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Relatives of the Hillsborough victims gather together in 2016. One is holding a photo of a man who died and another is holding up a red scarf reading 'justice'.
Hillsborough campaigners pictured in 2016. Alamy/Phil Noble

Hillsborough disaster: a revealing analysis of the language in witness statements

The Hillsborough disaster of April 15 1989 led to the deaths of 96 Liverpool fans. They were crushed on the terraces at the FA Cup semi-final as their team started play on the pitch. That afternoon the match commander, David Duckenfield, falsely reported to the FA that fans forced an egress gate – Gate C – and pushed through into the ground without tickets. This lie set the narrative that was later perpetuated in and by the tabloid press, which was that the fans arrived drunk, ticketless and too late to get into the ground. In short, they were to blame for the tragedy. This false narrative has apparent resonances in many police officers’ witness statements.

In 2012, following decades of academic research by criminologist Phil Scraton and an impassioned justice campaign, the Hillsborough Independent Panel found that police had changed statements and that it had been the police case that the blame for the disaster should be placed on to Liverpool fans. An inquest found the same in 2016.

My new research has delved even further into those statements and revealed how the language used in police statements helped fuel the false narrative about what happened that day. I have shown, for example, that more subtle aspects which had the effect of blame-shifting characterised the process of taking statements from football fans and Hillsborough residents.

My work

I analysed 17 residents’ statements contained in a West Midlands Police (WMP) report that was compiled for the director of public prosecutions (DPP) in 1990. Police took hundreds of residents’ statements, but the WMP report offers no indication as to why these 17 were selected for inclusion in this report.

In the statements, a voice other than the witnesses is also present – the institutional voice of the police. One linguistic cue that signals this voice in a witness statement is negation – which is saying what did not happen. If I report something that did not happen then I am conveying that the non-event is newsworthy. This is because there are an infinite number of things that do not happen in the world and so my reporting of the non-event must have some level of narrative significance.

There are many instances of negation in the WMP report statements in which the negated element can be considered reasonably relevant or, to use the linguistic term, “felicitous”. An example of a felicitous negation in a statement is “I do not know what time this was”. Police are fixated by time, and it is not unusual to find many references to time in witness statements.

On the other hand, if I report something that is unexpected or for which there is little or no expectation of relevance, the negation seems odd or “infelicitous”. The following examples are infelicitous negations from four of the 17 residents’ statements, but there are many more:

I did not see any loitering with the exception of several fans who were openly urinating in the road.

They were still just talking to each other and not misbehaving.

I saw groups of supporters standing around on pavements talking. They were not misbehaving at all.

On Saturday (15/04/89) most of the supporters I spoke to left and didn’t cause any trouble.

These examples are “infelicitous” because there were no mentions of “loitering”, “misbehaving” or “causing trouble” up until these points in the witness statements. There is no antecedent to link to these odd occurrences of statements about what did not happen.

Such constructions suggest that at these points, police officers asked questions (such as “did you see any loitering?”) and the witnesses responded “no”. As witness statements do not incorporate question-and-answer sequences, the witness’s negated response to an undocumented question is reformulated here which reads as if the witness volunteered this information.

As these activities did not happen, it is very odd that a witness would offer this information. To give a flavour of how pervasive this is, in these 17 statements there were a total of 143 negations but only 44 were felicitous. That means 99 instances were infelicitous.

Looking closer at the events that are negated, 93 of them relate to the same key themes of alcohol, causing trouble or buying and selling tickets. This means that what fans did not do features just as prominently, if not more prominently, in these residents’ statements than what fans did do. These negations indicate that police officers introduced and controlled these topics, and their pervasiveness suggests that they fixated on the key themes they themselves introduced.

Negation is not the only linguistic cue that builds a dominant narrative that reflects badly on Liverpool fans. For example, police used leading questions in questionnaires circulated around the local neighbourhood. The same key themes emerge again:


The same kinds of questions featured in questionnaires given out in pubs and licensed premises:




Latest findings

On May 26, the case against two senior South Yorkshire police personnel, Donald Denton and Alan Foster, and the force solicitor, Peter Metcalf, for perverting the course of justice (by amending statements), was discharged.

But it’s vital to note that the charges were dropped on the grounds that the prosecution had “no case to answer”. Because the statements in question had been prepared for the public inquiry into the disaster rather than for a case in a court of law, it could not be said that the men perverted justice.

Relatives of Hillsborough victims standing in front of media microphones giving a statement.
Jenny Hicks and Christine Burke, relatives of victims of the Hilsborough disaster speak to the media after the judge ruled there was no case to answer in the latest trial. Alamy

Additionally, the judge did not find that anything done by any of the defendants had a tendency to pervert the course of public justice in relation to other proceedings. The decision did not rely on an assessment of whether statements had been altered – a fact that is not in dispute.

And as linguistic assessment of witness statements shows, a statement doesn’t need to be literally altered to give a misleading picture of events.

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