MARTYN McLaughlin looks at how services put their interests before those of victims
After an agonising 23-year wait for answers, those touched by the Hillsborough tragedy received them in abundance yesterday with the publication of the independent panel’s report.
Spanning 394 pages, it scrutinises nearly every aspect of the disaster, drawing on more than 450,000 pages of documentation from scores of organisations and individuals, comprising reports, minutes, transcripts, witness statements, letters and records of phone conversations.
The role of the nine-strong panel, established by the UK government in 2010, was to ensure the families of Hillsborough’s victims “receive the maximum possible disclosure”.
IN THE most critical and contentious area of scrutiny, the independent panel concluded that from the outset of the Hillsborough tragedy, South Yorkshire Police sought to deflect responsibility for the tragedy on to Liverpool fans, despite there being no evidence to support such a stance.
The documents detail the “extent to which substantive amendments were made” to statements given by the force’s officers in order to remove or alter “unfavourable” comments about the policing of the match and the unfolding disaster.
In all, no fewer than 116 of the 164 police statements identified for “substantive amendment” were “amended to remove or alter comments unfavourable” to the force.
One police officer said he only accepted the changes because he was suffering from post-traumatic stress and that he considered it an injustice for statements to have been “doctored” to suit the management of South Yorkshire Police.
The documents show, for the first time, that South Yorkshire Ambulance Service documents were “subject to the same process”, the panel said.
The cover-up extended to sections of the media, not least the coverage in The Sun newspaper. Such reporting, which sought to attribute blame to Liverpool supporters, originated from a Sheffield press agency which reported conversations with police and Sir Irvine Patnick, the then MP for Sheffield Hallam.
The panel said the Police Federation, “supported informally” by the chief constable of South Yorkshire Police, sought to develop and publicise a version of events derived in police officers’ allegations of drunkenness, ticketless fans and violence, even though “the vast majority of fans on the pitch assisted in rescuing and evaluating the injured and the dead”.
Furthermore, a document disclosed to the panel revealed an attempt was made to “impugn the reputations of the deceased by carrying out police national computer checks on those with a non-zero alcohol level”.
The files show that blood alcohol levels were tested in some survivors who attended hospital as well as in all those who died, although there is no record of these tests or their results in the medical notes of the survivors. In some cases, the panel noted, there was “no apparent medical reason for the test”.
The report states that “there was no evidence to support the proposition that alcohol played any part in the genesis of the disaster and it is regrettable that those in positions of responsibility created and promoted a portrayal of drunkenness as contributing to the occurrence of the disaster and the ensuing loss of life without substantiating the evidence”.
THE newly-disclosed files reveal a catalogue of failings by the authorities which show how the safety of the crowd at Sheffield Wednesday’s stadium was “compromised at every level,” made worse by “clear and repeated evidence of failures in leadership and co-ordination”.
With inadequate turnstiles, a significantly over-calculated ground capacity, and crush barriers which failed to meet safety standards, the independent panel ruled that Hillsborough’s “deficiencies were well known” before the match went ahead.
While police were subject to criticism in the Taylor Report, the new tranche of documents goes further, highlighting how the major incident plan of emergency services was not fully implemented. There was inadequate crowd management by police and stewards, delays when people were being crushed to death, and sub-standard rescue attempts caused by failures of leadership and a malfunctioning radio system.
The panel found senior police officers regarded crowd unrest as a sign of “potential disorder” and a result “were slow to realise that spectators were being crushed, injured and killed”.
It also concluded that there was no systematic assessment of priorities for treatment of the injured.
Most damaging of all, “a swifter, more appropriate, better-focused and properly equipped response had the potential to save more lives”.
The panel said there were a total of 41 victims who were either alive after 3:15pm – a cut-off time imposed by the coroner – or who suffered injuries which were inconsistent with the findings of pathologists.
The coroner, Dr Stefan Popper, ruled that by that time, all the victims had suffered fatal injuries, which meant that the inquests did not examine the chaotic response which followed.
The panel said that some of those who died did so after a significant period of unconsciousness during which they might have been resuscitated.
There was clear evidence from the post-mortem reports, the panel decided, that 28 of the victims did not have traumatic asphyxia, and asphyxia may have taken significantly longer to be fatal. There was evidence that, in 31 cases, the heart and lungs had continued to function after the crush and, in 16 of these, this was for a prolonged period.
SOME KEY POINTS
• Police sought to deflect responsibility on to Liverpool fans.
• There was “no evidence that they stole from the dead and dying”.
• The report found that 164 police statements were altered, 116 of them to remove or alter “unfavourable” comments about the policing of the match and the unfolding disaster.
• South Yorkshire Ambulance Service documents were changed.