At last some justice for the 96

by Chris Bertram on April 27, 2016

Yesterday’s verdicts that the 96 Liverpool fans who died at the 1989 FA Cup semi-final at Hillsborough were unlawfully killed is a complete vindication for their families who have campaigned for justice for 27 years. It is also a total condemnation both of South Yorkshire Police and of their friends among the tabloid press, the pundits and the politicians who first blamed the victims and then spent years treating the bereaved with contempt. I’ll not say more about the facts and the history here, since [there]( [are]( [plenty]( [of links]( that people can follow. I just want to say a few general things. First, there is the lesson that sometimes people who campaign against injustice, who stubbornly stick to their task over the decades can win, even against the state and its supporters. Second, we need to notice, again, how injustice comes about and persists where the victims are people who don’t matter in the eyes of the powerful. In 1989, Scousers in general and football fans in particular were people who didn’t count, who didn’t matter, who could be stigmatized and stereotyped as feckless, violent, drunken, workshy and blamed for their own misfortune. Later they were whingers with a “victim mentality”. Third, for all that pundits ridicule “conspiracy theories”, there are sometimes conspiracies by the state and its agents, perpetrated against “people who don’t matter”, and aided by those same journalists and commentators with their contempt for the victims, their lack of interest in the facts, and their deference to the official version. Everywhere, “people who don’t matter”, whose interests are ignored and whose pain is ridiculed, can take heart from what the Hillsborough families have achieved. The next step for justice should be the prosecution of those responsible.



engels 04.27.16 at 9:36 am

For comparison: The Sun’s front page’s at the time, and today.


Lynne 04.27.16 at 9:50 am

We were living in England at the time and I will never forget the pictures of the people pressed against the fences. We left England shortly after so I didn’t know the victims were publicly blamed—on the very day it happened there was already speculation about official mistakes. Very glad to see the truth come out.


engels 04.27.16 at 10:22 am

Mayor of London Boris Johnson in 2004:

The extreme reaction to Mr Bigley’s murder is fed by the fact that he was a Liverpudlian. Liverpool is a handsome city with a tribal sense of community. A combination of economic misfortune — its docks were, fundamentally, on the wrong side of England when Britain entered what is now the European Union — and an excessive predilection for welfarism have created a peculiar, and deeply unattractive, psyche among many Liverpudlians. They see themselves whenever possible as victims, and resent their victim status; yet at the same time they wallow in it. Part of this flawed psychological state is that they cannot accept that they might have made any contribution to their misfortunes, but seek rather to blame someone else for it, thereby deepening their sense of shared tribal grievance against the rest of society. The deaths of more than 50 Liverpool football supporters at Hillsborough in 1989 was undeniably a greater tragedy than the single death, however horrible, of Mr Bigley; but that is no excuse for Liverpool’s failure to acknowledge, even to this day, the part played in the disaster by drunken fans at the back of the crowd who mindlessly tried to fight their way into the ground that Saturday afternoon. The police became a convenient scapegoat, and the Sun newspaper a whipping-boy for daring, albeit in a tasteless fashion, to hint at the wider causes of the incident.


PlutoniumKun 04.27.16 at 10:27 am

I remember well as a teenager (big Liverpool fan) watching uncomprehendingly at what was happening on TV – it didn’t quite seem real. It wasn’t immediately apparent (at least to me) that people were dying, just that something terrible was taking place. But it was also very obvious that it was peaceful, people were walking around stunned, there were no objects flying, nobody running, no confrontations. This was of course a time when football violence was still a problem, but this was obviously something very different.

The manner in which the media (and not just the Sun) chose to believe the worst of the fans was a very educational moment for me. It was only years later, when I moved to England, that I realised just how deep the hatred there was in some quarters for working class communities, specifically those in places like Liverpool where the sense of community and the refusal to buckle under economic assault was strong. I’m not sure there is even a word for it, but it seemed to me that it bore all the hallmarks of a deep form of racism, it was much more than just snobbery or regional rivalry. ‘Classism’ just seems too weak to describe it.

I later had experience of the UK police. I was arrested at a non-violent environmental protest. I had a very pleasant conversation with the wpc who led me away. So it was with absolute horror that I had to sit in a magistrates court and listen while she read out an obviously pre-written statement that was a complete set of lies. Every one of the officers read out the same statement. When a lawyer pointed out, not unreasonably, to the magistrate that the police were presenting what was quite clearly a pre-arranged statement rather than presenting evidence, he was directly informed by the Magistrate that if the Police said someone was guilty, that person was guilty. So all of us had little option but to accept a bind-over, despite having been clearly arrested illegally.

The establishment (not just in the UK itself) will always put its priorities first. The law has little to do with it. The UK establishment saw those decent Liverpool fans as little more than scum and animals, despite all the evidence that they were innocent victims of gross incompetence. It chose to defend its own against ordinary people. But thankfully, they didn’t know what they were fighting against. The Hillsborough campaigners are an inspiration, I’m glad that they have finally been vindicated.


Trader Joe 04.27.16 at 10:56 am

American fans, or anyone interested in the full background of this tragedy (which at last has seen a bit of justice) should take the time to find the ESPN “30 for 30” documentary called simply “Hillsborough.” Even handed where it needs to be and deadly accurate where it counts, the film paints quite nicely the emergent picture of fraud and corruption as courts and media gradually come to see that the victims were not just victims once but twice.

A link below.


P O'Neill 04.27.16 at 12:12 pm

#3 thanks for the reminder of the Ken Bigley hatefest and how it got rolled up into the Hillsborough scorn. In general it’s difficult now to comprehend the scale of Hillsborough (and Bradford and Heysel) but that’s not a reason for the government to attempt another side-step of accountability.

On a mostly off-point note, Creed provides an unusual (and mostly favourable) supporting role for the city of Liverpool in the Rocky saga, so maybe attitudes to the city are in for another upswing,


Marlowe 04.27.16 at 1:01 pm

I’m pretty sure that it wasn’t Boris Johnson that penned the editorial piece for ‘The Spectator’ quoted above. Although he took responsibility for it – as editor – and resigned, I seem to recall it being widely known to have been the work of Simon Heffer.


Lupita 04.27.16 at 1:49 pm

If Mexican justice works anything like the British, we will have to wait until 2042 to get justice for the 43 students massacred in Ayotzinapa. Idiots.


Mercurius Londiniensis 04.27.16 at 3:24 pm

The findings of the new inquest are very welcome.

What is most strange about this case is that the essential facts — and many damning judgements about the police behaviour — were already laid out clearly in Lord Justice Taylor’s interim official report to the Home Secretary, which was published in August 1989. Sections 196 and 200 of that report consider and reject the suggestions that drunken or ticketless fans (as opposed to poor crowd control) were a significant factor in the crisis at the turnstiles that prompted the disastrous decision to open Gate C. The lack of planning by the inexperienced new police team at Hillsborough is remorselessly exposed throughout chapters 10, 13, 14, and 18. Taylor also realized that Duckenfield (the police officer in charge) was paralyzed by the blunder he had made in allowing the gate to be opened (‘He froze’, section 284). Section 257 already describes the notorious press reports of the fans’ behaviour as ‘grave and emotive calumnies’. So it isn’t really correct to classify this case (as some newspapers have been doing) as an attempted ‘establishment cover up’. What is most extraordinary is that, in the face of these public determinations by an eminent High Court judge, the coroner at the first inquest could have found as he did.


Dipper 04.27.16 at 5:39 pm

Its worth putting Hillsborough into a broader context of the Police in the north of England.

In March 1998 a Manchester Doctor approached the coroner with concerns about another GP. The concerns were passed on to the police who could not find any evidence and did nothing. Later in the year they finally put in train the inquiry that resulted in the conviction of Harold Shipman. It is believed that he was responsible for 218 murders (Wikipedia).

In 2014 the Alexis Jay report into Child Sexual Exploitation in Rotherham found that 1400 girls had been systematically sexually exploited in that town. The police had been fully aware and assigned it low priority. Convictions and imprisonments have just happened.

So that’s the largest serial murder of the 21st century, the largest peacetime accidental death, and the largest (known) mass rape, all happened within plain sight of the police, and in all cases they did nothing at the time.


rea 04.27.16 at 6:26 pm

I don’t have the greatest understanding of British politics, but wasn’t Bigley tortured and beheaded by Iraqi terrorists? What on earth did that have to do with Liverpool or the Hillsborough deaths?


Ronan(rf) 04.27.16 at 6:39 pm

Bigley was from Liverpool and He was comparing the response in Liverpool to his death (public , collective mourning) with the response to Hillsborough, saying they were symptoms of a local “victim culture”‘ , and by extension this explained the city’s current economic malaise.


Ronan(rf) 04.27.16 at 6:42 pm

(Also worth noting that bigleys death was being seen as another notch against the Iraq war, and some factions at the spectator were very pro war at the time. I remember Mark Steyn going on with the same routine)


TheSophist 04.27.16 at 6:51 pm

Trader Joe (@3) is absolutely right to recommend the ESPN documentary. I’ve been using it in class since it came out, and it sometimes evokes tears from American students who’ve never heard of either Liverpool or Hillsborough.


Placeholder 04.27.16 at 7:17 pm

You don’t get these kind of jaw-droppingly hostile insults from the Tory right-osphere across decades about the Herald of Free Enterprise disaster. That killed a lot of people too but then there wasn’t a hint of blame to the police.

The embattled Health Secretary, cousin to the queen and oswald mosley, charterhouse and oxbridge, Jeremy Hunt has chosen to stick his oar on too – on the back of the inquest vindicating the campaigners!

Liverpool violated lex maisetis cuprum – maliciously dying so as to injure the majesty our boys in blue. And for this the Murdoch press will never forgive them.


Dipper 04.27.16 at 7:17 pm

For background on the north it is worth watching the excellent Red Riding At the time of broadcast it was a drama, but with the benefit of the revelations of the last ten years it looks more like a documentary.


Ronan(rf) 04.27.16 at 8:58 pm

Is the division between north and south mostly an outgrowth of the industrial revolution and its decline , (and the political and economic differences it created), or are there deeper historically significant cultural differences ? (As plausibly there is between the other parts of the UK, for example.)


The Temporary Name 04.27.16 at 9:06 pm

Engels has a hopeful comment on another thread. Maybe there’s still some justice to be squeezed out of the powers that be.


Steve Williams 04.27.16 at 9:17 pm


‘Bigley was from Liverpool and He was comparing the response in Liverpool to his death (public , collective mourning) with the response to Hillsborough, saying they were symptoms of a local “victim culture”‘ , and by extension this explained the city’s current economic malaise.’

Sometimes it’s only through hearing somebody else explain the culture you live in day-to-day that you can be floored by its absurdity.

Yes, the argument really was that public mourning for 100 dead football fans and a man beheaded by militants illustrated some kind of city-wide character flaw that had considerable explanatory power for the city’s weak economy.

The man who wrote this is far from a long shot for being the next Prime Minister.


Placeholder 04.27.16 at 9:33 pm

@17: Yes, but in much the same way, no.

Industrialisation actually reversed the domination of London and the South east. Through Manchester’s meteoric rise it became the “second city” of England and both the Anti-Corn Law League and the Peterloo massacre in turn and Liverpool and Leeds boomed over the Atlantic trade, both shipping cotton and manufacturing textiles. Liberalism in England was once called the Manchester School.

And then Thatcher. People voting for her probably imagined that once the unions were sorted out places like Birmingham would recover their industrial greatness and giants like British Leyland would become giants again. When the ’80s riots came in ‘Wets’ like Peter Hestletine was pushing the view that with just a little investment they could be again. But the drys had their way.

Scotland’s population collapsed so badly its population in 1979 was not recovered again until 2011. As late as 1976 the West Midlands region still had the highest GDP of any in the UK outside the South East, but within five years it was lowest in England… relative earnings in the West Midlands went from being the highest in Britain in 1970 to the lowest in 1983.

The violent division between the property-and-banker wealth in the south East and urban decay in the north is as fierce as it is recent. Birmingham was once the home of the Tory Chamberlain dynasty; in 1997 Scotland didn’t have one Tory MP.


Faustusnotes 04.27.16 at 10:17 pm

Weren’t South Yorkshire police also good mates with jimmy savile at that time? And involved violently in the miner’s strike a little later? Or was that west?


peterv 04.27.16 at 10:39 pm

@Ronan(rf) #17

The differences between North and South predate the industrial revolution. Lancashire, in the Northwest, for instance, remained strongly Catholic through the reign of Elizabeth I and despite her police-state suppression of religions other than the Church of England. But industrialisation reinforced the differences. Here is Ian Jack quoting Donald Horne on the differences:

“In the Northern Metaphor, Britain is “pragmatic, empirical, calculating, Puritan, bourgeois, enterprising, adventurous, scientific, serious, and believes in struggle”. In the Southern Metaphor, Britain is “romantic, illogical, muddled, divinely lucky, Anglican, aristocratic, traditional, frivolous, and believes in order and tradition”. The winner in this contest was decided at least a century ago when, in Horne’s words, Britons decided it wasn’t “for what they did but for what they were that destiny had rewarded them so lavishly”.


js. 04.28.16 at 12:02 am

It’s really quite heartening. I’m about half-way through this epic David Conn piece that provides a fair bit of context. At least so far, it’s really very good. And thanks to Trader Joe and The Sophist — I hope to check out the documentary soon.


Daragh 04.28.16 at 1:14 am

Excellent post Chris. There has indeed long been a toxic triad in the UK between the police and elements of the political and journalistic establishment. More to the point, the tendency of reactionaries to demand unthinking deference to the police has enabled all sorts of horrors, in the UK and beyond. Hopefully this will encourage more rational approaches to police accountability, though the response to Black Lives Matter (in short – hysterical declarations that there is now a ‘War on the Police!’) doesn’t fill me with hope.


Neville Morley 04.28.16 at 7:12 am

Possibly gratuitous pedantry, but then I’m a historian… @Placeholder #20: Peter Hestletine? There was a cricketer called Peter Heseltine; Michael Heseltine was a Tory minister who did indeed push for investment in regeneration of cities in northern England, but wouldn’t normally be described as a Wet…


Stephen 04.28.16 at 8:16 am

I wonder if part of the Hillsborough problem might be not so much the north/south divide, but the Lancashire/Yorkshire divide? Two populous counties separated by the Pennine hills, with a history of conflict going back to the fifteenth century, and traditions of reciprocal incompatibility and contempt.

Example I heard about: official signs on the county boundary reading “Welcome to Lancashire, the caring county”. Matched by unofficial signs on the other side, “Th’art in Yorkshire now, lad, and nobody gives a damn”.

Some Lancastrians I have met regard Yorkshire folk as taciturn, hard-hearted, selfish, avaricious: their alleged mottos “Think all and say nowt, drink all and pay nowt, and if ever tha does owt for nowt do it for thyself”. Also, “Yorkshiremen traditionally wear trousers with very deep pockets, and they all have very short arms”. Some Yorkshiremen regard Lancastrians with distrust, and Liverpudlians in particular are seen as violent, work-shy layabouts.

I’m not saying these stereotypes are at all justified, but they are sometimes believed. They may be more likely to account for the disgraceful behaviour of the Yorkshire police than any north/south division. After all, the Yorkshire police are themselves northerners, unless you suppose they have all been recruited from southern England.


Tim Worstall 04.28.16 at 10:09 am

@17, @20 The Industrial Revolution near entirely over turned the earlier relationships. Places like Dorset, which were (and remain to a large extent) almost entirely untouched by industry were the poorest parts of the country in the latter 19th century. Well into the 20th too.

One datum: 1850s or so, as the North was booming. weekly farm labourer wages in Dorset were 8 shillings a week. Up north, near the factory towns, some 25 shillings.


Igor Belanov 04.28.16 at 11:14 am

@ 26

Don’t be daft. There are certainly stereotypes about Scousers, but these are more likely to be mouthed by Mancunians than Yorkshiremen, and are held by people all over the country, including Liverpool itself! In addition, Liverpool itself has for a long time had its own identity or as part of ‘Merseyside’ set aside from the rest of Lancashire. Lancashire-Yorkshire rivalry now is essentially a bit of a joke, and has been so for some time, and the Yorkshire stereotype is basically something reserved for comedy sketches and Geoff Boycott.

The police in South Yorkshire were not hostile to the fans at Hillsborough because they were from Lancashire. They would have behaved in the same way towards Sheffield Wednesday supporters. The police acted throughout the land in a way that approached certain groups as second-class citizens deserving of rough treatment. These could be football supporters, trade unionists, left-wing demonstrators, blacks, Irish or even the mentally ill. For further reading, see ‘West Midlands Crime Squad’ and ‘Special Patrol Group’.


engels 04.28.16 at 11:34 am

Side-note: Stephen’s (absurd) hypothesis also has difficulty explaining the behaviour of the right-wing press, unless it was secretly infiltrated by a cabal of Yorkshiremen


Soru 04.28.16 at 11:36 am

Lancaster versus Yorkshire is something that has impeccable historical pedigree and virtually no contemporary relevance. North versus South is the opposite.

For example, in the TV series Game of Thrones, the historical Lancaster versus York War of the Roses turns into the King in the North speaking with a Sean Bean accent versus effete solitudes rich types based in not-London.


Igor Belanov 04.28.16 at 1:08 pm

The Wars of the Roses were not about Lancashire versus Yorkshire, but about the Duchies of York and Lancaster. The Duke of Devonshire lives in Derbyshire, and the Duke of Norfolk in Sussex. If anything, the ‘Lancastrians’ had more of a powerbase in Yorkshire and the North than the ‘Yorkists’ did.


Stephenson-quoter kun 04.28.16 at 2:35 pm

Game of Thrones does borrow fairly heavily from the genuine North-South divide, but I’m not sure it does so with more than superficial relevance.

For a more accurate treatment of the specifics, I can recommend Our Friends in the North (it’s worth it just for Daniel Craig’s performance, though all of the actors are excellent and you can even see several of the GoT cast in there). It’s the closest thing to The Wire that British TV has ever made, I think.

As for what it was like to grow up in Liverpool in the 80s, I can confirm that the attitudes Chris alludes to were most certainly felt. In fact, it felt less like negligence than active persecution – the heavy-handed policing and its attendant coverups, the riots, the drugs, slum landlords, low-level political corruption, engineered economic and industrial crises, the stereotyping (to the extent that a scouser on TV could be a musician, a footballer or a drug dealer but not much else) and, of course, the ready rebuttal to any attempt to complain about this that one was ‘wallowing in victimhood’ can only really be compared – in kind, if not quite in degree – to contemporaneous instances of racism. This, of course, is the raw truth of classism that can never quite be captured by dry economic analysis – it has much more in common with other forms of oppression than it has differences.

The terrible shame is that the left has never really figured out what to do with this. Perhaps rightly, most liberals are a bit afraid of regional identities, and whilst they might understand that an economic injustice was done, it’s all too easy to believe that there might have been more than a little truth to the stereotypes. The Labour party seems to have bought into the idea that the north is full of people who really can’t be trusted with their own opinions, and is terrified to promote the cause of the ‘working class’ after the working class identity was so thoroughly tarnished in the 80s and 90s. (In the case of Liverpool, we’re not even talking exclusively about the problematic ‘white working class’ category, which can lead one into awkward racist territory). One of my favourite examples of this is this truly remarkable Guardian video from 2010. Token northerner John Harris is sent to Liverpool to express southern liberal bafflement at the whole thing, but there’s something deeply, deeply weird about the whole thing. The segment from 1:07-1:22 is just about the most bizarre thing I’ve ever seen, and the look on the lad’s face when Harris insists on demanding his gratitude for the improved state of the job centre is priceless.


chris y 04.28.16 at 3:00 pm

Dipper, there may be all sorts of things wrong with the Greater Manchester police, but the South Yorkshire bill, is in a class by itself. As Andy Burnham said in Parliament yesterday, “Orgreave, Hillborough, Rotherham- how much more evidence do we need before we act?”


Dipper 04.28.16 at 3:26 pm

chris y

Rotherham is an interesting case. There is a point in the Alexis Jay report where the penny drops and you realise what is going on, and it is beyond the kind of casual incompetence on display elsewhere. If you read Jayne Senior’s “Broken and Betrayed” she is repeatedly faced with the fact that Sheffield Police were very sympathetic to her and the cases she was bringing to their attention in stark contrast to Rotherham Police but were constrained to act because of the division of police accountability along geographic lines.


Philip 04.28.16 at 9:41 pm

I don’t see this as a north/south thing or even a northern police thing, a similar tragedy could have occurred in London with a similar response. It was the establishment of politicians, the coroner, media, and police acting to demonise an element of the working class. Although the Taylor report pretty much got the facts right and the truth of what happened has been in the public domain for some time it is only now that people and institutions might be held accountable for their actions.

Many police officers were also football fans, like my dad, so for me the question is not so much as how the police saw football fans but how they were seen more generally. I do recognise that there was a problem with hooliganism but the safety of football fans was never a real concern. The safety problems of many stadiums were recognised but there was no pressure to address them, see the Bradford disaster. The response to possible violence in the stadium was pens and fencing with Ken Bates making plans for electric fences at Chelsea. Thatcher’s response to Hillsborough was to try and have a compulsory ID scheme for football fans and even now there are various criminal offences which only apply when at a football match or being ‘football related’.

I also don’t see police in the north as one group, each force has a very distinct culture even from a neighbouring force. My dad was in Durham Constabulary but injured from a car accident for most of the 84 miner’s strike, though he had policed previous ones. Local police obviously handled things differently as they would still have to work there afterwards but even Kent police had some sympathy as they came from another mining area but the Met were by far the worst. When I went with a supporter’s branch on a bus to away games as a teenager in the mid 90s the old guy that ran it would always tell us to be aware of South Yorks. and West Mids. police. I always think of the Met and West Mids. as having the most problems with corruption.

The relationship between the Tories and police is also not straightforward. The police have been used as a political tool by the Tories, especially the miner’s strike and Hillsborough. The Tories have also brought in or attempted to bring in reforms that the police have objected to the most, the Sheehy report then more recently moves to more privatisation, direct entry at officer level, pension reforms, and elected commissioners, leading to protest marches by police (they have no right to strike).


Metatone 04.29.16 at 7:03 am


Rotherham (like Savile perhaps) appears to have involved a toxic mix of corruption and lack of respect for individual victims. To some degree I’d link this with the Shipman case as well and throw in “inappropriate deference to pillars of the community” as another factor.

Hillsborough feels like a direct descendant of Orgreave and a consequence of the politicisation of “crowd control” – perhaps to be related to the Met’s approach to the poll tax riots and even present day applications of “kettling.”

Thus, to some degree, I feel like the first kind of cases can turn up in most places in Britain, because they are about cultural attitudes, the way the police are recruited and the (cliche alert) the bad apples. The second feels politically driven – particular forces have been recruited (esp. at the top) into an “anti-internal dissent” role.


Igor Belanov 04.29.16 at 7:36 am

Phillip @35

“Thatcher’s response to Hillsborough was to try and have a compulsory ID scheme for football fans and even now there are various criminal offences which only apply when at a football match or being ‘football related’.”

Actually, the ID card scheme was proposed before Hillsborough and only scrapped due to a combination of increased public sympathy for fans after the disaster and the fact that the Taylor Report after Hillsborough stated that the cards wouldn’t have increased safety.


Metatone 04.29.16 at 8:57 am

Football ID cards have to be seen in the context of the Heysel disaster, which was heavily linked by the press of the day to hooliganism.


Philip 04.29.16 at 9:27 am

Igor @36, yes that was what I thought and got confused when I googled it. The legislation was passed after Hillsborough but the part about ID cards was never enacted and it was all proposed before Hillsborough and more linked to Heysel like Metatone said. Still it demonstrates the government’s view to football fans at the time. Now the group I think of who have compulsory ID are asylum seekers, except the government won’t class an asylum registration card as official ID when it suits them.

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