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Hillsborough: The Archive as a Vehicle for ‘Truth Recovery’

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Authored by David Sarsfield
Published on 29th September, 2021 12 min read

Hillsborough: The Archive as a Vehicle for ‘Truth Recovery’

A photo of the Hillsborough memorial.

On 27 July this year, Andrew Devine became the 97th victim of the infamous Hillsborough disaster. According to Liverpool coroner, Andre Rebello, ‘Andrew Devine died at the Royal Liverpool Hospital after a long illness of 32 years from aspiration pneumonia.’[i]  Rebello was satisfied that the cause of death had been as a direct result of injuries sustained at the Hillsborough soccer stadium, home of Sheffield Wednesday Football Club, on 15 April 1989. Devine, along with hundreds of other Liverpool supporters, had been crushed in the two central ‘pens’ belonging to the Leppings Lane terrace at the beginning of the FA Cup Semi-Final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest – a repeat of the same fixture at the same stadium the previous year. Rebello therefore concluded Devine had been ‘unlawfully killed’, a verdict in keeping with those delivered in respect of the original 96 victims at the conclusion of the 2016 coronial inquest – the longest in British legal history. 

    And yet, the speed in which Rebello had delivered his own conclusion belied the repeated denials of truth and justice suffered by the survivors and bereaved families between the disaster and the 2016 inquest. It would ultimately take the setting up of the Hillsborough Independent Panel in 2010 to finally facilitate a path to ‘truth’ as it circumvented the intractability and opacity of the state and state agencies who were ultimately responsible for the disaster. ‘Truth’, as the Panel laid out, would involve a painstaking and meticulous process of ‘excavation’ and ‘recovery’; being granted access to archival documentation that had hitherto been either denied or hidden from public view. It is to this process, and its consequences for future application, that this article is concerned.

    The immediate cause of the disaster occurred when the commanding police officer in charge, Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield, ordered an exit gate to be opened to relieve pressure at the turnstiles of the Leppings Lane terrace as fans amassed outside of the stadium waiting to enter. Whilst relieving the crush outside, however, Duckenfield had failed to recognise the huge build-up of fans already in the two central pens immediately behind the goal. In the absence of any stewarding, the approximately 2,000 supporters that flooded through the exit gate naturally gravitated towards a tunnel directly opposite leading straight into the already full pens. Enclosed by virtually impenetrable perimeter fencing at the front of the terrace - a common feature of soccer stadiums during the 1980’s - fans had no credible means of escape. A compounding factor was the presence of six-foot-high lateral metal fences which bordered each pen, preventing fans from ‘finding their own level’ in a crush scenario. In pen 3, a safety barrier towards the front collapsed shortly after the game began, sending a pile of people forward and onto the concrete steps beneath. Six minutes into the match, the referee abandoned the game having witnessed the huge numbers of people desperately climbing over bodies at the front to overcome the perimeter fencing and escape the crush. And yet the immediate impression of those outside of the terrace was largely one of crowd disorder, rather than distress, and therein lay one of the contributing factors to the disaster’s extent. It was a factor that would help shape a narrative well versed within contemporary British sporting culture.

    As the disaster unfolded, Duckenfield and his assistant, Superintendent Bernard Murray, were visited in their control box - which overlooked the Leppings Lane terrace - by Graham Kelly, Chief Executive of the Football Association. Asked by Kelly for an explanation as to what was happening, Duckenfield made the falsehood that ticketless Liverpool fans had broken through the exit gate outside, thus causing the crush at the front of the terrace. Given the involvement of Liverpool supporters in the Heysel disaster four years earlier, along with the prevailing perception of ‘hooliganism’ within wider British society, it was an easy lie to tell and, worse, believe. It was a pivotal moment and set the tone for what was to follow for the victims, survivors and bereaved families. It would also foreshadow the reasons as to why the Hillsborough Independent Panel was so necessary to begin with.

    Whilst Duckenfield’s lie was quickly and unequivocally rubbished by both South Yorkshire Police, and more formally in Lord Justice Taylor’s official report in August 1989, the narrative that Liverpool supporters were to blame for the disaster had taken hold of the popular imagination, greatly reinforced by large sections of the media. It would also inform the unprecedented decision taken by Sheffield coroner, Stefan Popper, to take the blood alcohol levels of the dead. And although the Taylor report laid the blame for the disaster largely at the door of South Yorkshire Police – regarding Duckenfield’s failure to seal off the tunnel leading into the central pens prior to opening the exit gate as ‘a blunder of the first magnitude’[ii]  – it did not prevent them maintaining their adversarial stance that ‘drunken’, ‘violent’ fans were to blame during the first coronial inquest. It was the persistence of this narrative which inevitably influenced Popper’s verdict of ‘accidental death’ at the inquest’s conclusion in 1991.

    The following eighteen years would see further denials of justice to the families and survivors; this in spite of the new Blair government in 1997 appointing Lord Justice Stewart-Smith to re-examine the findings of both the Taylor report and coronial inquest. Stewart-Smith determined there was ultimately no case to answer and that all available evidence had been taken into consideration. This would include the highly contentious decision of Stefan Popper to place an arbitrary cut-off of 3.15pm on the day of the disaster – just 15 minutes into the scheduled match – to hear evidence. This decision had virtually eliminated any hearing of evidence with regards to the emergency response. According to Popper, traumatic asphyxia would have brought the certainty of death to the victims within a few minutes. The Stewart-Smith Scrutiny ‘acknowledged as appropriate’ the 3.15pm cut-off due to the belief ‘that all who died had suffered fatal and irreversible injuries by that time.’[iii]

    This judgement was later compounded in 2000 following the unsuccessful attempt by the bereaved families and survivors to convict Duckenfield and Murray of manslaughter during a private prosecution at Leeds crown court. It would not be until 2009 before the then Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Andy Burnham, would call for the controlled publication of all documentation relating to the Hillsborough disaster. In such exceptional circumstances, this would include the waiving of the 30-year limitation on public access to government documents. This process would need to be overseen by a varied group of capable individuals with qualities specific to the unique complexities of the disaster. Thus, in early 2010 the Hillsborough Independent Panel was created.


    As Professor Phil Scraton, panellist and lead author of the Report of the Hillsborough Independent Panel, states in his book, Hillsborough: The Truth, ‘The eventual panel membership reflected the professional expertise necessary to negotiate disclosure of documents, research their content and create a public archive…’[iv] This would include lawyers, journalists, researchers, public health experts, police officials and archivists. The panel’s terms of reference were broad in scope and moreover, as Scraton points out, ‘The essential responsibility given to the panel…committed its eventual report to illustrating ‘how the information disclosed adds to public understanding of the tragedy and its aftermath.’[v] Under the auspices of the British Government, the panel were therefore able to reveal a veritable goldmine of new information and evidence. This pertained not only to the causes of the disaster, but also the immediate response of the emergency services, medical evidence presented at the original inquest, the 3.15pm cut-off and the integrity of statements taken from police and ambulance officers.

    This latter point had revealed statements taken from both officers of South Yorkshire Police and South Yorkshire Metropolitan Ambulance Service were subsequently subjected to a process of ‘review and alteration’ to preserve the credibility of both forces.[vi]  Documentation revealed tension between South Yorkshire Police and Sheffield Wednesday Football Club throughout the 1980’s, particularly with regard to where responsibilities lay for the safety of fans during capacity fixtures. The FA Cup Semi Finals of 1981, 1987 and 1988 – all held at Hillsborough – demonstrated this ambiguity. A less well known investigation by the Health and Safety Executive had ‘found that restricted access, poor condition and inadequate means of escape rendered the Leppings Lane terrace – particularly its central pens – structurally unsafe.’[vii]  As for the 3.15pm cut-off established at the first inquest, huge doubts were cast over the view taken that ‘traumatic asphyxia caus(ed) unconsciousness within seconds, followed inevitably by death within a few minutes.’[viii]  The picture was rather more nuanced with many suffering partial asphyxia to varying degrees and surviving for much longer. ‘On the basis of this disclosed evidence, it cannot be concluded that life or death was inevitably determined by events prior to 3.15pm, or that no new fatal event could have occurred at that time.’[ix]  In other words, had the emergency response been more robust and the major incident procedure been activated, many of the 96 victims could have been saved. Like the police, attending ambulance staff had initially held the mistaken view that distress in the central pens had been a matter of crowd control, rather than crowd safety.[x] These examples from the panel’s report were just a fraction of new information that came to light during its work between 2010 and 2012. 


    The report of the Hillsborough Independent Panel was finally published in September 2012 to widespread media attention. Its consequences were highly significant: the survivors and bereaved families had finally had the ‘truth’ exposed about what had happened at Hillsborough 23 years before. In December of the same year, the verdicts of ‘accidental death’ in the first inquest had been quashed. A fresh inquest would deliver a new verdict of ‘unlawfully killed’ for all 96 victims in 2016. And whilst the fight for justice and accountability continues for the families, it is worth evaluating the methodologies adopted by the Hillsborough Independent Panel in the absence of truth delivery via traditional state mechanisms. For Professor Phil Scraton, ‘The work of the Hillsborough Independent Panel, and the research informing its extensive report, represents a new departure in truth recovery.’[xi]  And although Scraton recognises some of the panel’s limitations – that they ‘had no right of access’ and that all documents were ‘donated’ voluntarily – he is largely enthusiastic over the role of the archive in shedding light on controversial cases of public interest:

‘As a model for accessing, researching and analysing documents or other material held by public bodies, however, the process adopted by the panel has the potential to secure acknowledgement in contested cases when previously this had been denied. Accessing documents and relevant material in full, with redaction restricted to exceptional circumstances, is a significant end in itself. On this basis alone, there is considerable interest in adopting this form of ‘truth recovery’ – through independent scrutiny of all documents held by public agencies – as an adjunct to public inquiries.’[xii]

Indeed, Scraton has since gone on to do just that, becoming a member of the ‘Truth Recovery Design Panel’ in the case of Mother and Baby and Magdalene Laundry Institutions in Northern Ireland between 1922 and 1990.[xiii]

    For some of the bereaved in the case of Hillsborough, however, such positive steps are a cold comfort. Speaking in the immediate aftermath of the 2016 inquest, Doreen Jones - mother of Richard Jones who was crushed to death - concluded, ‘We have had to go through another inquest because of the failures of the first, fighting for access to material that should have been made available to us in the first place, and that’s a bitter pill to swallow.’ [xiv]

    The creation of the Hillsborough Independent Panel was therefore a necessary consequence in the wake of all other doors to truth and justice being repeatedly closed to survivors and bereaved families. But its significance in changing the course of public understanding of the disaster cannot be overstated. The work of the panel – its terms of reference and its influence – convincingly demonstrates the value of the archive not just as a means of furthering academic scholarship, but as a catalyst in establishing contemporaneous truth and reinvigorating the search for justice.



ii ‘The Report of the Hillsborough Independent Panel’, 2012, p.42

iii Ibid, p.312

iv  Scraton, Phil, Hillsborough: The Truth, Mainstream Publishing, 2016, p.394

v Ibid, p.392

vi ‘The Report of the Hillsborough Independent Panel’, 2012, p.339

vii  Ibid, p.16

viii  Ibid, p.178

ix Ibid

x Ibid, p.134

xi Scraton, Phil, Hillsborough: The Truth, p.442

xii Ibid


xiv Scraton, Phil, Hillsborough: The Truth, p.479

Authored by David Sarsfield

David Sarsfield

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The British Online Archives blog is a platform for scholars to present their research to students and the general public. The posts cover a range of historical themes and debates from around the world. The opinions expressed represent those of the authors, not British Online Archives or Microform.

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