Sue Williamson, CEO at SSAT reflects on the Hillsborough disaster, and how Professor Phil Scraton at our National Conference in 2017 explained his approach to analysing the mountain of evidence at the time to rewrite the narrative.
This might be considered a modern concept, but it is not. As a teacher of history, I was always discussing the legitimacy of sources both primary and secondary. Over the Christmas and New Year holiday, I watched the drama Anne – the story of Anne Williams, who was a campaigner for the victims of the Hillsborough disaster of 1989. Her son, Kevin, was crushed to death in the disaster at the age of 15. It was a powerful drama that captured the battle that Anne and the other families had to go through to get to the truth regarding the deaths of their relatives.
I knew most of the story because at SSAT’s National Conference in 2017, we had Professor Phil Scraton present. It was a riveting talk and I wish I could show you a film of his input, but for legal reasons we were unable to film. It was a riveting hour as Phil built the story and explained his team’s approach to analysing the mountain of evidence. I have never seen delegates so engrossed and, when Phil finished, the audience stood as one and applauded. That night at dinner, I asked Phil what did justice mean for the families? He replied that for some it was simply knowing how their relative died; that their loved one was not portrayed as a drunken football hooligan; and for others that those responsible for the disaster were held to account.
On 15 April 1989, I was at home listening to the radio whilst preparing the card to use on the timetable board. Shortly after the game kicked off, the commentator referred to crowd trouble at the Liverpool end, and at 3.06pm the referee stopped the game. Radio listeners were told that there was a major incident of football hooliganism. I turned the television on and watched Grandstand – the cameras were there filming the semi final – and the emphasis was that this was an incident caused by the fans. The police stated that late arriving drunken fans had broken a gate and forced entry into the ground. Phil Scraton said that the ‘Duckenfield lie’ had established the agenda that shaped inquiries and investigations that followed.
From 3.40pm that day, the media started conveying the police interpretation of events. As Scraton writes in Hilsborough The Truth:
“The Sunday Mirror reported between 3,000 and 4,000 Liverpool fans, ‘seemingly uncontrolled’, trying to ‘force through the turnstiles.’ The gate, it continued ‘was opened to stampeding Liverpool fans.’ Even The Observer, despite a well-balanced account, repeated uncritically Wright’s (South Yorkshire Chief Constable) comments on fans’ late arrival as a ‘danger to life’. Both ITN News and BBC’s Newsnight made similar points about Liverpool fans rushing the ground.”
Local newspapers also wrote on similar lines and on the Monday, The Sun put on the front page: ‘THE TRUTH: SOME FANS PICKED POCKETS OF VICTIMS; SOME FANS URINATED ON THE BRAVE COPS: SOME FANS BEAT UP PC GIVING KISS OF LIFE.’
Despite cameras being there, the narrative was fixed. I had watched the tragedy on the television but assumed that the trouble was out of sight. How could anyone take a different view and declare what was being said in the media, by politicians, police and the FA as fake news? The evidence was overwhelming, but this is where the families and people like Anne Williams came in – they refused to accept the narrative and spoke out. Ordinary people took on the establishment and refused to be dismissed.
I strongly recommend that you read Phil’s book – Hillsborough The Truth – it tackles critical issues like intrusive journalism, the legal system, policing, institutional complacenc,y and includes the personal stories of families of the victims. It also shares Phil’s eight-phase framework for analysing disasters: historical context; immediate context; circumstances; the ‘moment’; rescue and evacuation; immediate aftermath; short-term aftermath; long-term aftermath.
With some minimal changes, this is an excellent framework for students to look at historical and current events. With key questions added, students could develop the discipline of analysing events or sources and forming a judgement based on facts.
Anne Williams sadly died before the second coroner’s inquests, but thanks to Phil Scraton’s work, she knew the finding of the original coroner’s report of accidental death was quashed. She also knew that Kevin was one of the 41 victims who could have been saved if they had received medical treatment, and that the last word he said was “Mum”.