Hillsborough: Crown in the dock

Steve Freeman and Phil Vellender take a closer look at the Hillsborough cover-up and locate the blame at the very top

It is now unanimously agreed that the truth about the Hillsborough tragedy was concealed for 23 years. As Weekly Worker readers will know, on April 15 1989, 96 men, women and children were crushed to death at the FA Cup semi-final at Hillsborough stadium in Sheffield. Readers will also concur with the tributes paid to the tenacious struggle of ordinary people campaigning against such a shocking injustice.

That 23-year struggle of the families and supporters of Liverpool Football Club tells us much about life in a class-divided nation. On one side was the working class represented by the Liverpool fans, whose city never forgot the disaster. “Justice for the 96” chants have continued to ring out from the Kop, not least on each anniversary of the tragic events. Against them were ranged the powerful forces of the crown, supported by the Murdoch press.

Hillsborough was a disaster waiting to happen. In those days working class fans were made to stand on terracing divided into ‘pens’. At Sheffield Wednesday’s ground they were ringed with steel fences. Fans had to enter these through a small number of decrepit turnstiles. The capacity was officially 2,200; however it should have been 1,600. In addition the barriers did not meet official safety standards. On the fatal day Hillsborough did not even have a valid safety certificate. Over 3,000 supporters were let in.

Simply blaming it all on the police does not get to the heart of the matter, but on the day it was they who were responsible for herding fans into a very dangerous place. At 2.50pm the pens were already full before the police ordered the exit gate to be opened and around 2,000 more fans were directed into the central areas behind the goal. The powerful and uncontrollable force of the crowd began crushing, injuring and then killing adults and children. Five minutes after kick-off a crash barrier in pen three gave way, causing people to fall on top of each other.

Worse was to follow: the emergency medical services were kept outside the ground with the exception of one ambulance driven on the pitch. Of the 96 people who died, only 14 were ever admitted to hospital. Forty-one people who were still alive at 3.15pm could have been saved - they were left to die with little or no medical help. Over 700 were injured and thousands were damaged emotionally by what happened to them or those around them.

Immediately the police and the Murdoch press pinned the blame on the Liverpool fans. Parents arriving to identify their children’s bodies were questioned as if they were criminals. The police tested the blood alcohol of people laid out dead. Checks were then run on them through the police national computer. Soon after stories began to circulate about the ‘animalistic’ behaviour of the fans.

Four days after the disaster, The Sun newspaper published a story headlined ‘The truth’, alleging that fans had picked the pockets of victims, and attacked and urinated on police and rescue workers. In 2004, Boris Johnson, the Tory’s favourite buffoon, continued the same line in The Spectator, accusing Liverpool of wallowing in victim status and failing to acknowledge that drunken fans were partly responsible for the tragedy.

Corporate manslaughter

In law a corporate body is responsible for the actions of its servants or employees. Individuals still have their responsibilities for actions or inactions, but a corporate body cannot hide behind an individual and use them as scapegoats for its own responsibility. If you are bullied or endangered by an individual manager at work, it is the employer who is responsible, even if the chief executive did not and cannot know every incident. Ignorance may mitigate, but it is no defence.

The Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007 states that an organisation is guilty of an offence if the way its activities are managed or organised brings about a person’s death; and amounts to a gross breach of a relevant duty of care owed by the organisation to the deceased. In 1989 crown immunity was a long established legal doctrine that meant that crown bodies (such as government departments) could not be prosecuted. Section 11(1) of the 2007 act now allows prosecutions. Whilst we should have no illusions in this law, it directs us straight to the top.

The crown is a corporate body, the most powerful multinational corporation in the country, but it is hardly mentioned in this terrible disaster. Nevertheless it is there, lurking in the shadows, directing operations throughout. It appears in various guises - that of the police, local authorities, civil servants, judges and ministers. Those in charge - the ‘controlling mind’ - are its ‘board of directors’, including the then ‘chief executive officer’, Margaret Thatcher, and non-executive chair, Elizabeth Windsor.

Any major crisis or disaster is a danger for the crown. The chief executive or the chair of the board usually turn up in person to show who is in charge - in this case Thatcher and home secretary Douglas Hurd arrived in Sheffield next day. The queen may adopt a lower profile in such bad news stories. In 1966 she was criticised for not visiting the Aberfan disaster for eight days. Prince Charles and Diana Spencer were sent up to Hillsborough on the fourth day.

Lord Justice Taylor was appointed immediately by Hurd to conduct a judicial inquiry - the normal means by which the crown protects itself. Thatcher was already pushing the Football Spectators’ Bill through parliament, providing for membership cards to be introduced in order to control football fans. If Taylor proposed such cards then it would bolster the crown’s own legislation and help cement the strategy of blaming the fans, not the police. Behind the scenes Taylor was pressed by the home secretary to fall into line. Thatcher’s principal private secretary told her that the judge was “distinctly unhelpful”.

The Hillsborough disaster was not an isolated incident. In 1985 the Bradford City stadium fire killed 56 at another football match. In 1987 the ferry, Herald of Free Enterprise, capsized with 193 passengers and crew killed. The Kings Cross fire killed 31 in 1987 and in 1989 the pleasure boat, Marchioness, sank in the Thames, resulting in 51 deaths. It was a time when the crown embraced neoliberal deregulation, slack regulation or no regulation at all. It was a public safety nightmare.


The crown at all levels was fully engaged in damage-limitation. “Two judge-led inquiries, an inquest, police investigations, and a private prosecution were carried out, but the families’ story was largely dismissed by the establishment” (The Independent on Sunday September 16 2012). Norman Bettison - who, of course, resigned as West Yorkshire chief constable a few days ago - played a vital role in the South Yorkshire police unit, covering their tracks. He was later given a knighthood for his services to the crown.

More than 160 police statements were changed. One hundred and sixteen of them were altered to remove ‘unfavourable’ comments about policing. PC David Frost submitted a 16-page statement to his commanders. It was cut to six pages. He claimed that officers like himself were threatened that if they did not toe the line they could be accused of taking bribes from fans to let them into the terracing. He explained to a later inquiry that “Wholesale changes were made. This was an attempt by senior management to sanitise and protect themselves” (October 24 1997, reported in The Independent on Sunday, September 16 2012).

The South Yorkshire police have form when it comes to fixing evidence. In 1984 the crown was centrally directing the struggle against the miners and the National Union of Mineworkers. After the picketing of the Orgreave coal depot police were told what to write by their officers to secure convictions against miners for ‘riot’. Michael Mansfield QC called it the “biggest frame-up ever” when the claims came to light.

Although the trial collapsed because of the fake evidence, no action was ever taken against any officer. Nobody should be surprised that the crown failed to act against its local agents. This is not, however, a South Yorkshire problem. Recently before the Tottenham riots false stories appeared in the press to discredit Mark Duggan. In the case of Jean Charles De Menezes (to name but one) it was claimed he leapt over the barriers at Stockwell tube station to escape police when, as the video film later showed, he did no such thing.

South Yorkshire police chiefs considered charging Lord Justice Taylor with perverting the course of justice. Taylor’s police driver claimed he heard the judge say the police would have to take the blame. Taylor’s job was to protect the crown. If that meant sacrificing South Yorkshire police so be it. Otherwise responsibility would head up the food chain, so enveloping the entire government.

The police held discussions about possible charges with the director of public prosecutions. Discrediting Taylor came to nothing because a bust-up between key parts of the crown would be very dangerous. The file on this incident was considered highly sensitive and kept secret for years with a note warning that a leak “could prove highly embarrassing for all parties”, not least the crown itself.

The ‘authorities’ face less danger when discrediting private citizens. Professor John Aston was in the ground during the disaster and helped the survivors. When he criticised the emergency services at the Taylor inquiry his professional integrity came under attack. And playwright Jimmy McGovern was followed constantly, as he planned his docudrama on Hillsborough. The powers-that-be were clearly worried about what he would conclude.

In 1991 the Police Complaints Authority recommended that chief superintendent David Duckenfield and his assistant, superintendent Bernard Murray, in charge of the South Yorkshire police on the day, should face disciplinary charges. Duckenfield retired on medical grounds and the case against Murray was dropped. In 1996 home secretary Michael Howard refused calls for a new inquiry. He said he was not convinced that it would be “in the public interest”.

In 1996, the opposition Labour Party promised the families a new inquiry. However, once in office, home secretary Jack Straw followed the line taken by the crown. He assured families of his support and asked Lord Justice Stuart-Smith for a “scrutiny of evidence”. PC David Frost told the judge about the cover-up, but the latter concluded that fresh evidence did not add anything significant. Statements should not have been edited, he decided, but this was simply an “error of judgement”. Jack Straw accepted the findings and ruled out a new inquiry. Job done!

In 1998 the Hillsborough Family Support Group brought charges of manslaughter against the two top police officers. The private prosecution came to trial in 2000. After six weeks the jury found Murray not guilty of manslaughter, but could not reach a verdict on Duckenfield. The judge, Mr Justice Hooper, ruled out a majority verdict and refused a retrial on the grounds that Duckenfield faced public humiliation and a fair trial would be impossible.

Crown responsibility

Over 10 years later the crown opened some 450,000 documents for examination. Liverpool MP Andy Burnham, closely and personally involved in the campaign for justice, credits this decision to prime minister Gordon Brown. Did Brown discuss this with the queen in their weekly meetings and did she give the green light? And if this was possible in 2009, why not in 1989?

On September 12 2012, prime minister David Cameron apologised to the families for a “double injustice”. This represented official recognition on behalf of the crown and the queen as head of state. If the scandal continues to deepen, the buck will pass beyond Downing Street and arrive at the gates of the palace. What does the head of state do when such corruption occurs on her watch?

What did the queen know and when did she know it? What did her various prime ministers and home secretaries, like Howard and Straw, and her senior civil servants know? Were they all part of this criminal conspiracy or simply ignorant and negligent? Were they, like so many sleeping beauties, fast asleep for 23 years? Did she know or inquire or do anything? Don’t we, her ‘subjects’, have the right to know?

What we do know now is that the “Police, ambulance services, football authorities, stadium owners, local authorities, two judges and politicians all failed and failed again … Some in authority were not just defective, but deliberately obstructive” (The Independent on Sunday September 16 2012). We can agree with professor Ashton about the context - a Thatcher government which hated the working class and despised Liverpool, with its militant tradition and opposition to her policies. The South Yorkshire police played a major role in defeating the miners, so they were already her favourite force.

Yet the South Yorkshire police, now caught red-handed in the commission of their crimes, are really a distraction and handy scapegoat. On October 11 2012, the Crown Prosecution Service announced possible criminal charges. Its investigation will focus on Sheffield, not Whitehall, Downing Street or Buckingham Palace. Do not expect the CPS to prosecute the crown for corporate manslaughter or conspiracy to cover up this crime.

Let professor Ashton have the last word: “What happened at Hillsborough is a symptom of the corruption in public life that is endemic now. At stake is the vitality of our democracy.” We need to unmask the crown and the secretive and unaccountable system of government.