20 years on

20 years ago today, nearly a hundred people went to a football match and did not come back. The Hillsborough disaster is not only a hideous tragedy but a story of negligence, contempt for human life and dishonesty.

Sheffield Wednesday’s Hillsborough stadium was acting as a neutral venue for the FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest. Liverpool fans were allocated the Leppings Lane end, which was terraced and divided into pens. The fact that the word “pens” was used to describe them is an illustration of how poorly regarded football fans were – little more than animals.

Poor ticketing, the practice of searching fans for weapons and the late arrival of coaches meant a dangerously packed crowd was building up outside the ground before kickoff. At the same, those fans inside the Leppings Lane pens had been directed into the central pens by police and stewards, rather than the pens along the entire terrace. Under the command of Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield, an exit gate was opened to allow more fans in, rather than using the turnstiles as usual. The fans already there were crushed, caught between the perimeter fences designed to cage them in, and their own fellow supporters, unaware of the carnage in front of them.

The match was soon abandoned, but with people dying what followed was a set of inexcusable failures. As Simon Kuper relates, an emergency escape gate in the perimeter fencing was forced shut. A police cordon formed on the halfway line, preventing fans from the other end of the pitch from assisting. Over forty ambulances turned up but only one was let into the ground.

In the immediate aftermath, the police lied saying the gate had been forced open by fans, and senior officers compelled those present at the crush to change their statements. CCTV footage from the stadium control room, which would have helped any investigation into the matter, went missing. The media was equally complicit – infamously, The Sun printed a vile front page of lies alleging that Liverpool fans were drunk and had robbed the dying and dead. The Taylor Report into the disaster dismissed these as exaggerations and fabrications, and found primary culpability at the hands of South Yorkshire Police, while also criticising the stadium’s poor design and insufficient safety measures.

It was the deadliest footballing disaster in British history. Of the top five in terms of deaths, three (Hillsborough, Ibrox in 1971 and Burnden Park) were due to crushes; the other two (Bradford and Ibrox in 1902) due to infrastructure failure (fire and structural collapse respectively). Poor safety has killed many more football fans than hooliganism (Heysel is the single most notable and regrettable exception to this), yet the design of football stadiums and the attitude of the authorities to supporters in 1989 was predominantly that they were a threat, not people who should be protected.

Almost twenty years on, a few hundred miles to the south, a man called Ian Tomlinson died of a heart attack on his way home from work, shortly after being assaulted by police whose job was to secure the protest at the G20 summit. The similarities are uncanny; the police had been brutal to protesters all day indiscriminately. People were cordoned into particular areas against their will in a process bizarrely known as “kettling“. Not only was the officer involved brutal in striking an unarmed man posing no threat to him, but utterly callous in not coming to his aid when he could not get up – it was left to protesters to help him.

In the immediate aftermath, the police leaked to sympathetic friends in the media the lie that bottles and bricks had been thrown at officers treating him as he collapsed, and they happily swallowed it. It turns out not only that this was definitely not the case, but the police initially refused to let an ambulance get through. And once the news came out that he wasn’t even a protester, it wasn’t long before his poor health and apparent alcoholism were being misused by the same journalists to mitigate any responsibility for his death borne by the police.

A system built to oppress and not to protect. A callous disregard for life. Lie upon lie about the events with complicit friends in the media. Sounds rather familiar, doesn’t it? The only difference is the number who died, but whether it is one death or 96, it is indefensible.

The deaths at Hillsborough were ruled accidental by the coroners, and none of the men in charge that day and with most responsibility for the events were ever investigated or prosecuted by the state. A private prosecution was unsuccessful – the jury could not agree on a verdict for Duckenfield. For the relatives of the dead who believed those in charge should face justice, they have never had that closure.

But, scant consolation as it is to the mourners, one thing did come out of this horrible tragedy – a resolve that enough was enough and this should never happen again. Another disaster like Hillsborough will in all certainty never happen again at a football match in this country. Lord Justice Taylor’s report and the revolution that followed it has left us with better-designed stadiums, more intelligent and enlightened policing of football matches, and a culture where fans are regarded as human beings not cattle. Football is now safer than it has ever been. There is plenty wrong with the game – the obscene amounts of money, the diving and gamesmanship, but at the very least, when you go to a match, you know you will be able to walk out of it alive at the end.

Where does that leave those seeking justice for Ian Tomlinson?
I strongly hope that his family have every success in making sure those responsible do not go unpunished. However, given the political system and the police we have in this country, and the precedents set not just by Hillsborough but by Harry Stanley and Jean Charles de Menezes I doubt anyone will be convicted or even charge with culpability in his death. The nerdgasms about citizen journalism that helped reveal the truth only serve to make me feel like I am going to be let down even more once the system closes in and protects it own. But this is all conjecture, and in any case retribution is half the story.

Ian Tomlinson’s death was the latest marked symptom of a political and policing culture gone wrong – a state happy sit back while its police beats and then ignore those whose freedoms it is meant to protect. But seeking justice for him or any other victim of state brutality does not just extend to trial and retribution (important though it is) for the guilty. As Hillsborough proved, it also means safeguarding all the future possible Ian Tomlinsons – which include you and me – by reining in the police’s wanton brutality at demonstrations and better respect for the right to protest and assemble peacefully.

Sadly, no-one in power is yet forthcoming. It took a disaster the size of Hillsborough for the authorities – decades late and 96 deaths too many – to realise the dreadful state of affairs we have gotten into. Ian Tomlinson’s death has not yet had the same effect. We can only hope it doesn’t take another 95 people to die before those in charge realise.

5 thoughts on “20 years on

  1. A compelling read.

    I’m not involved in football – so I don’t feel the disaster as keenly as I know many football fans do. But the parallels you raise with the police and media handling of such events in the past and today have given me a new appreciation of events.

    One interesting aspect is using Hillsborough as a perfect counter example of the “‘elf ‘n’ saftey gone mad” crowd. Building design, crowd management, official response are all vitally important if we want to prevent deaths on this scale. Just so sad that the reason for the reaction to events like these are so quickly forgotten.

  2. This is a great piece. On the day of the G20 protests, I was working. We were all getting protest updates on the news and discussing the policing at work. I was thinking about Hillsborough as I read the reports of the protestors being penned in… of course that was before the news of Ian Tomlinson’s death came through. The points you make linking the two events about the lies and the police are spot on.

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