Whistleblowers hold a special place in the public mind. These are the people who say, “Hey, something’s wrong with this company/force/school/process!” To be a whistleblower, however, means speaking out contemporaneously, while the harmful activity is ongoing.
To wait 23 years for a whistle to be blown is to be on tenterhooks for over two decades. That’s how long bereaved families were forced to wait for the truth to come out, in an independent report published several days ago, about the “Hillsborough disaster” in which 96 men, women and children lost their lives at a semi-final football match between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest, held at neutral Sheffield.
That’s right. At a game.
In 1989, at a soccer match in Sheffield, UK, a total of 96 people died – and others were hurt — most of them by compression asphyxiation, when a horrible series of mismanaged decisions by the match officials and police combined to turn an already crowded pen of fans into a crush of humanity. Even the ambulance service failed to follow its own procedure.
Some people were lucky. They managed to be pulled up out of the crowd by fans above them. A few people were able to slip through too-small gates. But the majority of people in the pen were part of a giant shuddering mass. Many fainted from the press. Some died literally on their feet, held in place by the dozens around them. Others were brought out unconscious and died later.
What’s worse, after the initial hours, statements were changed. Junior police officers were instructed to rewrite their reports. Timelines were altered.
Blame was distributed by authorities among the fans themselves. They were called drunken, rowdy. They were accused of hindering police, urinating on them, even thieving from the dead.
Everything that could be done to deflect blame, placing it on the shoulders of fans who simply wanted to enjoy a match that beautiful 15 April 1989, was done.
It’s taken 23 years, tens of thousands of examined documents, and pages of text to learn just how badly the South Yorkshire Police (SYP) and Football Association (FA) jointly failed the fans in the Leppings Lane Stand. Reading just two excerpts from the official Report of the Independent Hillsborough Panel is quietly stomach-turning:
“2.11.6 In contrast to their professional training, officers were instructed not to record their experiences in pocket books and ‘anyone who was involved yesterday take time to sit down and make some notes’. The briefing officer asked if officers had ‘made a pocket book brief’. None had. The briefing officer continued: ‘Do not start making pocket book entries. Yesterday was the most traumatic experience of my life and large chunks of it I cannot remember. I am sure it must be the same for many of you’.”
“2.11.27 On 9 May, C/Supt Denton consulted Mr Metcalf. Mr Metcalf’s note of the conversation recorded that WMP’s request for statements concerned 120 officers of whom 100 had already provided an account to SYP. Outstanding accounts would be provided specifically for WMP, while ‘for the others, there would need to be some scrutiny of the existing documents’. Many ‘might be suitable to be handed on without further ado’ but ‘those which included comment or matters of speculation would probably have to be redone’.”
The recollections were collected, examined, and weighed by senior officers. Those that reflected badly on the SYP were given back to junior officers to rewrite. If they did not pass muster the second time, they might be omitted, or rewritten yet again. In all, 164 police statements were altered on the direct orders of senior police officials.
“In addition, we now know that police officers carried out computer checks on those who had died in an attempt ‘to impugn the reputations of the deceased’. The coroner took blood alcohol levels from all of the deceased, including children, to try to draw a link between the late arrival of fans and heavy drinking, a view that the panel found to be ‘fundamentally flawed’,” the Telegraph reports.
Ask yourself, could this happen in your locale?
Obviously, technology has changed. Electronic communications can be retrieved even if wiped. Video cameras and phones with video are omnipresent. If a similar crush were to happen today, participants would be phoning emergency numbers, tweeting their distress, going on social sites to plead for help.
But. If horrible things happened, what would the police in your area do?
From a Reuters piece on the report: “Trevor Hicks, who lost two daughters at Hillsborough, said there had been a ‘dirty tricks campaign to deflect the blame’ and that those responsible should be prosecuted.”
That’s the feeling of many, if not all, of the bereaved families. It’s also the feeling of those who, living nowhere near Liverpool or caring nothing for football, empathized with them.
The people whose job it was to protect the public from harm were more concerned about controlling “rowdiness” and their own image than about the dozens of bodies laid out on the playing field.
Some of the victims retrieved from the pen were still alive. They were carried off the field on impromptu stretchers made of the wooden advertisements torn from fences by healthy, appalled supporters. Yet because the ambulance service was not responsive, CPR was not administered until too late for many of the injured.
The oldest who died was Gerard Baron, 67. The youngest, Jon-Paul Gilhooley, was 10.
Could this massive, years-long cover-up happen where you live?
“We ask the police to do difficult and often very dangerous things on our behalf. And South Yorkshire Police is a very different organisation today from what it was then. But we do the many, many honourable police men and women a great disservice if we try to defend the indefensible . . .. the evidence from today’s report makes very difficult reading . . .. Indeed, the new evidence that we are presented with today makes clear that these families have suffered a double injustice. The injustice of the appalling events — the failure of the state to protect their loved ones and the indefensible wait to get to the truth. And the injustice of the denigration of the deceased – that they were somehow at fault for their own deaths.”
Could this kind of cover-up happen today, in your neck of the woods? It could, if your police are cynical and self-protecting.