 4 where the crush took place, and how their video cameras could “read the time on someone’s watch“ in there. And how many people realised that there were so few turnstiles for the Liverpool fans? That they could never have entered the ground in time, even if they’d been properly marshalled and had all turned up with two hours to spare?
But I suspect that after watching McGovern’s documentary drama, it was the aftermath that most shocked the British public. As Trevor Hicks, who lost both his daughters, has said: “It may be hard to imagine but you can eventually come to terms with the fact that your children have died as a result of incompetence; what cannot be forgiven however is the way the bereaved were treated afterwards.”
Witnessing the scenes in the make-shift mortuary in the late evening of the same day, when parents, partners and friends were ushered straight from the bodies of their loved ones to interrogations about whether the latter “liked a drink”, was agonising. (Even the tea-urns in there had notices hung on them saying, ‘Police Only’.)
The living and the dead were treated in a way few of us could even comprehend, given the circumstances. But it was clear evidence of the instant establishment of the defensive police agenda: blame the fans; they were violently drunk and uncontrollable.
Indeed, the police agenda was established the moment the officer in charge, David Duckenfield, lied to Graham Kelly that it was the Liverpool fans who’d forced a gate to gain entry. But what I hadn’t realised before – though perhaps I should have – was that, within a few hours presumably, the Sheffield coroner had ordered blood-alcohol levels to be tested amongst the dead. I wonder whether any other victims of disasters in Britain (of which there were depressingly many in the 1980s) got similar treatment?
The Inquest which followed many months later – run by the same coroner – now appears completely unsatisfactory, as does its verdict of ‘accidental death’. At the time, the Hillsborough Families complained bitterly about a judicial process which.completely ignored the conclusions of the Taylor Report and seemed structured for the benefit of the police (on whom Taylor had clearly laid most of the responsibility for the disaster). For example, the court took evidence from officers who stated that the video camera trained on the fatal pens was faulty.Yet other available evidence to the contrary, from Sheffield Wednesday’s video engineer, Roger Houldsworth (who was in the club’s security room watching with horror through that very camera), was simply ignored.
The coroner’s refusal to consider any evidence after the ‘cut-off time’ of 3.15pm – a decision that greatly angered the Families, some of whom knew their loved ones were still alive at that point – now appears very unwise. I understand that the time of 3.15pm was fixed on the advice of medical experts who were under the impression that all the deaths were the result of a condition called ‘traumatic asphyxia’. But apparently many at Hillsborough died from something else – ‘crush asphyxia’ – which unfortunately for those who suffer it does not bring death so quickly.
Perhaps the most disturbing question of all centres upon the theft of two of the video tapes which recorded what the CCTV cameras could see. Houldsworth himself has described the circumstances. In the evening following the disaster, he personally ejected the video tapes from their VCRs but left them in the machines which were stored in a cupboard under stairs in the football club’s security room. That evening the police demanded all the tapes but Sheffield Wednesday, already awash with lawyers, refused to give them up. When Houldsworth returned on Sunday morning, two tapes were missing; stolen from a locked cupboard in an alarmed room at the centre of a ‘disaster area’ entirely sealed off by the police. A subsequent investigation (by the police) failed to resolve the mystery. Who took those tapes and why?
These are just some of the reasons why the Families won’t let the matter rest. It’s not fundamentally about money (as some people imagine). It’s about respect, not just for the dead but for the living too. Until you have witnessed it at close quarters, you cannot fully understand how deeply the feeling of injustice undermines and rots any attempt by the bereaved to grieve their dead properly. The failure of one single senior police officer involved to make any kind of apologetic recognition of failure just adds insult to profound pain.
So where does it go from here? What do the Families want? They certainly require some re-opening of the legal process, via a fresh Inquiry, another Inquest and new criminal investigation by the DPP. The problem with the Taylor Inquiry is that it wasn’t properly constituted to produce legal evidence (statements were not given under oath, for example) and, of course, it had no opportunity to consider the entire aftermath of the disaster. Another Inquiry would almost certainly lead to another Inquest – painful for the Families but probably necessary. The DPP’s role would be to look more closely into any misconduct which may have occurred in the way evidence was or was not presented.
My New Year wish is for a proper resolution to the continuing Hillsborough tragedy. The matter cannot yet be laid to rest. There has been no justice for those most affected by the worst football disaster in British history.
From WSC 120 February 1997. What was happening this month