Unless I forget my law, altering a person’s statement is a criminal offence, without their knowledge or consent. And I don’t like criminals.

That’s Martin McLoughlin, one of the policemen on duty at Hillsborough on 15 April 1989, speaking in last night’s documentary film Hillsborough about discovering that his statement about that day had been unknowingly altered.

Hillsborough, finally screened last night by the BBC two years after being seen on an American ports channel, was a truly outstanding documentary produced and directed by Daniel Gordon. It could not be shown in Britain for legal reasons until after the Hillsborough inquest was completed – ruling on April 26 that all 96 victims of the 1989 stadium disaster were unlawfully killed, and that no responsibility for the disaster was in any way due to the behaviour of the Liverpool fans.

The film offered testimony both to the formidable strength and determination of the families of those who died at Hillsborough, and to the equally remarkable persistence and dedication of Professor of Criminology Phil Scraton whose work on Hillsborough and the lies which followed has been a forensic investigation as monumental as that of Woodward and Bernstein’s expose of the Watergate cover-up.

Scraton’s precise and devastating narration set out the story of Britain’s worst sporting disaster: the mismanagement and incompetence of senior police officers as the tragedy unfolded on the day, the lies and cover-up that began even as bodies were being dragged out of the pen onto the pitch, and the long, 27-year struggle by the victims’ families and their supporters to ensure the truth was told and justice done.

Phil Scraton
Phil Scraton

Phil Scraton pinpointed the defining moment when the lie was born. Shortly after the match was abandoned six minutes in, Graham Kelly, Chief Executive of the FA, visits the control box where South Yorkshire Police chief superintendent David Duckinfield tells him that the mayhem is the result of an inrush by Liverpool fans forcing an entry through an exit gate, into the stadium and down the tunnel. As Scraton observed:

At that moment, the person who is ultimately responsible for the hiring of the stadium is told, unequivocally, that Liverpool fans have caused the disaster by violent access to the ground. That’s the message that within minutes, even before the bodies are pulled out of pen three, the world knows that the responsibility for Hillsborough lies in the actions of Liverpool fans. The lie that this is – when Duckinfield knows that he ordered the opening of gate C – becomes defining. From this moment on, Liverpool fans are discredited as coming to the ground without tickets, forcing entry, being violent, being drunk.

The film’s minute-by-minute account detailing the horror of the tragedy was, by now, familiar. Told through the experiences of those directly involved – fans, survivors, and family members – the narrative gained extra force through the testimony of police officers, many of whom were speaking publicly for the first time. Men like Martin McLoughlin, either forced to rewrite their statements or who discovered years later that they had been ‘sanitised’ by officers from West Midlands Police brought in to investigate the actions of South Yorkshire Police. At each step in the unfolding tragedy and national disgrace, the jaw-dropping facts of the cover-up were explained in forensic detail by Phil Scraton, who underlined the failures in leadership and the deceit of those who were determined to deflect responsibility for their failure onto the fans.

The documentary exposed the lack of dignity shown to bereaved families as they arrived in Sheffield to identify their loved ones laid out in body bags on a gymnasium floor. It examined the origins and the impact of the orchestrated vilification of fans in the media, and recounted the 27-year campaign for justice fought on behalf of the 96 who died.

Perhaps the most remarkable moment came when Scraton told how he discovered the vital evidence of the extent of the systematic review and alteration of South Yorkshire Police statements. He had already been contacted by one police officer on duty at Hillsborough who eventually showed him his original statement and the ‘sanitised’ or redacted West Midlands version when he discovered that all the officers’ statements, including the redacted versions, were held in the House of Lords Archives. It was his access to these documents that proved a key turning point, reinforcing the authoritativeness of Scraton’s book Hillsborough: The Truth, now widely accepted as a definitive account of the disaster, and his work as a member of the Hillsborough Independent Panel that sat between 2010 and 2012.

In the film, former officer Martin McLoughlin told how he only discovered in 2012 that his version of events had been ‘sanitised’ without his approval or knowledge. In his original report, based on the notes he made on the day, he had condemned his bosses, the lack of equipment and manpower. He was stunned to learn when the Hillsborough Independent Panel published the documents found by Scraton online that his criticisms were all removed. His statement was just one of 164 from police officers which had been altered.

Vilified

The victims’ families, the survivors and their supporters were defeated so many times in the last 27 years, and Scraton underlined the draining physical and psychological impact of the struggle:

After the Taylor report they had high hopes that justice would be served and that didn’t happen. What they found was a system that could not respond appropriately. … What actually was happening was that they just weren’t believed. All the time it was ‘self-pity city’, ‘when are they going to get over it?’.

Scraton called this ‘the endless pressure’:

What I witnessed was the distress and depression associated with injustice that exacerbated bereavement.  Deep, hurtful, painful suffering over a long period of time. People taking their own lives, people dying prematurely, people broken by the struggle for justice. The price of Hillsborough is not reducible to 96 people dying. The price of Hillsborough is the price of institutionalised injustice, the appalling treatment by some of the media of the good reputations of innocent people. The cavalier way in which wonderful people were vilified. That’s the price of Hillsborough.

Justice at last

The film had been updated to record the verdicts of the second inquest – verdicts which Phil Scraton asserted, ‘demonstrated just what the level of culpability was’:

Twenty-five criticisms directed at those who were in positions of power; sixteen of policing before, during and after.  Justice delayed is justice denied.

Margaret Aspinall remembered the last words spoken to her by her son James as he left for the game. ‘We’re gonna win today.’ The victory required 27 years of endurance and determination.The film ended with her words:

I knew it was going to be a cover-up, and it was. We’ve proved it.

Truth and justice has come at a terribly high a price – and there still remain the cover-ups surrounding the policing of the miners’ strike (directed by the same police force) and the case of the Shrewsbury pickets. In the meantime, if you didn’t see it on Sunday night, you really should watch this indispensable film about one of the greatest establishment cover-ups in British history before it leaves iPlayer. Or watch it here:

See also

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