This is the first of a two-part series of articles looking at the Hillsborough Disaster of 1989 following the recent series ‘Anne’ on ITV. Part 2 will be uploaded in the coming days
The actor Maxine Peake does not hide her support for the working-class and this is reflected in much of her work such as appearing in the film Peterloo and writing and performing in Queens of the Coal Age about the 1993 underground pit closure protest by miners’ wives.
However nothing she has done compares with her moving performance on television as Anne Williams, whose 15 year old son was killed at Hillsborough and who fought for years to get the truth. Maxine follows the mini-drama up with a searing documentary exposing the truth and the suffering of the families. The writer of the mini-series, Kevin Sampson was at Hillsborough and experienced first-hand what happened; his script is well written and deeply poignant, based on interviews with Anne and others involved.
‘The worst human disaster in the history of British sport’
On the 15th April 1989 a FA cup semi-final was held between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest at Hillsborough Stadium, home of Sheffield Wednesday Football Club. The police restricted the number of gates through which Liverpool fans could get into the ground resulting in a large crowd building up in Leppings Lane.
The police match commander David Duckenfield, rather than delay the start of the fixture, or move fans to empty areas, is reported to have ordered exit gate C to be opened leading to an influx of supporters through an exit tunnel into the pens. A fatal crush developed and 94 people died with 766 injured. Another died in hospital a few days later. Two more victims died in the years to follow; in 1993, and Andrew Devine who died 32 years later after suffering severe and irreversible brain damage on the day. He became the 97th victim.
British football grounds were run down and decrepit. Fifty-six died in a fire at Bradford City’s ground only a few years earlier; there had been injuries at Hillsborough before. Fatal accidents and injuries were common at football grounds. Football fans had been treated with contempt for years. But what happened at Hillsborough on that day and in the decades to come showed a level of virulent class hatred by the establishment unmatched in the history of British capitalism.
Once it became clear that there was a major crush, the game ended but the police response was a shambles. There was no overall plan or strategy to rescue people. It has now emerged that there were forty-two ambulances outside the ground that were prevented by the police from entering to help people. Instead the dead and injured were carried on ripped up advertising hoardings by desperate fans.
But what was to follow was truly sinister.
In the following days and weeks senior officers of South Yorkshire Police fed the press lurid stories blaming Liverpool fans for causing the disaster. No smear, no lie, no slander was left unsaid in their campaign to divert attention away from their failures.
All the major capitalist press condemned “tribal “Liverpool fans as drunk, violent, abusing the police, and thieving from the dead. On the 19 April, the Sun put up a headline “The Truth” on the front page attacking fans for urinating on the dead and attacking the police. These lies were upheld by both the police and the Tories. It is to Keir Starmer’s shame that recently he thought it was a good idea to write an article for the Sun.
The Sun to this day is boycotted on Merseyside and both the cities of Liverpool and Sheffield have disposed of the services of Tory MPs. The lies and covers up kept coming. An accusation was made that a police horse was covered in cigarette burns, subsequently disproved by a vet. A bystander claimed that Liverpool fans made lewd comments about the body of a partially unclothed dead teenage girl. Eventually it was discovered that the so-called witness who made this accusation was the daughter of a South Yorkshire Police Chief Inspector who had been on duty that day.
Even worse was to come. The struggle for the truth was to take decades.
The capitalist establishment vs victims’ families
By January 1990 a report was published by Lord Justice Taylor. Apart from recommending safer football grounds it found the main reason for the disaster was the failure of police control and that fans had played no part in the disaster. And that’s as far as it went!
The families then faced the prejudice and bigotry of the judiciary at the first Coroner’s inquest into Hillsborough completed in 1991. It ruled that all the deaths were accidental. So Anne Williams’ son Kevin went to a football match in Sheffield and got himself killed accidentally. The police were well represented with barristers together with a Coroner who clearly took their side.
It was at this stage that the coroner imposed the 3.15 pm cut off. What this meant was he would not hear any evidence after this time on the day of the disaster. His reasoning was that there had to be a cut off at some point and 3.15 was the time that the first ambulance arrived on the pitch and by that time people would already have received the injuries from which they were to die. This ‘cut-off’ meant any evidence in respect of the emergency response was ruled ‘inadmissible’. Families would not know fully how their relatives died and the police added to their misery by telling the court that there was wide-spread drunkenness.
This decision made life very difficult for the families and they quickly realised that there was a cover-up going on. They were to fight for years to get the Coroner’s decision overturned and find out the true circumstances under which their relatives died.
The families went to judicial review and Anne Williams argued that the circumstances of her son’s death had not been properly investigated and that the West Midlands police who were reporting on events at Hillsborough had suppressed evidence. The court threw out the arguments. So not only were fans to be smeared but it was implied that the families were liars.
For Anne Williams, Margaret Aspinall, Trevor Hicks who had lost two young daughters at Hillsborough and all the other families it was a long hard struggle in the 1990s. In March 1993 Tony Bland, the 96th victim, died after being in a persistent vegetative state. In 1996 a new powerful docu-drama by Jimmy McGovern revealed evidence that some of the 96 were still alive after 3.15.
‘New Labour, new cover up’
In 1997 a Labour government was elected and hopes were raised, especially on the back of calls for justice for the families whilst in opposition. The more realistic were sceptical, many claiming: “New Labour, new cover up”.
Labour clearly stated in their electioneering that they would do something. So Jack Straw, the home secretary organised a “scrutiny”, not a new inquiry, and appointed the grandly named Lord Justice Stuart-Smith to be in charge. His first comment on arriving at the Albert Dock in Liverpool on meeting the families was “Have you got a few of your people or are they like the Liverpool fans, turn up at the last minute?”
Events went further downhill following this comment as Stuart-Smith announced he could only look at “fresh evidence”. However the families at this point discovered that some of the evidence from witnesses had been doctored by the police.
The case of Kevin Williams serves as a good example. Anne Williams discovered two crucial witnesses, both police officers who had tried to save her son Kevin. The officers told her, in front of witnesses, that they had been pressured into making second statements by the investigating West Midlands Police. One officer, Derek Bruder, was to withdraw this and to tell Stuart-Smith that he had not been pressured.
The other officer, Special Constable Debra Martin, reportedly maintained from the first time Anne Williams met her that the West Midlands Police harassed her by persistently visiting her. In the end she is said to have given in and signed a second, fictional statement without reading it. In her first statement Debra Martin states quite clearly that Kevin opened his eyes in the gymnasium, looked at her and said ‘Mum’. This was at 4pm on the day of the disaster. Stuart-Smith simply decided to ignore this evidence.
Next, the Hillsborough Families Support Group started a private prosecution against David Duckenfield and his deputy Bernard Murray, charging them with manslaughter and misconduct in a public office. Murray was acquitted and the jury could not reach a verdict on Duckenfield.
Working-class anger erupts
But when all seemed lost the masses intervened, decisively. By August 2009 Blair was gone and Gordon Brown was Prime Minister. At the 20th anniversary memorial event, 30,000 fans turned up to remember the dead; many more than expected. They had not been forgotten. Secretary of State for Sport Andy Burnham began to read out a message from Brown when he suddenly faced a hostile crowd on their feet chanting “justice for the 96”. The deaths had to be fully and properly investigated.
Burnham scuttled quickly back down to London to see Brown. He led a government in deep trouble. The banks were destroying the economy and the working class were under attack. The issue of Hillsborough would not go away. To fail to do something would bring even more opprobrium down on the head of a failing Labour government.
In January 2010 the Hillsborough Independent Panel was appointed to review previously unseen evidence and after sitting for two years it published a damning report. All the files concerning the disaster were made public and it was clear that 164 witness statements had been altered, the majority to remove criticism of the police and to smear fans. The police had performed blood alcohol tests on the victims including a little ten-year-old boy. The dead had been checked to establish a criminal record.
The referee for the game Ray Lewis had stated that on his way into the ground he noticed fans from both teams were mixing well and there was no trouble. Years later he discovered that his word ‘mixed’ had been replaced with the word ‘pissed’. A further, damning finding: forty-one of the injured could have been saved with proper medical attention. The blame for the disaster lay clearly at the feet of the police.
The outcome included new inquests which returned verdicts of unlawful killing in respect of the 96 victims. Anne Williams could finally pick up an accurate death certificate for her son but she was to die of cancer at the age of 60. Duckenfield was put on trial twice for gross negligence manslaughter and found not guilty. There is still no justice for the victims of Hillsborough. Not a single person culpable in the tragedy has been brought to book.
Maxine Peake’s portrayal of Anne Williams is magnificent. The script, production and staging are outstanding. You must watch this mini-series.
Anne was broadcast in early January in 4 one-hour episodes. It is still available on ITV Hub.