Law, Crime & Rights

Hillsborough: returning legitimacy to “unofficial” voices

Following the news that the latest inquest into the Hillsborough disaster had reached the hugely significant verdict that the 96 Liverpool Football Club fans who died on that day had been “unlawfully killed”, Prime Minister David Cameron released a statement praising the verdict for offering the friends and relatives of the victims and survivors “long overdue” justice. Certainly, this verdict comes as positive news. The relatives and friends of the victims campaigned tirelessly to not only uncover the truth about what happened on that day but to also publicise that truth against a swelling tide of official lies. Whether speaking up on behalf of those that they had lost or talking about their own experiences as survivors, those involved in this campaign for justice had to fight to give legitimacy to their own voices, though this legitimacy is still mediated by official channels. In the rest of his statement, the Prime Minister declared “All the families and survivors now have official confirmation…that the Liverpool fans were utterly blameless in the disaster”. The irony here is that the emphasis is still on “official confirmation” of truth, in a case which highlights the danger of placing unequivocal trust in officials to act as arbiters between fact and fiction, between legitimate and illegitimate accounts.

When Liverpool fans travelled to the Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield to watch their team play against Nottingham Forrest in an FA Cup Semi Final on 15th April 1989 they were catastrophically let down by the authorities. Focused on controlling the crowd rather than assisting them, there were key failures in police decision-making that led to the tragedy, one of the most notable being the decision to open exit gate C to allow fans into the stadium despite not having an adequate police presence ready on the other side, not directing fans towards safe routes into the stadium and, crucially, not responding in a quick or efficient manner to save people as the disaster unfolded.

These failures were compounded when a key police official subsequently lied about what happened, claiming that Liverpool fans had forced gate C open. Subscribing to the official narrative, the press reporting of the incident honed in on the idea that fans were to blame for the disaster. It was claimed that the Liverpool fans were drunk, many ticketless and the lie that they had forced their way into the stadium was repeated. Under the infamous headline “The Truth”, The Sun newspaper claimed that fans had pick-pocketed victims, urinated on police and impeded official efforts to rescue people. The local reaction to The Sun newspaper’s article was so strong that many in the city launched a boycott of the newspaper that still stands to this day.

A sign outside a grocers in Liverpool, 2015 (author’s picture)
A sign outside a grocers in Liverpool, 2015 (author’s picture)

These lies about the Liverpool fans at Hillsborough gained traction because they were rooted in official narratives. The lies originated in the accounts of police officials and were given legitimacy in the immediate aftermath by press reporting and by subsequent official investigations into the incident. The official narrative about what happened on the day was reinforced by the first inquest that took place, when coroner Stefan Popper only considered what happened on the day up to 3.15pm, arguing that the victims were already dead or unable to be saved by that point. This meant that the police response to the disaster was not addressed in particular detail, and in 1991 a verdict of accidental death was reached.

With the publication of the Hillsborough Independent Panel’s report in 2012, there was increasing recognition that official accounts about what happened that day had been listened to over and above accounts from survivors. The false accounts of officials were given precedence not just because of a tendency to trust those in authority, but also because of a tendency to assume that the accounts of ordinary people are less objective and less valuable. In this particular case, entire social groups – victims, survivors, Liverpool supporters in general and even an entire city – were marginalised and, at times, vilified as a result of the lies told about Hillsborough.

The verdict at the most recent inquest will hopefully allow the old, official and untrue narrative about what happened on that day to be superseded in the public consciousness by the account that the families and victims already knew to be true: that the fans were not to blame for what happened at Hillsborough. There is a sense that officials have given legitimacy back to those from whom they previously took it. In terms of wider lessons to be learnt, the Hillsborough justice campaign illustrates in stark ways the dangers of assuming that official voices necessarily carry more truth than “unofficial” voices. The effort that families and survivors had to go to in order to have the truth of fans’ experiences at Hillsborough told acts as a warning against conflating authority with truth and intrinsic value.

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