Hillsborough: the truth. Now for justice.

Phil Hammond with his wife Hilda

We were away from Liverpool, spending a couple of wet and windswept days in the Yorkshire Dales, when the remarkable 395-page report of the Hillsborough Independent Panel was published, its conclusions arrived at after sifting through 450,000 documents. For me, football – sport generally – raises not a flicker of interest: there must be something missing in my DNA.  But the events of that terrible afternoon in 1989 on which 96 people died at Sheffield Wednesday’s Hillsborough football ground, and the actions of the authorities afterwards, reflected something I do recognise: the fractures along lines of class and geography that lie just beneath the calm surface of the English social order, and the deep contempt of those in authority for those of working class origin – especially if they hail from northern towns.

Such attitudes formed the solid rock underpinning the social order in the Thatcher years – they informed responses to trade unions, and especially to the miners’ strike (the policing of that event, too, would merit an independent inquiry).   A great deal of what happened at Hillsborough to cause the disaster, and the police’s subsequent blame-shifting, has been exposed over the last decades, some of it dramatised in Jimmy McGovern’s  drama-documentary, Hillsborough, in 1996. But the depth of the cover-up – the deliberate, relentless South Yorkshire police campaign to mask its own failures and craft the false case against the supporters (given widespread credence through their conduit to the Sun), was what still had the power to shock when revealed this week.

Two reports in the last few days by David Conn in The Guardian have brought home the meaning of Hillsborough in Liverpool.  In Hillsborough disaster: the truth, he described how:

In a concerted campaign begun even as the dead were lying in a temporary mortuary at Hillsborough itself – led, the panel found, by the chief constable, Peter Wright – the South Yorkshire police marshalled their story that drunken supporters or those without tickets had caused the disaster. The victims, most younger than 30, many of them teenagers, the youngest aged 10, had their blood tested for alcohol levels. This was “an exceptional decision”, the panel said, for which it found “no rationale”. One of the new revelations from this extraordinary process, in which all the organisations released to the panel their internal documents relating to Hillsborough, was that where victims had alcohol in their blood, the police then checked to find if they had criminal records.

The report, substantially authored by professor Phil Scraton of Queen’s University, Belfast, and unanimously agreed by the panel of eight experts, found there was “no evidence … to verify the serious allegations of exceptional levels of drunkenness, ticketlessness or violence among Liverpool fans”.

Today, in ‘Our 14-year-old son died at Hillsborough‘  he told the story of one of the families who can never forget that day.  In 1989, Phil Hammond was the  manager of our local postal sorting office.  On on 15 April 1989, Phil and Hilda Hammond’s 14 year old son Philip travelled to Liverpool’s semi-final against Nottingham Forest at Hillsborough with a friend – the first time he had been to watch Liverpool play away from Anfield. He was one of the 96 who died that afternoon, 41 of whom, the Panel had revealed, might have been saved but for police incompetence.  His father became the chair of the Hillsborough Family Support Group, battling for truth and justice over how his son and the others died, mounting private prosecutions of the two senior South Yorkshire police officers on duty that day.

They had exhausted all legal avenues. It took until the 20th anniversary three years ago, for the process to begin that led to the panel’s conclusive report this week. Following the Guardian’s exposure of Hillsborough’s enduring injustice and changed police statements, the then Labour ministers Andy Burnham and Maria Eagle initiated the process of police and other bodies releasing all their documents. On Wednesday, the Hammonds were relieved, and regretful that it had taken so much struggle. Graeme feels that it’s sad that Phil, because of his accident and resulting disability, could not play a more active role this week, after all his work to drive the campaign on.

Hilda feels that too, but, she says: “Philip’s been in heaven all this time looking down on us. And he knows what his father did for him.”

That was the Hillsborough families. They never gave up on their loved ones, in the face of suffering nobody should have to bear.

This moving letter is from Thursday’s Guardian:

On 15 April 1989, at 8.30 in the morning, Barrie left his home to travel to a football match. In the early hours of the following morning, a different man returned home. Barrie’s friends, who had been seated elsewhere in the ground, had found him wandering the streets of Sheffield after an increasingly despairing search that lasted long into the night. Traumatised, his body covered in purple bruises that bled into each other, his arms torn from dragging adults and children from the terrible crush and passing them up to others hanging, arms stretched, to lift them to safety, Barrie came home but left part of his soul in the Hillsborough stadium.

In the 23 years that followed, time after time castigated as a cause of the tragedy; carrying the guilt of survival; knowing, as did everyone in Liverpool, “the truth” but condemned as self-pitying and told to “get over it” when any attempt to disseminate the truth was made; and taking every opportunity to show his solidarity with the families of the 96 in their search for justice.

Finally, vindication (Hillsborough: the reckoning, 13 September) but too late for many relatives and friends of those who were lost and survivors themselves. Too late also for Barrie, who died at 8.10 on Wednesday morning.
Pat Ayers, Liverpool

This week the truth about what happened at Hillsborough was confirmed.  Will  justice follow?

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6 thoughts on “Hillsborough: the truth. Now for justice.

  1. Thanks Cath. I agree – David Conn’s piece today and the letter two days ago are both deeply-moving snapshots of the impact on just two of the families. Those stories could be repeated over and again: 96 is just a number. I have read your posts, and would encourage others to do so too.

  2. Like you, Gerry, and although I am a scouser, I can’t raise much enthusiasm for football. In contrast to other sports soccer has become divorced more and more from its communities and become yet another playground for rich crooks, tax dodgers, money launderers and narcissists. Thanks again to you (and ‘Cathannabel’) for your Hillsborough blogs.
    My reason for commenting is to ask if anyone else has (as a very few fans have) noticed a sickening and unfortunate related event this past week? Liverpool FC (the corporate US-owned money machine, not the community of supporters) has been the subject of an apparently hagiographic TV documentary http://www.liverpoolfc.com/news/latest-news/lfc-to-star-in-tv-world-first
    The series is made by FOX… owned by Murdoch Inc… resposible for the ‘truth’ paper on which you wouldn’t wipe your arse. In truth you couldn’t make it up. Unless you owned a football club.

  3. Is it me, or are the threads of the last 30 to 40 years coming unravelled?
    I know, I know, here we go, the bankers, the MP’s, the press (I’m no Royalist, but I hope someone dumps a ton of manure on the lawn of the editor of the magazine that published those photos this week) Bush and Blair, is there anything or anyone we can lean on that we can trust anymore? Perhaps only each other.
    Like a thread on a cheap carpet that was thrown to us by those ‘above’ us, over the cracks in the floorboards, the seams are coming apart in front of our eyes, unravelling to reveal nasty brown stains underneath. We were supposed to be grateful for the comfort and assuredness of the rug, but once again it is pulled away from underneath us and we see the vileness and deceitfulness that is one side of the human condition. We place our trust and faith in our systems and those at the helm and once more their morals are in question. The trouble is I suppose, we will say it’s them, as in its them and us. But the them, is us. We would rather they were not, but they are made of the same stuff and are fallible. But in the knowledge that we know of the fallibility of Man, where were the checks and balances in the whole of the Hillsborough case? Tracing it all back to the source, where were the safety checks on the ground, (were any done, approved? Not in ten years I hear) by the Club, the FA, the Police, etc., etc. What thought process took precedent over the safety of assembling large numbers of people in one place at that time? Money? Profit? Expectation? Surely this is the nub of the problem? The cover up is despicable, nauseous.
    Of course our morals have over time risen, at least we like to think so, though some would argue that if, like the boys in ‘Lord of the Flies’, we were to take away our chain of supporting systems we have had since the Industrial Revolution, how would we behave? ‘A hungry man is an angry man’, said Bob Marley. I wonder what would happen if a bread strike was announced say next Friday. Who would buy one loaf and share it, who would rush to the bakers and supermarkets and gobble up as much as they would allow and keep it solely for their families?
    Sometimes it seems it takes something to happen, usually involving loss of life, money, morals before a change of heart takes place. We have a huge capacity for denial. We are credulous animals, we believe the stories we tell about ourselves. Some, especially those in positions of power and influence have been invested with so much to gain and therefore, so much to lose, that they cannot and will not and would not hold their hands up in all honesty and say sorry, I or we, were at fault, especially in the immediate aftermath. People, gangs, societies, families under duress or threat revert to drawing in, closing ranks for protection, safety and security. It seems a human, animal instinct. (How many of us in our daily lives can honestly say we hold our hands up when we have made a small mistake and then say sorry and correct it?) Not a wholly moral one, but is this not why we invent laws and codes and ethics, to counter these base desires and for the greater good? Of course if we insist on taking those we hold responsible for the disasters and vilifying them in public, parading them, then I suppose what else can we expect them to do but try to deny their responsibility when things go wrong, knowing the vilification that awaits them? Not so long ago those found guilty would be at least in the stocks, deported, hung and / or their heads on spikes for all to see. But to inflict such or similar punishments on people is to become the sort of people we do not wish to become. I don’t say it’s correct, I don’t try to excuse anyone, it just seems a part of our unfortunate growing process as a species that we haven’t come to terms with dealing with ourselves in a way that is worthy of a species that has made it this far.
    My son use to play football, from about 8 years to when he was 15. It was mostly fun. But there was an air of menace occasionally, parents arguing, with the opponent’s parents, with referees, and talking to other parents in other leagues behaviour of this kind was common, symptomatic. It was a pleasure to watch this past few years the Spanish team sweep all before them, playing sublime football. I then watched the beginning of the England match against Ukraine and saw a player ‘feign’ an apparent serious enough knock in the face for him to ‘collapse’ on the pitch, fool the referee and deny a perfectly good goal. I switched off. After the honesty and dedication of the likes of Mo Farah, it just confirmed my thoughts that the game is corrupt, a game of overpaid, under-skilled ‘athletes’ largely not worthy of their wages, a celebrity culture of little substance, more soma for the masses, often run by money makers playing a game of Monopoly, buying success, a self- sustaining feeding process that is like much of modern life, like the story of the Emperor’s new clothes. Smoke and mirrors.
    We have been in denial too about the state of our nation and our behaviour within it and there has been a culture in and around football of violence, racism and an outlet for the aggression of some people, on which that is ok to a point if it just involved shouting support. Sure we can cheer and applaud, but the hatred in the looks on some of the faces of supporters is and always was frightening, as if their life depended on it, perhaps that’s how they feel. I could get wound up about my son playing too, but there’s a line you draw, even if others cheat. I often wonder why Kubrick and the studio withdrew ‘A Clockwork Orange’ from circulation only in this country. He received death threats, bizarre threats and was blamed for violent incidents, when he was trying to reflect on the theme of the film, which is what price free will? We take the good with the bad or we become as the title suggests, a clockwork orange. I suspect he saw our peculiar propensity for alcohol fuelled violence too and a gang culture which latches on to emptiness and vacuous behaviour. (I should say Anthony Burgess the author too, who based the book on an incident when his wife was attacked beaten and robbed by GI deserters and may have miscarried as a result)
    I sat last week in a ‘floodplain’ area near the river in my home town and watched a group of supposedly average teenagers sit down and eat lunch, get up and leave their rubbish on the grass with no thought to picking it up. I e mailed the local council about this and the rubbish left the previous week, including broken glass bottles, this in an area where children and dogs play. It’s still there one week later. Yet i’m not sure how I morally resolve this with the knowledge that Shell are in the Arctic region about to drill for oil, and in my name, though I do not condone it, yet I need the fuel for my car. How can I condemn those kids in the light of my own selfish demands?
    I have a confession.
    As a naïve young man, I joined the Police Force in late 1977. Perhaps I thought I could somehow do good things, make a difference. One week fresh out of training school, I was asked if I wanted to patrol the ground at Stoke when they entertained Tottenham. It was overtime. Three or four of us fresh faced raw recruits said yes. Later I understand, the Inspector who asked us got a severe dressing down for taking us. Make no bones, we were scared and sometimes when we are scared, we can lash out. I did not, but I could feel it within me after 12 to 18 months service. In those days the police walked around the side-lines, between the play and the crowd. It was intimidating. Tottenham won 3 -2. (Garth Crooks scored one) The idea was that the Stoke supporters were held in until the Spurs fans were on their trains and coaches, except someone let the Stoke fans out and a running battle apparently commenced. I say apparently, because though we were urged to help out, we strolled back to the mini-bus. To us there was an air of menace at the match in fact someone threw an empty bottle of whiskey from the stands at a policeman. It missed, smashing on the ground. We were warned about the police dogs being let loose in the crowd should the worst happen. Apparently the slavering wound up dogs would lash out and bite anything that caught their eye and our shiny buttons would attract their manic eyes and dog handlers would wind their dogs up to fever pitch, I saw it happen, we had a normally placid dog on my shift. But to be honest, when you were in the presence of threat and a dog built like a lion appeared, snarling and able to control the situation, you were grateful. You became part of a band, of brothers, a system, you protected each other, generally, though the arguments, back-biting and competitiveness appalled me. It was a regime and you obeyed the rules, written and unwritten, you heeded what your senior officers said, you did your duty, kept your nose clean and if you did alright you retired after 25 years with a good pension. It was an old fashioned Police Force, local bobbies knew everyone, who the villains were and crime was at a low level, at least in my fairly well- off small town where I briefly served. I left, pushed really, after two years. Thank God. I was serving when Carl Bridgewater was killed, the verdicts that were overturned on this and other cases well that was no surprise to me. The West Midlands Regional Crime Squad was disbanded, no surprise there, I met some once or twice, more scary than the criminals they dealt with. The paperwork was staggering then, no computers, all notes hand written and we made sure they were in agreement. No conflicts. This was how it was, very undermanned, a lot of overtime available. Until Thatcher arrived.
    I left in 1979, but just before that we started visiting a nearby RAF base and began training with ‘riot shields’ and horses, we knew not what for. Only later did I conclude that it was perhaps in preparation for the battles to come.
    There was a ‘them and us’ culture, the police were the police, the public the public. Of course, it’s they who we turn to for help and there were the odd few officers who were truly inspiring and many good men who acted straight and true, but were talking human beings here.
    I really do not understand how all the altered evidence could be ignored over all this time with regard to Hillsborough, government after government, it really is criminal that no one could step up and take a fresh look when so many documents had been altered. But there seems to be something in us that ignores the truth and reality as if too painful and yet though hard, the truth shall set us free. On the passing of Neil Armstrong I wrote much about him, I remember where I was and how it affected me when he took that first step. He served on the committee that investigated the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster. Before the flight a highly respected engineer with Morton Thiokol, (who made the rocket boosters) Roger Boisjoly, warned it would blow up on the platform. He was wrong, it took 73 seconds. After wards he was shunned and vilified as a whistle-blower and left his company to lecture on the dangers of hubris, as what surely follows that is nemesis. There are probably many whistle-blowers out there, too scared to speak out in these hard times, preferring to keep shtum and keep their precious job.
    We and they would do well to take heed of the past, though we have a tendency to ignore the lessons from it. I reflected on Armstrong as a true hero, as Joseph Campbell the great mythologist would see him and these are the sort of people we need in key positions in society. In nature there are ‘keystone (as in the top block of a Roman doorway) predators’, like the wolf for example. A relatively few animals exert a disproportionate amount of influence over many, in wolves case, ungulates, they are kept moving so as not to strip aspen trees bare, so causing songbirds to vanish etc. etc. the web of life at work. We have or can ‘bastardise’ this process to our detriment or to our virtue. The key people at the heart of the Hillsborough deaths chose or were motivated by self -concern, to bastardise it to their own advantage and forgot their humanity and that of their fellow human beings. They saw them and us, not us and just some more of us. It was prejudicial in the extreme.
    Richard Dawkins was in discussion this week about his pet subject, religion and its uselessness. I have no faith, no religion, but I do believe, as much as I understand it, what Joseph Campbell figured out over 60 years of study, in that within religions there are metaphors to guide us. The old myths are dead, he said, we need new ones, like Neil Armstrong and his self -respect, commitment and accomplishments and the way he conducted himself.
    ‘I believe in mythology. I guess I share Joseph Campbell’s notion that a culture or society without mythology would die, and we’re close to that.’
    ‘It’s an honour putting art above politics. Politics can be seductive in terms of things reductive to the soul.’
    Robert Redford.
    I guess we all hope that those who lost people in Hillsborough can get justice, that there can be redemption, but above all that there can be some deeper more personal moral duty that can infect all of us, and especially those who serve us, and let us not forget MP’s, police and those who we vote and pay, DO serve US, not vice-versa and only with our consent, and somehow help us face the mounting problems we are rapidly facing. (See John Vidal ; The Guardian Sat. 15th)

  4. As always, Les, much to absorb and ponder here. Your account of serving with the police in the late 70s – and the qualms that led to your leaving the force – are interesting. Yes, I saw the John Vidal reports in Saturday’s Guardian (http://bit.ly/V045Rg and http://bit.ly/V04Mdf). Like Hillsborough, will it take 23 years for the truth to be acted upon? If so, it will probably be too late.

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