Wednesday 12 September 2012

Hillsborough papers released

There has finally been an official admission by the UK Prime Minister that Liverpool fans were not to blame for the Hillsborough football disaster, something the survivors and their families have known for years. David Cameron's apology for the 'double injustice' of the disaster itself and subsequent cover up is reported in detail here. The Hillsborough Independent Panel report published its findings today, and they totally vindicate the families' claims that their loved ones were not responsible for the tragedy, which happened on April 15th 1989. They also make pretty uncomfortable reading for the agencies involved in the planning for the FA Cup semi final match at the Hillsborough stadium, and their subsequent response to the disaster.

Sheffield Wednesday Football Club was criticised for not taking safety seriously at Hillsborough (which is their stadium), and reports of how previous FA semi-final matches there were (mis)managed could lead one to conclude that it was a miracle that such a disaster had not happened before. South Yorkshire Ambulance Service were also accused of not responding adequately enough to the disaster, as it seems that 41 of the 96 victims may have had a chance of being resuscitated, had they responded more quickly and efficiently. However, most shockingly, there is clear evidence that South Yorkshire Police (SYP) operated an orchestrated cover-up to try and shift culpability for the disaster onto the fans. This resulted in totally unfounded allegations about fans' behaviour on the day being passed on to journalists, who then reported such lies as facts, resulting in the notorious cover story by the Sun newspaper, claiming that fans had pickpocketed dead vicitms and urinated on Police officers trying to help. Those involved in producing such smears have offerred their apologies, but I suspect it will be too little too late for survivors and the bereaved.

Numerous other examples of how SYP engaged in a comprehensive cover-up have also come to light, and also that other agencies (such as the media, and the Conservative government at the time) accepted this shameful re-writing of history, which I think reflects a deep distrust of football fans and more widely of crowds in general. The report summary explicitly states that 'the management of the crowd was viewed exclusively through a lens of potential crowd disorder', and concludes that 'the collective policing mindset prioritised crowd control over crowd safety.' p.4. I think this emphasis on crowd control is illustrated in TV footage of the tragedy that shows a line of Police at the centre of the pitch (presumably to stop the Liverpool fans from reaching the Nottingham Forest fans at the other end), even when dead and dying fans were being pulled from the crush. This shows that even at this stage, the Police were still operating as if they were dealing with a public order situation rather than a mass disaster. The
Taylor Report noted the bitter irony that before Hillsborough not a single person had died during a pitch invasion at a UK football match, but on that fateful day, 96 fans died preventing one.

This catalogue of incompetence and cover-ups, driven by what I believe to be a fundamental distrust of football fans by the authorities, has led to an enduring feeling of injustice amongst survivors and their families. It was certainly something I noticed when interviewing Hillsborough survivors as part of the research into mass emergencies I did while at the University of Sussex with John Drury (Drury et al, 2009). The ones I spoke to often talked of their frustration at the general misperception that they were in some way to blame for the tragedy. To try and redress this balance, I recently wrote a paper that looks at how survivors of Hillsborough described their experiences and often rejected the way in which they were represented in popular discourse after the disaster (Cocking & Drury, in submission) On a wider level, I think that the lies that were disseminated about the fans' behaviour were all too readily accepted by politicians and the media, something that may have been influenced by a pervasive (but largely false) view in society that crowds are not to be trusted. Therefore, we all need to take responsibility for ensuring that we adopt a less pathological view towards crowds, and try to develop crowd safety strategies at large events that prevent such disasters from ever happening again

The report issued today will not bring back those who died, but I do hope that it will bring some sense of closure to the survivors and bereaved who are now fully vindicated in their view that their loved ones were not responsible for this terrible tragedy, and hopefully those who were responsible can now be called to account. To paraphrase the Liverpool MP Steve Rotheram on Channel 4 News (who survived Hillsborough); truth may have been done today, but justice is yet to be done.


For more info, see John Drury's blog, the The Hillsborough Justice campaign, and the Hillsborough Families Support group, my previous blog entry on Hillsborough, and the following references.

Cocking, C. & Drury, J. (in Submission) Talking about a tragedy: ‘Panic’ as discourse in survivors’ accounts of the Hillsborough disaster.

Drury, J., Cocking, C., & Reicher, S. (2009). Every one for themselves? An interview study of crowd solidarity among emergency survivors. British Journal of Social Psychology 48: 487–506.

Scraton, P., Jemphrey, A. & Coleman, C. (1995). No last rites: The denial of justice and the promotion of myth in the aftermath of the Hillsborough disaster. Liverpool, UK: Liverpool City Council

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