Hillsborough: how one academic kept the ‘truth’ from being hidden

IMG_0412How can academics put their research at the service of correcting great injustices? Phil Scraton and his work for the Hillsborough campaign offers a powerful example, write Margaret Malloch and Bill Munro

There has been a justifiable amount of attention on the recent outcome of the inquests into the 96 men, women and children who lost their lives as a direct result of events at Hillsborough Football Ground on 15 April 1989. However, claims that ‘at last’, the truth ‘is out’ leave us somewhat troubled.

The ‘truth’ of what happened on that day has always been known – not least by the bereaved families, the survivors and many more besides. That ‘truth’, until now, has been officially erased, or at least hidden and replaced by a carefully constructed and long maintained lie.

From the moment that the ‘official’ version of events was passed onto the Press on the day of the disaster, the concept of cataclysm has defined the way in which various authorities have attempted to explain what happened, and to justify their subsequent actions and/or inaction.

This “cataclysm” includes the media depiction of events in the immediate and longer term aftermath; the attempts to exonerate failings and worse by the police and ambulance services; the cruel processes of identification of the dead; and the controversial ‘cut-off’ point of the deaths and dying. And what can you say, or do, about a “cataclysm”?

This tone marked the original and official versions of these events – a tone which dominated popular and academic discourse, even re-defining the actual findings of the Inquiry by Lord Justice Taylor. It also contributed to the 1991 Inquest finding of Accidental Death – a travesty which fuelled the ongoing campaign for justice.

The 2012 Report about the original Inquiry which the families and their supporters finally secured, provides a meticulous examination of the events leading up to, during and in the aftermath of this disaster.

Throughout this entire process, we want to highlight the tenacity of an academic and his colleagues which is worthy of note, but surprisingly hidden. Professor Phil Scraton, formerly Director of the Centre for Studies in Crime and Social Justice at Edge Hill University College and currently of the School of Law, Queen’s University Belfast has been researching and campaigning for justice since the Hillsborough disaster happened.

His work is testament to the importance of critical research – and in particular, the potential contribution of the ‘academic’ to challenge official discourse, and work alongside campaigns for justice.

In direct contrast to the view that research (and indeed academia) is ever ‘neutral’, Scraton has made a point of using his academic position to challenge the State, counter the abuse of State power, and unravel its assumed ‘legitimacy’.

In 1995, Phil Scraton with his colleagues Ann Jemphrey and Sheila Coleman published a report commissioned by Liverpool City Council, No Last Rights: The Denial of Justice and the Promotion of Myth in the Aftermath of the Hillsborough Disaster. This report provided a detailed critical analysis of the aftermath of the Hillsborough Disaster – intervening at a point where its legal processes remained unresolved. The report examined the evidence put before the Courts and the extensive media coverage surrounding the disaster.

The key questions this report raised was: how could Lord Chief Justice Taylor find the main cause of the disaster to be overcrowding? How could he find the main reason for that to be a ‘failure in police control’, where the police admitted ‘fault’ – and yet still return inquest verdicts of accidental death?

In the meantime, and relentlessly, the media machine continued to promote myths of violence, drunkenness and hooliganism on the part of supporters.

Scraton’s subsequent book Hillsborough: The Truth, published in 1999 (and revised and updated in 2000) took this examination a stage further. It exposed the systematic review and alteration of police statements by senior police management and their solicitors. It highlighted the ongoing struggles of families and their supporters in their attempt to retrieve the reputations of their loved ones.

Scraton’s commitment to the Hillsborough families and survivors led to his appointment to the Hillsborough Inquiry which reported in 2012.

Scraton’s work has raised questions that go beyond the events of Hillsborough. His position as a critical academic afforded him space to make key connections. In particular, between the ways in which actual events become distorted and reframed through the lens of official discourse – and how that has profound effects on those caught up in them, their aftermath and legacy.

The role of the academic in turning ‘cases’ into ‘issues’, from individual experiences into collective problems, provides an opportunity to ask bigger questions of both authorities and institutions, government and the State more generally.

His ongoing work has taken this further by looking into similarities across other disasters. Scraton has strong ideas about the role of local and central government departments in the immediate aftermath of disasters, what guidelines are needed for inter-agency co-operation, as well as effective crisis support for families.

His work highlights the often misguided tendency to fall back on the common sense notion of a ‘few bad apples’ when things go wrong. This was the excuse proffered when claims arose of police violence during the 1983-84 Miners’ Strike, when attempts to achieve any measure of accountability appeared so intractable.

The role played by academics in exposing the ‘truth’ of Hillsborough early has been important, but largely unsung and unnoticed. And this begs a final question. Where exactly does such public work sit within the increasingly marketized university system, whose raison d’être is profit maximisation?

The relationship between the Police, the Courts and the Government in the Miners Strike (and indeed other examples of worker unrest during the 1980s) require deeper analysis. How does the operation of the capitalist state, the protection of profit and the control of dissent hang together? How might that illuminate the Hillsborough crime?

Scraton draws our attention to these broader structural issues which underpinned the horrific events which unfolded on 15 April 1989. Hillsborough was too readily framed by what he calls a ‘lens of hooliganism’. This produced a discourse which for so long deflected accountability and responsibility away from State authorities. The power to name events is indeed real power.

Of course, formal legal processes are important at providing accounts of the actual events as they unfolded. But to widen the cultural context around them is to begin to really understand how power works in our society.

There are essentially two aspects to consider in relation to the recent inquest. The first, the verdict of unlawful killing which deals with what actually happened on that day, who was responsible and the failure of the State to protect those who died and were injured at Hillsborough.

The second relates to the blaming of the victims and relates to how public opinion was manipulated and orchestrated by the primary definers of the disaster, in this case the police. How easily the police narrative was believed and replicated – even when the ‘truth’ of the events at Hillsborough had already been established and was publicly available.

Why has the truth taken so long to emerge? It’s not just police corruption, but crucially how this corruption interlocked with the consent of both political power and the economic interests of the media. The Sun newspaper was but one participant in this carefully orchestrated deception.

Hillsborough took place in a bigger, societal context where the prioritisation of the free-market economy led to ‘deregulation’ and associated cost-cutting, in favour of profit maximisation – what we tend to call the ‘neo-liberal agenda’.

At the same time, the political response to any form of dissent to that agenda was the enforcement of ‘law and order’ governance. Opposition was characterised by its ‘lawlessness’, and depicted as the manifestation of the ‘enemy within’.

This backdrop – and the clear reluctance of the State to be accountable – set the foundations for the continuation of injustice. But it also permitted the sustained contestation of the ‘truth’ that has been such a travesty for all the bereaved families and survivors of Hillsborough.

The role played by academics in exposing the ‘truth’ of Hillsborough early has been important, but largely unsung and unnoticed. And this begs a final question.

Where exactly does such public work sit within the increasingly marketized university system, whose raison d’être is profit maximisation? If academia measures its performance on statistics generated from insular research assessment exercises, or in-house frameworks of teaching ‘excellence’, how will this kind of critical analysis get done?

Margaret Malloch and Bill Munro


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  1. Dr Steve Wright says:

    A powerful heroic journey on behalf of those bereaving families whose voice was insufficiently heard. The article is an important analysis of what some called applied ethics. Phil Scraton and his colleagues, took on a Herculean challenge of analysing over a million documents to prove that the official police version of events at Hillsborough was an intentional slur, a manufactured story and one which would have remained so without this academic intervention. The questions raised by this article about how such challenges sit in the new university context is apt especially since we are led to believe that truth lies open to all. Creating the frameworks necessary to see it is our responsibility and academic duty despite current difficulties. Prof Scraton’s successful contribution to this process is a guiding beacon to those who want wish to undertake future research which makes a significant difference. I hope this achievement will never be forgotten.

  2. Julien Burcher says:

    Such a relief to read this piece – the question posed at the end is a wake up call for us all. Thank you both

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