ESPN has just released another of its well-regarded “30 for 30” documentaries: Daniel Gordon’s film “Hillsborough,” about the notorious 1989 soccer stadium disaster that claimed the lives of 96 Liverpool fans in the British city of Sheffield. (Globe owner John Henry’s Fenway Sports Group bought the Liverpool team in 2010.) Eager to watch a key playoff game, thousands of fans were herded into fenced-off, overcrowded enclosures called “pens,” where many were crushed to death.
At least four official inquiries have pored over the Hillsborough stadium tragedy; the most recent one wrapped up only 20 months ago. In the incident’s immediate aftermath, an unholy alliance of faceless police sources and overeager British tabloid reporters blamed the victims’ deaths on . . . the victims. Newspapers printed lurid stories of reckless, inebriated fans desecrating corpses, stealing from the dead, and drunkenly interfering with police rescue attempts. The coroner’s investigation exonerated the police and ruled all of the deaths “accidental.”
As the years and the official investigations dragged on, the victims’ relatives refused to shoulder the blame on behalf of their loved ones. Detail by detail, reviews by the Tory government, and then the Labor government, began to spring leaks. The coroner had botched the timeline for the disaster; in fact, lives could have been saved. Individual policemen came forward to say that their on-scene reports had been altered. Superiors edited out evidence of police incompetence, while highlighting examples of fan rowdiness.
The 2012 Hillsborough Independent Panel, chaired by the bishop of Liverpool, conclusively attacked the assumption that “Liverpool fans’ behavior had contributed to, if not caused, the disaster.” The panel found over 160 doctored police statements and concluded that as many as 40 of the victims “had the potential to be saved” during the melee. Prime Minister David Cameron, the former editor of the tabloid The Sun, and the chief constable of the South Yorkshire Police all apologized to the victims’ families.
A 2013 BBC investigation called Hillsborough “an avoidable disaster,” adding that “some of our most important institutions, the police, the judiciary, and the government, allowed it to be covered up.” A new coroner’s report is now in the offing, a quarter century after the disaster itself.
I have a personal connection to the Hillsborough story. In 2010, the year that Fenway Sports Group bought the Liverpool franchise, I wrote a column characterizing the events as a “riot,” which subjected me to intense vilification from Liverpool fans everywhere. The Globe promptly corrected my story, against my will. I thought I was right, and that the many inquiries supported what I wrote. In fact, I was wrong.
Last year, British investigative journalist Michael Bilton and I were working on a research project. By Googling my name, he saw my Hillsborough column and politely suggested that — as the British might say — I had grabbed the wrong end of the stick. For the first time, I was willing to look at the events with new eyes. Partly by watching the BBC’s “Panorama” investigation, and partly through the power of David Gordon’s new movie, I see that Bilton was right.
I have that unappealing character trait which admits error only reluctantly, but in this case I am in excellent company. A former British lord chief justice, a blue cloud of police nabobs, and investigators of all stripes stuck to their flawed accounts of the stadium disaster long after the facts turned against them. Of the many officials paraded before the BBC and ESPN cameras, I saw only one — Tony Blair’s Home Secretary Jack Straw — say he made a mistake.
I know how hard that can be.
Globe contributor Alex Beam is the author of “American Crucifixion: The Murder of Joseph Smith and the Fate of the Mormon Church.”