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Hillsborough’s lesson – don’t fear the crowd

It is the 25th anniversary of the worst sporting tragedy in the UK: the Hillsborough football disaster, where 96 Liverpool fans died at an FA cup semi-final game against Nottingham Forest. As a mark of…

Liverpool and Manchester City pause to remember the dead of Hillsborough. Peter Byrne/PA

It is the 25th anniversary of the worst sporting tragedy in the UK: the Hillsborough football disaster, where 96 Liverpool fans died at an FA cup semi-final game against Nottingham Forest. As a mark of respect, all domestic football matches on Saturday 12 April started seven minutes late, and various tributes were held by football fans across the country.

The fallout from the disaster is still being felt 25 years on, now with a new round of inquests after the quashing of the original “accidental death” verdicts in December 2012. These inquests are currently hearing profiles of the 96 victims, with moving accounts by their families; there are also ongoing separate police and Independent Police Complaints Commission investigations into the disaster.

It is now largely accepted that the fatal crush in the Leppings Lane pens, where the Liverpool fans were located, was a preventable disaster. Measures have been taken since to ensure that such crushes can never happen again, such as re-designing perimeter fences in football stadiums so that they can be opened quickly if crushes begin.

As the 1989 Taylor Report said, it was a miracle that such a disaster had not happened before. It pointed out the tragic irony that before the disaster, no-one had ever died in a pitch invasion at a UK football match, while at Hillsborough 96 Liverpool fans died because the police were trying to stop an imagined one.

The way the police viewed football (and other) crowds in the 1980s influenced how they policed them. This is why they failed to spot the fatal crush developing until it was too late; it was exacerbated by the police believing that Liverpool fans were attempting to invade the pitch (hence the cordon they maintained near the half-way line while the disaster was at its height), when in fact they were merely trying to escape the fatal crush. This misplaced belief resulted in police pushing fans back into the pens while people still inside them were dying.

A common theme emerges runs through this catalogue of mistakes: that football matches and crowd events in general in the 1980s were too often seen as a public order problem, instead of a public safety issue. This is explicitly stated in the report, which concluded that at Hillsborough, “the collective policing mindset prioritised crowd control over crowd safety.”

Along with others involved in the study of crowd emergency behaviour and safety management, I am very critical of such approaches. As John Fruin has written, there is a clear difference between crowd control and crowd management:

Crowd management is defined as the systematic planning for, and supervision of, the orderly movement and assembly of people. Crowd control is the restriction or limitation of group behaviour.

This is not just a semantic issue. As John Drury wrote after the independent panel report was published, “Approaching the crowd with a view to crowd control risks undermining crowd safety.” This emphasis on “crowd control” directly contributed to the disaster at Hillsborough.

Insult and injury

Of course, it was not just the disaster itself that made Hillsborough infamous, but also the subsequent cover-ups and attempts to deflect blame for the tragedy onto the victims that have so hurt both their families and the survivors, leaving an enduring sense of injustice that is still felt today. But lies about fans' alleged behaviour (which have since been shown to be baseless) were all too readily accepted by politicians and the media. This was influenced by the same pervasive view that crowds are not to be trusted because of their potential for “irrational” behaviour.

The most notorious example was perhaps the shocking front page of the Sun newspaper, headlined The Truth, which appeared four days after the disaster.

These views of crowds permeated the very top of the British establishment, as highlighted by reports that days after the tragedy, senior police officers briefed Margaret Thatcher that drunken Liverpool fans were to blame for the tragedy, despite there being no evidence to support this claim.

Thatcher’s chief Press Secretary Bernard Ingham also provoked outrage by defiantly sticking to the myth that Liverpool fans were to blame and the city should “shut up about Hillsborough”; similarly, in 2012, Boris Johnson was forced to apologise for an article that appeared in The Spectator magazine when he was editor that falsely blamed drunken fans for the tragedy.

These attitudes have greatly exacerbated the sense of injustice. A recent article in the Daily Telegraph looked at the shocking treatment of victims after Hillsborough, arguing that derogatory stereotypes of Liverpudlians have also helped contribute to the enduring myth that somehow fans were to blame.

There is almost a sense of moral panic in the way society views crowds, in that they are often seen as vehicles for potential “disorder” or mass panic, despite decades' worth of research by psychologists finding that such concepts are largely myths, and that crowds often behave much more sensibly than they are usually given credit for. When tragedies happen, it is almost always because of a failure of crowd management, as opposed to any “irrational” behaviour on the part of the victims. Attempts to blame victims are often part of a strategy to deflect blame away from those responsible for such mismanagement.

As I have argued elsewhere, we too often attempt to shift blame for disasters like Hillsborough onto victims by using emotive terms such as “panic” to describe their behaviour. This deep societal mistrust of crowds was a major contribution to the context in which Hillsborough happened, and helps explain why the despicable slurs that were spread about the victims were allowed to remain unchecked in popular discourse for so long – adding to the pain and distress of those who knew the truth about what happened.

To help avoid future Hillsboroughs, we need to develop a less negative view of crowd behaviour in popular discourse. As I wrote when the Hillsborough Independent Panel report was released, we all need to take responsibility for ensuring that we adopt a less pathological view towards crowds, and try to develop crowd safety strategies at large events that prevent such disasters from ever happening again.

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