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Hillsborough

The former Liverpool chief executive Peter Robinson presided over Liverpool Football Club during their most successful period, the mid-1960s to the 1980s. He was well known for his shrewdness and informal management style. It’s only with hindsight we learn, that on the 20 March 1989, he telephoned Steve Clarke, the competitions secretary of the Football Association and urged him not to stage the upcoming FA cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest at Hillsborough, and suggested Old Trafford, as a more suitable venue. Clarke returned his call later that morning to say that ‘the committee had selected Hillsborough’ and ‘the police would not agree to the allocation being altered’ either (the newspaper, 28 April).

The most striking thing about the vast body of evidence gathered on the Hillsborough disaster is that the English game’s governing body (the FA) has, from the immediate aftermath of the disaster never acknowledged that it made a disastrously bad call by failing to heed Robinson’s advice about the inadequacy of Sheffield Wednesday’s ground. Graham Kelly, the former FA chief executive, drafted an initial six-page report two days afterwards, but there is no indication that he was looking to investigate how the venue, which did not have a safety certificate, had been chosen. The document also reveals the FA’s overwhelming preoccupation after Hillsborough was with covering its own back and getting the story straight. 

96 people aged from 10 to 67 years old died at the stadium, in the ambulances, or shortly after arrival at hospital. A total of 766 people suffered injuries  of some kind. On 19 April, the death toll reached 95 when 14-year-old Lee Nicol died in hospital after his life support machine was switched off. This total rose to 96 when artificial feeding and hydration were withdrawn from 22-year-old Tony Bland after nearly four years, during which he had remained in a persistent vegetative state. This followed a legal challenge in the High Court by his family to have his treatment withdrawn, a landmark challenge which succeeded in November 1992.

On the10th anniversary in 1999, at least three people who survived were known to have committed suicide as a result of the emotional problems brought on by the disaster. Another survivor had spent eight years in psychiatric care. Numerous cases of alcoholism and drug abuse were also attributed to lingering effects from the disaster, and it contributed to the collapse of a number of marriages involving people who had witnessed the events.

Professor Scraton was an important member of the Hillsborough Independent Panel (2010-2012) and primary author of Hillsborough: The Report of the Independent Panel (2012). He provided extensive submissions to the 1997-1998 judicial scrutiny undertaken by Lord Justice Stuart-Smith. These submissions included disclosure of the 'review and alteration' of police officers' statements. Following negotiations he eventually accessed and researched all police statements in their original and altered form in the House of Lords Reading Room. Professor Scraton has remained highly critical of the Stuart-Smith scrutiny, describing it as a ‘debacle’.

Scraton's book Hillsborough: The Truth is widely accepted as a definitive account of the disaster and its aftermath. It focuses on the inadequacies of the police investigations, official inquiries and inquests, and reveals the extent of the systematic review and alteration of South Yorkshire Police statements. It also details the treatment of the bereaved and survivors in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, and the ‘inhumanity’ of the body identification process.

Following the 20th anniversary of the disaster in 2009, the government gave a commitment to the full disclosure of all documents relating to Hillsborough, appointing the Hillsborough Independent Panel to manage the process of the disclosure and to produce a report explaining the work of the Panel illustrating how its work added to the public's understanding of the disaster. Professor Scraton was appointed as a member of the Panel. He led the Panel's research team, based at Queen's University Belfast. In a parliamentary debate following the publication of the Panel's Report, Scraton’s work was commended in parliament by Andy Burnham, Labour’s Shadow Health Secretary, as ‘a huge service not just to the Hillsborough families but to this country’. The Report led directly to: the quashing of the 96 inquest verdicts of 'accidental death' and the ordering of new inquests by the Attorney General; a full investigation by the Independent Police Complaints Authority; and a full criminal investigation.

Sir John Goldring was appointed as Assistant Coroner for South Yorkshire (East) and West Yorkshire (West) to conduct the new inquest. On 26 April, the inquest jury returned a verdict of unlawful killing in respect of all 96 victims. In 2012-13, Scraton received the Queen's University Vice-Chancellor's inaugural award for research impact. In May 2016 the Mayor of Liverpool, Joe Anderson, announced that Phil Scraton was to be given the Freedom of the City in recognition of his work, spanning twenty five years, on the Hillsborough tragedy.    

This tragedy has been looked at from many perspectives including the police, the judiciary, newspaper reportage and the families fighting for justice. But what about the typical Liverpool fan? Peter has been a Liverpool supporter for over 50 years. Conscious of the campaigns for the past 27 years but not emotionally involved like families and friends of the 96 killed, he attended the 20th anniversary memorial service at Anfield and witnessed the ‘Justice for the 96”’chant when Andy Burnham was attempting to speak that moved him to take the campaign back to government.

When lies were being told almost immediately after the disaster, he struggled to believe them and even when some were convincingly refuted, he didn’t imagine the conspiracy was as deep and widespread as it turned out. As the years passed he still felt for the families, admired them, but did not forget them because LFC fans would not let that happen.

The second inquest that took over two years was important because it allowed the personal stories that were not heard previously to be told, and helped families to grieve, knowing more clearly what had happened to their loved ones. In Liverpool when the verdicts were announced, the emotions could be felt throughout the City, culminating in a huge gathering in front of the famous St George’s Hall.

Peter is proud of the families and all connected with the campaign, their dignity, perseverance etc. He is proud to be a scouser in the fullest sense, noting that the other Merseyside team, Everton were also united in grief, along with much of the football world –with tributes coming from Dortmund and Villarreal fans.

Although still appalled at the tactics and behaviour of police and other institutions that tried to justify the lies and cover ups, he is delighted that after 27 years, a serious injustice has been put right, giving hope to other long campaigns, such as the Orgreave miners who were also victims of the South Yorkshire Police. We hope that their fight is taken as seriously.

KEVIN