Militant newspaper, 21 April 1989 issue 941, on the Hillsborough disaster

Militant newspaper, 21 April 1989 issue 941, on the Hillsborough disaster   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

On Saturday 15 April 1989, on FA Cup semi-final day at Hillsborough football ground in Sheffield, 96 supporters of Liverpool FC died a horrifying death, being crushed by fans forced into overcrowded pens. South Yorkshire police and much of the press tried to blame it on the fans.

Last week’s independent inquiry, nearly a quarter of a century later, pinned the blame clearly on the ground which failed to meet minimum safety standards. Football fans from the 1960s to the 1980s could tell of many near-disasters in overcrowded grounds with woeful facilities.

Clubs made huge profits but didn’t improve their grounds for decades,

The inquiry also blamed the “woefully slow” behaviour of the emergency services and the role of South Yorkshire Police (SYP). It showed that 116 police officers’ statements about Hillsborough were “substantially altered” to remove criticism. Police-generated lies about fans’ behaviour (spread by the Sun in particular) came from a Sheffield press agency, senior officers in SYP and a local Tory MP.

Now the real truth is out, the families and the survivors of Hillsborough are vindicated and will want justice.

Inquiry vindicates fans and families

Tony Mulhearn, Former socialist councillor, Liverpool

The Hillsborough Independent Panel report has ripped aside the tangled web of lies and cover-up woven by the South Yorkshire Police, the government and the lickspittles in the press who denigrated Liverpool and the victims of the man-made catastrophe in 1989 that was Hillsborough.

Kelvin MacKenzie, then editor of the Sun and Murdoch’s bag carrier who peddles his poison to the highest bidder, was the most vocal with his tissue of lies about that tragedy. 96 football fans lost their lives, those deaths affected thousands of people. Many still suffer extreme trauma as a result of their experience. Some suffered personality changes and went to an early grave.

The families of the 96, who campaigned in the face of impossible odds for 23 years, greeted the report with relief and euphoria. The relief and sense of victory and exoneration was palpable throughout Liverpool.

46 could have been saved

Trevor Hicks of the family support group lost two daughters. He reported that, three family members fainted when the panel revealed evidence that with the correct support from the emergency services, 46 of the victims may have been saved.

This information added to the sense of anger and outrage which permeated the city. Of the 48 ambulances which rushed to the stadium, only two actually made it onto the pitch. Even the ambulance service tops were implicated in the subsequent cover-up.

The radio airwaves were alive this week as ordinary people expressed their outrage at the events following the tragedy. The police, the Sun, with Thatcher and her government implicated in the cover-up, were subject to excoriating condemnation. MacKenzie’s apology and the Sun’s later apology was contemptuously dismissed for the hollow gesture that it was.

I was one of thousands at St George’s Plateau in Liverpool to pay tribute to the families and applaud their courageous campaign’s magnificent outcome.

The spectacle of the police, the government, and all those implicated, apologising and accepting culpability for the tragedy underlines the impact of this achievement.

Instructions for the cover-up no doubt came from the very tops of the state machine. South Yorkshire Police force’s brutal anti-working class culture, which played a leading and pernicious role in crushing the miners in their struggle to defend their jobs and communities, was laid bare by this report.

Michael Mansfield QC, who assisted the families, clearly identified the link. The police authorities revelled in an atmosphere of impunity flowing from the anti-working class outlook of the then Thatcher government.

Liverpool’s militant tradition

Liverpool was also the city where the Militant-led socialist council in the mid-1980s had resisted the Thatcher government’s attacks by mobilising the support of thousands of working class people. By falsely accusing Liverpool football fans of being drunken hooligans, the ruling classes also intended to denigrate the city’s tradition of militant struggle.

The campaign’s next stage will be to call for those implicated in this cover-up to be subject to criminal law. Even the chief constable of South Yorkshire Police has been compelled to accept that those engaged in unlawful activity will be subject to prosecution.

Cameron’s frank admission of the cover-up and his apology surprised many. But if he had attempted to continue the cover-up his government could have fallen, he had no choice in the face of the evidence but to admit the truth.

Parallels can be drawn with French author Émile Zola’s article J’accuse (1898) where he exposed the French state’s role in the anti-semitic frame up of Alfred Dreyfus. The furore which followed brought down the government.

The families are to be applauded for their courage and tenacity in the pursuit of justice. A debt of honour is owed to them for showing that working class people, fired with courage and determination, can render the forces of the state accountable.

Murdoch and MacKenzie’s vile slanders

Ken Smith

It took Kelvin MacKenzie, former editor of the Sun, nearly 25 years to claim to be “sorry” for his paper’s coverage of Hillsborough. The Sun admitted in 2004 that this was “the most terrible mistake in our history”. But it took MacKenzie another eight years and last week’s damning report to mumble out this insincere apology.

Nothing he ever says will atone for the impact of the Sun’s disgusting coverage of the tragedy in 1989. Sections of the media believed – like the police and often in collusion with them – that they could act with impunity.

MacKenzie had form already. From the early 1980s, the Sun’s editorial line was “make it short, make it snappy and make it up”. Anything went in the drive for increased circulation. “Respectable” news values were thrown to the wind.

MacKenzie reserved his vilest falsifications to ‘demonise’ trade unionists, ethnic minorities, impoverished communities and cities such as Liverpool, and what he dubbed football “hooligans”. The Sun’s excesses are chronicled in the book Stick it up Your Punter, by Peter Chippindale and Chris Horrie.

Most vicious

But MacKenzie’s role in the “reporting” of Hillsborough was the most vicious hooligan act in the sordid history of Britain’s tabloid media. The Sun was not alone in regurgitating the lies that South Yorkshire Police peddled through a local news agency. Other media outlets repeated these claims but were more careful to stress that they were allegations.

MacKenzie, it seems, whipped up every vile prejudice to assist the South Yorkshire Police’s attempted cover-up. The day before publication of the infamous edition of the Sun, MacKenzie laid out the editorial line. Even some of the Sun’s worst gutter hacks advised him to be careful but he ignored them.

According to Horrie and Chippindale, MacKenzie knew the allegations were unproven – even before publication and the subsequent backlash – and had not sought out any evidence to back them up.

He also calculated that the paper could not be sued for libel by using the “Truth” headline rather than the first headline he drafted for that edition which was “You Scum”.

Print unions

Previously the media and print unions were able to use their strength to exert a certain control over MacKenzie’s behaviour. But by 1989, after Murdoch locked out and defeated the print workers, the media unions could no longer stop the publication of South Yorkshire Police’s and MacKenzie’s vile smears and slanders.

So it was left to the people of Liverpool to rise up in united anger to boycott the Sun. The paper’s circulation in Merseyside fell by more than 200,000 (40%) within days. That boycott could continue for generations to come. It is the tenacious campaign of the families of the 96 and their supporters that forced MacKenzie’s apology.

Police officers should now face criminal charges, and MacKenzie, Murdoch and others responsible at the Sun should face charges of aiding and abetting this criminal conspiracy.

What we said: ‘Hillsborough – No cover-up’

Under the headline ‘Hillsborough: No Cover-up’ the Socialist’s predecessor, Militant, carried the following front page on 21 April 1989.

Militant newspaper 21 April 1989 issue 941, on the Hillsborough disaster

Militant newspaper 21 April 1989 issue 941, on the Hillsborough disaster   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

“I was against the fence. There was a man pinned against me. He appeared dead but there was nothing I could do. Another bloke next to me was shouting for help but I couldn’t help him,” says Les Lloyd from his hospital bed.

“At my feet was a lad of 13, he was dead. Someone’s son was lying there. He had Huckleberry Hound boxer shorts on. His little white t-shirt was dragged over his face. He was just left there for more than 15 minutes,” Tommy Smith in Liverpool told us.

These could be reports from some terrible natural disaster. But these ordinary working class people – men, women, children – were following their team in the cup. They hoped to get to Wembley; 95 of them never left Sheffield.

They died because of a system that puts greed before safety. The working class of Liverpool and Britain demand: “Never again.” There must be no cover-up. Those responsible must be made to take the blame. Tory ministers try to deflect criticism by hypocritically joining the mourning. Disgustingly, anonymous police officers try to blame the fans.

At Hillsborough, crowd control and communication between the authorities in the ground and those opening gates outside were chaotic. People died because of decades of neglect of ground safety and improvements. There was a complete lack of medical facilities at a stadium with a capacity for 54,000.

Football clubs and the police just think of fans as a source of profit or as potential hooligans. They imprison us in pens, barricade us behind perimeter fences. They treat us like animals.

The Tories don’t care about the supporters or the game. Thatcher wants to force the whole population to carry ID cards. She is trying to use football to set the precedent.

Militant newspaper 21 April 1989, issue 941, on the Hillsborough disaster

Militant newspaper 21 April 1989, issue 941, on the Hillsborough disaster   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

Now an inquiry has been set up. But how much safer is football since the inquiry into the Bradford fire [a few weeks earlier that killed 48 fans – Eds]? “There should be an inquiry over the heads of the officials,” demands Tommy Smith. “The ones who know what happened are the ones who were there.” Listen to the fans for once!

There must be a trade union inquiry involving the unions of the emergency services workers on duty at Sheffield and those representing football employees, the supporters’ associations and the Labour councils of Liverpool, Nottingham and Sheffield.

And their recommendations for protection of fans must be acted on immediately.

Football is a profitable business. Millions are being taken out by the big clubs and pools companies. Now that money must be put back in to bring every ground up to a safe standard.

Football clubs should be taken into local authority control and run for the benefit of the local community. The supporters, the players and the local working class movement should be in charge. They would ensure safety and comfort and the fullest use of the sporting facilities.

From the archive: When Tory prime minister Thatcher visited victims of Hillsborough in 1989, the 21 April issue of Militant showed that Thatcher was not welcome!

“Mrs Hughes, whose teenage son Mark was injured at Hillsborough, rang Radio Merseyside: “Mark had been injured. He’d been temporarily blinded, and the doctors were warning he may have permanent brain damage. Thatcher visited him. She said: ‘How are you?’ He said: ‘OK’.

“As she left his bed, she turned to him and said ‘is there anything else I can do for you?’ He replied ‘Yeah, how about some decent jobs for the lads in Liverpool!’ She didn’t reply, but our family smiled for the first time. That wasn’t reported on TV, was it?'”

When the Liverpool football team visited the injured, families and hospital staff were in tears when one of the victims opened his eyes for the first time at the sound of his hero, Kenny Dalglish, speaking to him.

Thatcher’s voice had an entirely opposite effect on another victim. He was heavily sedated, and hadn’t spoken to his wife. But the loathing of Liverpool workers for Thatcher and her policies soon shone through.

As Thatcher arrived at the bedside, the fan’s wife uttered “Oh no, I don’t believe it. It’s Mrs Thatcher”. Thatcher asked “How are you?” Suddenly, the patient spoke out: “I was alright until I saw your f***** face. Now go on, f*** off from this bed!”

Reclaim the Game

By John Reid

£3.50 including postage

Available from Socialist Books

020 8988 8789

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