Just over a year ago, the government-commissioned report into the Hillsborough disaster was finally published. For the bereaved, having long battled against the lies and misinformation of police, politicians and press, it represented a watershed. On 15 April 1989, the report stated, Liverpool fans ‘neither caused nor contributed to the deaths’ of the 95 who were crushed to death (a ninety-sixth, who had been in a coma, had his life-support machine switched off four years later). In fact, the main cause of death was not ‘accident’, as had been stated in 1991 following the original inquest; it was a ‘failure of police control’, exacerbated by ‘multiple failures in other organisations’.
The report itself was brimful with damning detail. We learnt that the coroner was declaring people dead before they were dead; we learnt that the police saw the calamity unfolding but stood back, viewing it as hooliganism; and we learnt that, afterwards, as the authorities sought to cover their backs, the police fed lies about fan behaviour to a pliant press and all-too-credulous politicians.
And now, thanks to an inquest into how each of the 96 died, a criminal investigation into police actions, and an internal Independent Police Complaints Commission investigation – all launched on the back of the Hillsborough report – the details keep coming. Just last week, for instance, it was revealed that 238 officers’ statements were changed, and that ‘significant amendments’ were made to fans’ handwritten accounts. In fact, it seems that today, 24 years after Hillsborough, the public focus on what happened, on establishing culpability and, in some cases, guilt, and the determination on the part of the authorities to reveal exactly what happened, during the disaster and afterwards, is becoming more intense, not less.
Which is no bad thing. The actions of the authorities both on the day and afterwards should be held up to the light, and criminal proceedings, where justified, should be pursued. But this obsessive attention on the shameful aftermath of Hillsborough will only ever reveal one side of the story. It will only tell us what various individuals did on the day and in the weeks afterwards, from senior police officers to unquestioning journalists. What it will not tell us, then, is why something like Hillsborough could happen; why, that is, it was deemed okay to treat fans like animals; why it was okay to cage them in grounds; why it was okay, that terrible April afternoon, to treat the fans’ physical suffering as a public-order issue. In other words, the seemingly indefatigable focus on Hillsborough in the particular obscures the historical demonisation of football fans in general.
And this is the other side of the Hillsborough disaster: the prevailing social and political context which made it possible. In the years before Hillsborough, with the hooligan panic to the fore, Britain’s political and cultural establishment increasingly viewed the people that went to football matches as a threat, as much of an ‘enemy within’ as striking miners were to Conservative governments of the 1970s and 1980s. Indeed, the establishment’s estrangement from the so-called lower classes of British society was refracted through its attitude to football culture. It appeared as something to be feared and, in no small measure, loathed. ‘The game drifts slowly into the possession of what we are now supposed to call the underclass’, ran a Sunday Times editorial in 1983, ‘and a whole middle-class public grows up without ever dreaming of visiting a football league ground’. Following the Bradford City stadium fire in May 1985, which killed 56 people, the same newspaper reiterated its view of the social constituency attending matches: ‘British football is in crisis; a slum sport played in slum stadiums increasingly watched by slum people, who deter decent folk from turning up.’