“I know because I was there”: Archives, social justice and the Hillsborough Disaster

2009 banner to commemorate 20 years since the Hillsborough Disaster. Photo by Linksfuss (CC-BY-SA 3.0)

Victoria Hoyle is York City Archivist and is studying for a PhD in the Department of History.

The role of archives in social justice activity is a hotly contested topic at the moment.  Around the world documentary evidence is being discovered, gathered and made accessible in order to bring to light injustices and inequalities perpetuated in the past.  In The Hague the UN International Criminal Tribunals for Rwanda and the Balkans have collected thousands of linear metres of records for war crime trials. In Australia, the Find and Connect project has collated archives of orphanages, homes and other institutions where generations of aboriginal children were held after being removed from their families. In Canada the same process is currently underway for the records of the Indian Residential Schools, supporting truth and reconciliation with native peoples. Here in the UK the records of the Hillsborough Stadium Disaster have been digitised in consultation with the families of the victims and placed online in an unprecedented disclosure of police and government documents.

On 15th April 1989 ninety-six Liverpool football fans were crushed to death because of overcrowding at Hillsborough stadium in Sheffield during an FA cup semi-final match. Another 700 people were injured.  In the immediate aftermath stories about the violent and drunken behaviour of fans prior to, during and after the tragedy were circulated by the police and received extensive coverage in the media.  The Sun newspaper infamously ran a front page story – “The Truth” – which squarely placed blame for the tragedy on the victims. Out-of-control fans were accused of stealing from the dead, of urinating on police and disrupting attempts to save lives.  It was a version of events that played into what Phil Scraton, Professor of Criminology and member of the Hillsborough Independent Panel, has called “hooligan hysteria”.  By dehumanising the victims – thirty-eight of whom were children – and implicating them in their own deaths, the public’s attention was shifted away from the actions of the police and other authorities.  Archival evidence has subsequently shown this version of events to be entirely false.

After many years of campaigning by victims’ families and several inconclusive investigations the Hillsborough Independent Panel was formed in 2009.  Its purpose was to manage the disclosure of government and police records relating to the disaster, to interpret the records for the public and to create a permanent, discoverable archive. For the first time full disclosure was made of the records of all of the agencies, including those which would ordinarily have been closed.  In 2012 the publication of the Panel’s final report coincided with the release of over 355,000 scanned documents online and the establishment of places of deposit for the 450,000 hardcopy records in Sheffield and Liverpool.

The release of the archive revealed the conflicts between documentation, memory and witness testimony in establishing a narrative of the event.  The testimony of police officials and politicians in the immediate aftermath were directly contradicted.  At the same time the memories of people who were in the stadium and of victims’ families were absent or silenced.  It became clear, for example, that statements made by members of the South Yorkshire Police had been substantially edited.  They had been reviewed by senior officers and solicitors, and rewritten to fixed standards; 116 of the 164 statements had been changed in this way.  The documents were not just evidence of the truth but also evidence of the lies, both actual and by omission.  In order to fill in some of the gaps families submitted their own documentation, including letters to and from the original coroner and witness statements.  The Panel had a policy of ‘families first’, sharing all information with loved ones before releasing it.  The archive was a site of injustice and of justice activity at the same time.

As a direct result of the Panel’s report and the disclosed documentation the inquest into Hillsborough was reopened in 2014.  Just a few weeks ago on 26th April a jury returned a verdict of unlawful killing for all ninety-six victims.  At the same time it concluded that the South Yorkshire Police bore the largest share of the blame because of the poor decisions made on the day by commanding officers.  An investigation into the aftermath and the cover-up, Operation Resolve, is now underway, for which a further 70,000 documents are being disclosed.  These include the original notebooks carried by police officers on duty which were withheld from the Independent Panel.  For the families the Panel’s report and the inquest ruling represent the end of a 27 year battle for justice for their loved ones.

They are landmarks in archives practice too. Preserving and opening up archives in this way has broad implications for how archival institutions and archivists understand their work in society.  Historically the archivist has been positioned as a neutral and objective gatekeeper, whose work to select and catalogue records is an invisible prelude to interpretation and use by others.  More recently postmodernism has challenged this paradigm, re-envisioning the archivist as a subjective, independent actor whose choices impact on what will be remembered or forgotten and what types of history will be possible. The social justice agenda takes this impact a step further, envisioning archives work as a form of activism that can make real changes in the present. In the dark corners of archival theory journals a battle is raging over whether this is a reasonable or desirable shift in perspective.

As a PhD student working on the social, cultural and historical values of archives to communities, as well as a practising archivist, these debates dominate my research context. They ask questions about the relationships between the creators of archives – who may, in future, be implicated in injustices or criminal acts – the people described in the archives, the archivists who decide what should be kept for the future and the people who use them. Who has and can exercise power?  Who decides what is valuable and important? Who has the right to access and interpret surviving documentation? How should it be catalogued and described, and by whom?