Hillsborough: The truth at last

13 September 2012

Author: 
Shami Chakrabarti, Director of Liberty

Never has the value of transparency been any starker than this week, when the horrifying full facts of the Hillsborough disaster, in which 96 football fans lost their lives, were finally laid bare.

For more than two decades the truth had been buried; seemingly lost under a cloak of secrecy and lies. In the end it was left to the Hillsborough Independent Panel to reveal what actually happened on that tragic day in April 1989. They were given full access to documents previously kept hidden and their report, published on Wednesday, ultimately uncovered what bereaved families, tireless campaigners and dedicated journalists have long suspected.

The Liverpool fans were in no way to blame. More lives would have been saved had the emergency response been better. So-called “truths” of fans pick-pocketing victims and urinating on cops and bodies of the deceased were in fact blatant lies; the dark smears of a police force desperate to deflect blame for its own appalling incompetence. Shockingly 164 police witness statements were altered, 116 of which were doctored to remove “unfavourable” comments about South Yorkshire police. Meanwhile officers were rifling through criminal records and taking blood samples from those who had died – including children – in a bid to “impugn the reputations of the deceased”.

Regrettably neither the first inquest into the deaths nor Lord Justice Taylor’s ensuing public inquiry got to the bottom of what was evidently a cover-up of mortifying proportions. The Coroner considered no evidence obtained after 3.15pm on the afternoon of the disaster, but the Panel found that 41 of the victims were still alive at that time. These failures prompted both the Prime Minister and Labour leader Ed Miliband to offer heartfelt apologies for the tragedy on Wednesday, in which they accepted their parties could have done more.

That all of this fell to the Bishop of Liverpool and his Panel leads to yet more questions. Will the High Court now order a fresh inquest? Can the original verdict of “accidental death” really be allowed to stand? Perhaps most fundamentally, should those responsible for the cover-up be prosecuted?

The revelations of the Panel once again underline just how vital properly independent investigations are for accountability. Without such unbiased scrutiny, dishonesty flourishes and justice is seldom achieved. Thankfully, both the Human Rights Act and the Freedom of Information Act have made such cover-ups less likely. Hopefully that is of some tiny comfort to the families of the 96.

As we remember the dead, and admire the resolve of their loved ones, this ordeal reminds us that without truly independent avenues of redress for victims, State smokescreens can often prevail. Liberty will fight plans for secret courts with even greater determination in light of these horrific revelations of secrets, lies and abuses of power.