Hillsborough: What really happens next?

The tragedy of Hillsborough was not due to any one single factor. Such disasters never are. And as the case is handed to the courts and the lawyers it is anybody's guess who ends up getting the blame

Grainy image of a terrible tragedy
Robin Mitchinson
On 2 May 2016 07:08

There is something intrinsically repellent about the eagerness of the media to squeeze the last drop of drama out of sudden death and tragedy. The departure of Michael Jackson lasted about three weeks; more recently we have been regaled with the lives and tragic deaths of David Bowie and a certain entertainer called Prince.

But with the inquest report on the Hillsborough tragedy they really struck oil.

BBC TV News went into overdrive. The whole of the main early-evening news was devoted to the story, plus a ‘special’ immediately afterwards. There was blanket coverage elsewhere and it was ‘front page’ for days in the print media.

After all, it had all the elements of a great story -- large numbers of dead, police cover-up, official lies and deception and of course, football.

Now for the hunt for scapegoats. Somebody must be punished.

And yet none of the pundits seems to have made a correct assessment of the tragedy. The starting-point is that disasters of this magnitude almost never have a single cause; there is the build-up of a series of events which, possibly non-lethal or even relatively harmless in themselves, come together and the result is catastrophe.

To understand Hillsborough we must go back some years to the late ‘70s and early ‘80s.

English football was the epicentre of soccer violence; its ‘fans’ actually coined the term ‘football hooligans’. Many of the grounds of leading teams were dilapidated and unimproved since the days of cloth caps and terraces.

There was a major fire at Bradford that cost many lives; it appears that the grandstand was an ancient fire-trap.

We now move on to the tragedy at Haysel in 1985. Football hooligans alleged to have been mainly from Liverpool invaded territory of the opposing team’s fans. Thirty-nine people died in the ensuing violence.

English clubs were banned from all European competitions until 1990–91, with Liverpool being banned  for an additional three  years. Fourteen Liverpool fans were found guilty of manslaughter and each sentenced to three years' imprisonment.

As a consequence, measures were taken to prevent further clashes between fans during matches. They were the wrong measures. They mainly involved putting a security fence around the spectator areas to stop pitch invasions. And so, there is a further step towards the Hillsborough tragedy.

Hillsborough Stadium itself was clapped out. It seems that entrances and exits were inadequate, certainly for a capacity crowd. There appeared to be no emergency plan, facilities or equipment.

There were still terraces for the bulk of the fans. And it had ‘previous’ for overcrowding, including an ominous foretaste in 1988, when a large number of fans were injured through over-crowding.

At the time of the disaster, it had no safety certificate. And so we come to the fateful day.

As far as we can ascertain from the inquest evidence, the disaster began to unfold when a very large number of Liverpool fans arrived at the same time. Contrary to reports in The Sun and elsewhere they were not ticketless, drunk or violent.

But only one of seven turnstiles was open  which  obviously led to unmanageable congestion. The tunnel leading to the pens for the Liverpool fans should have been closed when the pens were full. On this day it was left open and unmanned.

Because of the congestion outside the ground the police opened the exit gates, allowing the fans to crowd in and crushing earlier arrivals against the security fence who were not allowed across by the police.

There were 44 ambulances deployed but the police would only allow one into the ground. ‘Why’ is not explained.

In the aftermath, the police went into warp-drive to cover their arses; for example, of 160 police statements no less than 116 were proved to have been tampered with.

The cover-up survived for more than 20 years despite the stench of it being in establishment nostrils, leaving bereaved families with calumnies about ‘drunken thugs’, ‘soccer hooligans’ and much more.

The inquest verdict of ‘unlawful killing’ leaves a very big question mark. What happens next?

The police commander responsible for crowd control, Chief Superintendent Duckenfield, may be charged with manslaughter by reason of gross negligence. This will mean a reprise of the inquest evidence but to a higher standard of proof.

The tampering with police statements might lead to charges of misconduct in a public office or similar. The inquest found both the police and ambulance service in breach of their duty of care.

The owners of the ground may be liable in damages under occupier’s liability law.

There is, however, one certainty: another bumper pay-day for m’ learned friends!

Robin Mitchinson is a Contributing Editor to The Commentator. A former barrister, living in the Isle of Man, he is an international public management specialist with almost two decades of experience in institutional development, decentralisation and democratisation processes. He has advised governments and major international institutions across the world

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