Monday, September 17, 2012

Hillsborough: archive as memorial

We archivists devote a lot of thought to the informational value of archives, but archives can also have profound symbolic value. Recent developments in the United Kingdom highlight just how closely informational value and symbolic value can intertwine.

On 15 April 1989, two British football teams -- Liverpool and Nottingham Forest -- were scheduled to play a Football Association Cup semi-final match in Sheffield's Hillsborough Stadium, which featured a mix of seated areas and standing-only terraces.  Two of the terrace "pens" allotted to Liverpool fans became horrifically overcrowded.  Spectators at the front of the pens were pushed against the safety barriers and fences installed at the front of the terrace, and by the time the match was suspended -- six minutes into play -- dozens of people were dead or dying.  Some fell to the floor and were trampled underfoot, and others died of compressive asphyxia while still on their feet.  Ninety-four people died on 15 April, and two others later succumbed to injuries suffered in the crush.  Hundreds of other fans suffered serious injuries, and countless others were traumatized.

The Hillsborough Disaster, as it is commonly known, was the subject of several high-profile official investigations that identified the failure of the South Yorkshire Police to control the crowd as the chief cause of the disaster.  However, several of these investigations also concluded that spectators' drunkenness and last-minute rush to enter the stadium were also contributing factors, and none of them examined the police and medical response to the disaster as it unfolded.

Several organizations representing survivors and the families of those who perished as a result of the disaster continued to press the British government to conduct a more comprehensive investigation and to release public documents reviewed by previous investigative panels, and in 2010 the government established the Hillsborough Independent Panel and charged it not only with identifying the causes of the disaster but also with examining authorities' response to it and making investigative materials accessible to survivors, families, and the public at large.

The panel released its final report a few days ago, and its findings are damning:
  • In 1981, overcrowding on the terraces during a Sheffield Wednesday Football Club match at Hillsborough very nearly resulted in tragedy, but the club, which didn't want to spend large amounts of money to upgrade the facility, and the South Yorkshire Police, which was more concerned about crowd control than spectator safety, neglected to take steps to avert future incidents.
  • On 15 April 1989, South Yorkshire Police, which again was chiefly concerned about crowd control, failed to monitor conditions on the terraces and made a series of decisions that routed large numbers of Liverpool spectators to terrace pens that were already dangerously over capacity.
  • Police and stadium officials were slow to recognize that fans at the front of the pens were in desperate trouble, and even after the gravity of the situation became apparent they neglected to follow their own emergency response procedures.  The failure to bring in medical personnel and supplies in a timely manner and establish systematic triage was particularly devastating:  post-mortem reports suggest that as many as 41 of the 96 people who died might have survived had they received prompt, appropriate care.
  • South Yorkshire Police gathered detailed statements from all personnel who had been assigned to work at the stadium that day -- and senior officials altered 164 of these statements in an effort to save face and minimize financial liability.
  • Contrary to police and press allegations, Liverpool fans were not drunken hooligans, did not conspire to rush into the stadium immediately before kickoff, and did not attack or impede emergency personnel.  The people who died had consumed alcohol in quantities that might be expected of people enjoying an outing, and the overwhelming majority of those who survived followed police orders before and during the disaster and did whatever they could to save the dying, aid the injured, and assist police and ambulance crews.
The panel's charge also compelled it to "work with the Keeper of Public Records in preparing options for establishing an archive of Hillsborough documentation, including a catalogue of all central governmental and local public agency information and a commentary on any information withheld for the benefit of the families or on legal or other grounds," and one chapter of the report details its efforts to develop a Permanent Archive for the Hillsborough Disaster.  This archive, which currently consists of digitized images of 25,000 of the 450,000 pages of records that the panel examined, brings together materials created by approximately 80 organizations and a number of private individuals.  It will exist only in digital form; the paper originals will remain in repositories in Sheffield and  Liverpool and at the National Archives facility at Kew.

 The report explains that the Permanent Archive is designed to increase "public understanding of the context, circumstances and consequences of the disaster and why no satisfactory resolution of the issues raised by the families and survivors has been achieved."  Its contents "provide the most complete record of events available, disclosing the decisions taken and actions progressed by those involved throughout an extended period before and since the disaster." 

The Permanent Archive is also meant to serve as "a lasting national memorial to those who died, survived or were affected by the tragedy [emphasis added]."  That a collection of documents might serve as a memorial may seem a bit odd, but in this instance, it seems entirely fitting.  Erik Ketelaar has argued that archives should be seen as"repositories of meaning," and Hillsborough Independent Panel -- whose members include a former Keeper of Public Records -- clearly see themselves as revealing the existence of meanings and truths that had been suppressed or denied:  as the panel's chair, the Right Reverend John Jones, explains in the report's foreword, the documents that comprise the Permanent Archive provide conclusive proof "that the fans were not the cause of the disaster" and "that the bereaved families met a series of obstacles in their search for justice." The creation of the Permanent Archive is, in and of itself, an acknowledgement of "the legitimacy of the search for justice by the bereaved families and survivors of Hillsborough."

The report and the Permanent Archive have already spurred other efforts to right past wrongs.  Over the weekend, the editor in chief of the tabloid The Sun, which in 1989 published a front page story alleging that Liverpool fans picked the pockets of the dead and dying, urinated on a constable as he attempted to resuscitate a victim, and assaulted other first responders (is it any wonder many Liverpudlians still boycott this paper?), issued an abject apology.  Families of many of the victims, whose deaths were ruled accidental after abbreviated inquests, are pressing for new hearings.  Earlier today, the Home Secretary stated that officials who broke the law in the wake of the disaster may be subject to criminal prosecution. Twenty-three years after the Hillsborough Disaster, a national coming to grips is finally taking place.

1 comment:

Ronald Helfrich Jnr. said...

And don't forget popular culture representations of the tragedy, most notedly perhaps Jimmy McGovern's Hillsborough broadcast in 1996 on ITV and the "To Be Somebody" episode of Cracker (ITV, 1994), one of the great television shows, a show McGovern created and wrote most of the episodes of through series 3. "To Kill Somebody" centres around Hillsborough and the New Labour betrayal of old labour that was on display during the moral panic surrounding Hillsborough. McGovern, of course, hails from Liverpool.