13 Sep 2012

Hillsborough: What we have overlooked

Political Correspondent Michael Crick considers why the police may have been slow to react as Liverpool fans were crushed to death and why it is not only The Sun which is guilty of mis-reporting.

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher at the 1989 Conservative Party Conference (Reuters)

One of the amazing things about the events at Hillsborough was that it had never really happened before in the UK (with the terrible exception of the 1971 Ibrox disaster). As a football fan who has attended 40 to 60 games a year for more than four decades now, and usually stood on the terraces in those days, I recall how safety measures were appalling, and grounds often dangerously over-crowded.

My first football crush was when I was 13 in 1971, outside Old Trafford when Manchester United played a crucial match against Sheffield United, and everyone was desperate to get into the ground.

Read more: Hillsborough report – the key findings

Over the years there were many times when I was caught up in other crushes, wondering if I would emerge unscathed, or manage to carry on breathing.


The worst occasions were being pressed against a crush barrier by the weight of hundreds of people, terrified my ribcage would simply collapse. At other times there would be sudden movements in the crowd, and one lived in fear of falling between people and being trodden and suffocated underfoot.

None of the authorities seemed to care much. And I should stress that the incidents in which I was caught up were pretty minor compared with the horror of Hillsborough.

Add to that the extra problem of football violence. Much of the current coverage of Hillsborough has overlooked what a huge, huge problem this was in the 1980s.

English clubs were banned from European competition, after Liverpool fans at the Heysel Stadium in 1985 attacked rival supporters from the Italian Club Juventus, and 39 people were killed (33 from Juventus and six from Liverpool).

Margaret Thatcher’s government was determined to tackle the problem, not least because the violence was causing huge damage to Britain’s reputation abroad. Indeed, at the time of Hillsborough the government was trying to pass a bill to require all football fans to carry identity cards, though after Hillsborough the idea was soon dropped.

In those days football fans at most major clubs did some terrible things. At my own club, Manchester United, supporters were often violent and drunk, and the trouble-makers invariably complained of ill-treatment by the police who were, in my experience, sometimes guilty of over-reacting, sometimes not.

Police everywhere were under huge pressure from Whitehall to get football violence under control. As the Hillsborough panel report explains, public order was the overwhelming priority – the “collective police mindset” it says – rather than crowd safety.

And it’s interesting how in other cases of injustice in recent times – Bloody Sunday, the Birmingham Six case, or the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes – the security forces over-react under extreme pressure from on high, extreme pressure to get results.

Terrible allegations

This context partly explains why many people initially assumed the Hillsborough disaster was caused by misbehaviour by Liverpool fans. When, in the following few days, policemen from South Yorkshire started telling their stories about being attacked, or fans urinating on them as they tended the victims, and all sorts of other horrors, it seemed highly plausible.

From my own dreadful experiences of crowd behaviour at football matches, I could imagine the worst fans doing such things (though I was working in America at the time of Hillsborough).

We should all reflect on how easy it is to jump to conclusions, to assume something is the case.

And it’s too simplistic simply to single out The Sun for repeating these terrible allegations. OK, The Sun was the worst offender with its front page story The Truth, but Murdoch’s tabloid was by no means the only one to pursue this line.

Page 344 of the Hillsborough panel report helpfully lists some of the headlines in other papers on the same day:

“Dead Fans Robbed by Drunk Fans” (Daily Star, 19 April 1989)
“They were drunk and violent and their actions were vile” (Daily Mail, 19 April 1989)
“Police Accuse Drunken Fans: Police saw ‘sick spectacle of pilfering from the dying'” (Daily Express, 19 April 1989)
“Fury as police claims fans robbed victimes” (Daily Mirror, 19 April 1989)
“Fans ‘made sex jibes at body'” (Sheffield Star, 19 April 1989)

In the London Evening Standard on 17 April 1989 Peter McKay said the “catastrophe was caused first and foremost by violent enthusiasm for soccer, and in this case the tribal passions of Liverpool supporters” who “literally killed themselves and others to be at the game”.

And even in the Liverpool Daily Post, someone called John Williams wrote (on 18 April 1989): “The gatecrashers wreaked their fatal havoc [their] “uncontrolled fanaticism and mass hysteria … literally squeezed the life out of men, women and children.” It was “yobbism at its most base [as] Scouse killed Scouse for no better reason than 22 men were kicking a ball.”


I imagine that broadcasters told much the same story in their output, though I have not had a chance to check. It wasn’t just the editor of the Sun, Kelvin MacKenzie, who got it wrong, or the Conservative MP Irvine Patnick. Many others did too, including a large chunk of the media.

So perhaps it should not just be The Sun, or Boris Johnson, or Irvine Patnick, who should be apologising now. There are lessons for many of us in this. And we should all reflect on how easy it is to jump to conclusions, to assume something is the case simply because it sounds highly plausible.

Follow @MichaelLCrick on Twitter.