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A mocked-up front page of The Sun, created to show how it should look on September 13, 2012: David Duckenfield was Chief Superintendent in charge of policing at Hillsborough; Margaret Thatcher refused to release information about the Hillsborough disaster that made the police look bad; Kelvin McKenzie’s “The Truth” headline in The Sun was a pack of lies that led to the wholesale boycotting of the tabloid by people in Liverpool.

It has become one of the defining moments in recent history – one of those moments that you find enshrined in a question:

Where were you when Elvis died?

Where were you when the Wall* came down?

Where were you when you heard about Hillsborough?

I was on the sofa in my parents’ house in Bristol, reading a magazine (it was probably Interzone or Starburst – my 19-year-old self was heavily into escapist fiction at the time) when the words of the news report on TV started filtering through my perceptions. Dozens killed in football stadium tragedy. Hundreds more injured. There were images quite clearly showing fans being crushed against each other; trying to escape; being lifted to safety by other fans; but I also have a recollection of fans trying to climb fencing but being forced back by police. Is my memory cheating?

April 15, 1989. The deadliest football disaster in British history. It killed 94 people on the day and a further two died in hospital, bringing the total death toll to 96. The number of injured totalled 766.

The match was a semi-final FA Cup tie between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest, being played at the neutral Hillsborough ground in Sheffield and overseen by South Yorkshire Police. This force chose to place Liverpool fans – the largest group – in the smaller end of the stadium. It became visibly overcrowded before kick-off, so police ordered a large exit gate to be opened, allowing supporters to enter straight down a tunnel leading to two pens. This caused crushing. Moments after kick-off, a crush barrier forced fans to fall on top of each other. (This information courtesy of Wikipedia)

Who got the blame? The fans.

Four days after the disaster, The Sun newspaper headlined a story about Hillsborough “THE TRUTH”, following it with three sub-headlines: “Some fans picked pockets of victims”, “Some fans urinated on the brave cops” and “Some fans beat up PC giving kiss of life”. The story, using words attributed to unnamed police officers and Irvine Patnick, then-MP for Sheffield Hallam, made allegations which contradicted the reported behaviour of the Liverpool fans, who in fact helped security personnel stretcher away victims and also gave on-site first aid. It was described in Peter Chippendale and Chris Horrie’s history of The Sun as “a classic smear”.

The story seriously backfired against the newspaper. My understanding is that Liverpool has, as though it were a single entity, boycotted the newspaper ever since.

It took a further 23 years for the real truth to come out, and we had it from the Hillsborough Independent Panel today:

  • Serious mistakes in the policing of the match.
  • Falsehoods in the post-mortem reports.
  • An attempt to blame Liverpool fans for the disaster.

The Prime Minister, David Cameron, apologised to relatives of the deceased for what he described as a double injustice: The “failure of the state to protect their loved ones and the indefensible wait to get to the truth”; and the efforts to denigrate the deceased and suggest that they were “somehow at fault for their own deaths”.

South Yorkshire Police Chief Constable David Crompton also offered “profound apologies”. He added: “When police lost control, lies were told about how that happened.”

Kelvin McKenzie, the editor who ran the piece in The Sun, stated that he regretted doing so in 1993 but later retracted the statement and has remained unrepentant since. The Sun apologised “without reservation” for its smear piece in July 2004, more than 15 years after the original article.

Are these apologies enough? No. I agree with the fans who are still angry because of one simple fact:

Nobody has been brought to justice.

The football website Transfer Tavern put it this way: “The apology [from Mr Cameron] is undoubtedly sincere but what is as important [is] that those who were involved directly and indirectly in the process of corrupting this tragedy are brought to justice.

“Not just those who lost relatives, but society in general needs to search out those who not only falsified evidence but deliberately ignored it in order to suffocate the truth. The excuses will undoubtedly be wheeled out by those soon hopefully to be cornered, but a crime is a crime.

The Sun newspaper in particular is worth a mention here… In light of the announcement today… it is surely time now for The Sun to go… The choice must be removed.

The Sun passed off untruths to a huge readership and they need to answer for the damage they did.”

The truth – the real truth – has finally been revealed, but for the families of the Hillsborough victims, the wait for justice must continue.

*The Berlin Wall.