- Hillsborough dir. by Daniel Gordon
The dedication of this stunning documentary—“For the 96”—is a somber reminder that ninety-six innocent people died at Sheffield’s (England) Hillsborough Stadium in 1989. Hillsborough clearly stands among the best of ESPN’s 30 for 30 series. If there is such a thing as a “must-see” sports documentary, Hillsborough is it.
The outline of the events is frighteningly simple—the South Yorkshire police were in charge of security for a match that was bound to attract a capacity crowd. A senior officer with no experience in crowd control was selected to supervise the match. There was no discussion of crowd safety at the prematch briefing. He and his subordinates made the disastrous decision to open a gate to allow hundreds of fans to enter an already overcrowded area and did nothing to cope with the massive crush that resulted. The enclosed areas became the killing grounds, as the constables and the trapped fans tried desperately to free people and administer treatment.
The film brilliantly weaves archival footage and photos with skillful recreations. The most dramatic impact comes from the interviews, filmed more than twenty years after the events. The director wisely limited the number of interviewees, making it easier for viewers to identify with them as individuals and to get caught up in their stories. We see survivors, relatives of the deceased, policemen, and the men and women whose dogged perseverance kept alive the quest for justice for the ninety-six.
If the film’s first hour generates horror, the second provokes anger and disgust. Many police officials immediately conspired to place all the blame on the supporters. In the words of Phil Scraton, a University of Liverpool criminologist, “The lie became the defining moment to build a case.” It turned into what current Prime Minister David Cameron described as “this double injustice that has been left uncorrected for so long.”
A few days after the event, the country’s biggest selling daily newspaper, Rupert Murdoch’s The Sun, carried a front-page headline: “The Truth.” It was a story fed to the paper by police that asserted that Liverpool supporters had caused the disaster and then had urinated on the police as they tried to help victims. It took twenty-two years for The Sun to run another headline, “The Real Truth,” and a story describing how “cops smeared Liverpool fans to deflect blame” and concluding “we are profoundly sorry for false reports.”
During the time between those two headlines, there was an investigation of the South Yorkshire police by another police force, which ended in a whitewash of police behavior. The lengthiest coroner’s inquest in English history accepted the police version almost entirely. An earlier public inquiry headed by Lord Justice Taylor pointed to inconsistencies in the police account and to the role of the police in causing the disaster. But since the Taylor Report contradicted the version that the police crafted, the government dismissed it. The decision reached by successive governments and courts was that “there was no basis for further public inquiry.” This was all part of what a lawyer involved in the most recent [End Page 398] inquiry described as the “biggest cover up in British history.” To this day, no one has been held responsible for his actions at Hillsborough or in the cover-up.
The heroes of the story are family members of the victims, survivors, and the Liverpool population that refused to let the story be ignored. They searched for new evidence and pressured politicians. The breakthrough finally came in a way that serves as a lesson to historians about the value of searching for primary sources. Scraton discovered that the Parliamentary Archives had boxes containing the reports by police officers who had been on duty at Hillsborough. In reality, there were multiple versions of the same reports—the first were handwritten by police constables who were on the scene, the second were typed and edited versions prepared by their superiors, and the third were clean copies of these doctored drafts. The third versions, from which any negative remarks...