Hillsborough: The police cover-up

The mistakes at Hillsborough should never have happened in the first place. There had been so many warning signs in the other semi-final matches held in ‘81‘87 and again in ‘88, and if anybody in authority had taken those signs seriously then Hillsborough would have only ever been remembered for being the home of Sheffield Wednesday Football Club. Today, the very mention of the stadium conjures up disturbing & horrific images.

The main contributory factors which caused the disaster at Hillsborough, as discovered by the subsequent government enquiry (The Taylor Report) into the disaster, were as follows:

1. A lack of organisation outside the ground. Fans were not organised outside the ground. There was no queuing, and there were no barriers along the roads leading towards the turnstiles to slow the flow of fans towards the (old & insufficient) turnstiles as there had been at the semi-finals held at Hillsborough in 1987 and 1988. By 2.30pm, a full 15 minutes before the match ticket advised fans to be inside the ground, the swell of numbers had started to become unmanageable. The simple fact was that the numbers allowed to crowd outside the turnstiles were far greater than the numbers that the turnstiles could admit.

2. Police opened an exit gate. At 2.48pm, once the throng outside had developed into a dangerous crush; police opened an exit gate to allow thousands to enter the ground unchecked. Exit gate C was directly behind a tunnel that led to the over-full central pens.

3. Failure to close the central tunnel after opening the gate. It was clear to all that day that the central pens were already full well before kick-off, while there was still plenty of room in the half-empty wing pens. Countless players, officials, fans and even John Motson of the BBC commentated on this fact on the Grandstand programme that was broadcasting live that day.

Yet, when Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield gave the order to open exit gate C from his position directly over-looking the Leppings Lane terrace, he failed to close off access to the tunnel leading to the (already over-full) central pens. Fans entering through gate C were confronted by a dark tunnel, with a steep decline down towards the pens, and the green of the pitch could be seen at its end. It was the only obvious way onto the terrace. Above this tunnel, was the solitary word ‘standing’ and as a result fans headed straight down the tunnel into the dangerously over-capacity central pens. Lord Justice Taylor was later to describe the failure to block access to the tunnel as ‘a blunder of the first magnitude’.

People were compressed so tightly that serious injury and death followed, worsened by the fact that a crush barrier collapsed under the sheer weight of people and body after body fell forward on top of one another. The crush claimed the lives of 96 men, women and children.

The facts above are the main reasons that a disaster occurred; they are the true events of that day. As the inexperienced match commander watched the disaster unfold, Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield realised the enormity of his mistakes and his first reaction was to lie about them.

The first recorded moment in which an orchestrated and obvious police cover-up started can be traced to 3.15pm that day, just nine minutes after the referee had stopped the match and taken the players off the pitch. Graham Kelly, the then Chief Executive of the Football Association, Mr Kirton, also from the FA, and Graham Mackerell, Secretary of Sheffield Wednesday Football Club went to the police control box to find out from the match commander what had happened. According to the Taylor Report: Duckenfield indicated that he thought there had been fatalities and that the game was likely to be abandoned. He also said that a gate had been forced and there had been an inrush of Liverpool supporters. He then pointed at one of the television screens focused on gate C by the Leppings Lane turnstile and said ‘That’s the gate that’s been forced; there’s been an inrush’ ”.

This is the first and earliest lie, and the very start of a cover-up that clearly sought to deflect blame from the actions of those with a duty of care, and onto those who were owed that very duty. Lord Justice Taylor was later to call this ‘A disgraceful lie’ in his report. Remember, while Duckenfield told this lie the tragedy was still unfolding in front of his very eyes. There were fans all over the pitch, some fans giving mouth-to-mouth, some ferrying the injured and dying from one end of the pitch to the other, and others tragically dying in front of him. He still sought not only to save his own skin, but in doing so to blame the victims of his mistakes. I don’t think ‘disgraceful’ quite covers it, do you?

Graham Kelly was interviewed on television a little later and he spoke of two stories. One, which the fans told of the police opening a gate and the other, that Duckenfield had deceitfully told about the fans breaking down a gate. The lie spread around the world. Duckenfield admitted to the Taylor inquiry that he lied, but the news reports and headlines had long-since run, and their damage had been done.

In the days after the disaster, there were some newspaper headlines that continued this orchestrated cover-up and to perpetuate this lie. The worst by some way was put together by Kelvin Mackenzie, who was at that time editor of The Sun newspaper. His front page headline was “The Truth” and three sub-headlines read “Some fans picked the pockets of victims. Some fans urinated on brave cops. Some fans beat up PC giving the kiss of life.”

To this day, 22 years later, The Sun newspaper is still boycotted on Merseyside.

The above statements were attributed to unnamed South Yorkshire Police officials. The stereotype of thuggish football fans, and thieving Scousers, was now firmly fixed in the nation’s conscience. One member of staff who worked at The Sun at that time described it as ‘a classic smear’. I’d like to add that The Taylor Report saw 71 hours of video from that day, and were given thousands of statements, both oral and written, and not a single statement supported these disgusting lies.

Officers on duty that day were asked to do something that is unusual. Rather than writing their recollections in their official police notebooks as is normal practice, they were asked to write their recollections on plain, A4 paper. Anything written in a police notebook is admissible as evidence, and official. The thoughts, experiences and recollections of officers hand-written on plain paper were not governed by Official Criminal Act rules.

What happened next is quite incredible. I believe that it was Professor Phil Scraton, author of the excellent Hillsborough The Truth, who was the first person to reveal that PC’s statements had been changed, with their criticisms of the police operation that day removed!

After submitting their hand-written version of events to their line manager, they were then sent to the solicitors acting for South Yorkshire Police. There, they are typed, and returned to their author with huge chunks of their recollections scored through. Some had single words red-lined, others had complete lines and in some cases PC’s were expected to remove whole paragraphs.

Andy Burnham MP recently read out one such amended statement in the Commons Debate.

PC 227’s initial statement read:

“I realised at the time that a terrible tragedy had occurred. I began to feel myself being overcome with emotion, but quickly realised that I would be no use to anyone if I felt sorry for myself. I was assisted out of the terracing and onto the pitch. I saw several officers wandering about in a dazed and confused state. Some were crying and some simply sat on the grass. Members of the public were running about with boarding, ferrying people from the pitch to the far end of the ground.”

This is the note attached to this original statement, from a senior officer:

“Last two pages required amending. These are his own feelings. He also states that PC’s were sat down crying while fans were carrying the dead and injured. This shows that they were organised and we were not. Have the PC re-write the last two pages, excluding the points mentioned.”

The TV pictures from Grandstand that day illustrated the words written by PC 227, and the senior officer was right. It did look like they [the fans] were organised and we [South Yorkshire Police] were not. It looked that way, because in the main, it was the sad truth.

This is just one of many, many statements that were edited, in an apparent attempt to remove any criticism of the police by the police. Incredible! You can watch the Commons Debate in its entirety by clicking the link. The first part of the video is about pensions, so forward to 17:42:23 for the start of the Hillsborough debate.

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My next article will be concerning the coroner’s decision to place a 3.15pm cut-off time on the evidence that could be heard.

Please do comment on this article if have something to say.

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