Historians and the online archive of the Hillsborough Independent Panel

An archival photograph of the Disaster from the records of the SYP.

An archival photograph of the Disaster from the records of the South Yorkshire Police. (Ref PR8)

Last week, the jury from the Hillsborough Inquest found that the 96 victims of the Hillsborough Disaster on 15 April, 1989 had been unlawfully killed. This new inquest, established by the Attorney General in December 2012, relied heavily on the uncovering of over 450,000 documents by the Hillsborough Independent Panel, itself established in January 2010 by the Home Office. Part of the function of the Independent Panel was to examine these previously closed documents and create an online archive of this material in an attempt to create a transparent and publicly available record of the disaster.

Published online in late 2012, and now at the end of the most recent inquest, a question that may arise is what purpose does the online archive serve now and how do historians engage with it? The archive is an important resource for historians and the following blog post looks at how this archive can be used by historians.

UNPRECEDENTED ACCESS

The archive offers the historian unprecedented access to documents from the late Thatcher period, albeit around a limited and tragic episode in the history of contemporary Britain. The National Archives at Kew are currently working on transferring documents under the old 30 year rule to the new 20 year rule. As of February 2016, government documents, primarily Cabinet and Prime Minister’s Office, records have been released for the years 1986 to 1988. At this rate of disclosure, we would still be waiting for the relevant documents from the Thatcher government until 2017-18.

However it is not only documents from the Thatcher government that have been disclosed. Many records come from the Sheffield City Council (SCC) and South Yorkshire County Council (SYCC), which are not necessarily bound to the same disclosure schedule as the national government and its agencies. Often contemporary historians have to rely on government records created at the national level as more local records have been kept and released in a much more haphazard manner. The documents disclosed by the SCC and the SYCC for the Independent Panel provide a more comprehensive picture of how the disaster and its aftermath was mismanaged at both the local and national level, and presenting an alternative to the top down view that the archival records usually create.

As well as the records of the Thatcher government, the SCC and the SYCC, the archive also contains many documents disclosed by other agencies, such as the South Yorkshire Police, the South Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service, the Yorkshire Ambulance Service and the South Yorkshire Coroner. These records are usually much harder for historians to access, but are invaluable in providing a more ‘holistic’ view of how government agencies and services operate with each other, particularly in a time of crisis. However at the same time, historians should remember not to view the structure of these agencies as ‘monolithic’ and all having a similar agenda. In our reading of these records, we are reminded that these agencies have a number of competing (and sometimes contradictory) interests and often worked in spite of each other.

CONNECTIONS TO THE WIDER HISTORY OF THATCHERITE BRITAIN

The Hillsborough Disaster was a tragic event in the final year and a half of the Thatcher government and brings together several different aspects of the history of the period. Most obviously it is the culmination of the uneasy relationship between the police and football crowds that had existed throughout the 1980s. In 1985, the Popplewell Inquiry was set up to investigate a fire at Bradford City’s Valley Parade stadium that killed 56 people and a ‘riot’ at St Andrews in Birmingham on the same day. The Inquiry’s questions about crowd control seemed to go unheeded and similar disregard by the police led to the deaths of 96 people only four years later.

It also fits into a wider history of the changing nature of the police in the 1980s, in particular the policing of public order. In the 1970s, public order policing in the UK underwent significant changes, influenced by the events in Northern Ireland. This led to a paramilitarisation of the police in the UK, particularly the use of the Special Patrol Group (SPG) to police unruly crowds, such as demonstrations and picket lines. By the early 1980s, the policing techniques used to maintain public order had alienated so many that riots broke out across the country in 1981 (and again in 1985). On one hand, these riots led to supposedly greater police accountability with Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, but also marked a precursor to other episodes of police brutality, such as the policing of the miners’ strike in 1984-85 (such as that seen at the Battle of Orgreave in 1984, which also involved the South Yorkshire Police) . In 1986, the Public Order Act was revised and gave the police greater powers, which were then employed throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s. For example, one could make links between the policing of demonstrations against the Poll Tax in 1989-90 and the policing of football crowds during the same period.

The Hillsborough Disaster also highlights a wider demonization of the working class in Britain during the Thatcher period. The unionised and industrialised working class were identified in the late 1970s as sites of resistance to Thatcher’s neoliberal agenda and during the following decade, the institutions and structures of the organised working class – the trade unions and the industrial workplace in particular – were dismantled by the Conservatives. For the Tories, the working class was something to fear and to be controlled by the authorities. This attitude can be seen in how the crowds at Hillsborough were treated, and how they were portrayed by the government and sections of the media in its aftermath.

From this, this demonization of the working class further highlights the insidious relationship between the Thatcher government, the police and the Murdoch press in the 1980s and early 1990s. The infamous ‘The Truth’ headline in The Sun a few days after the disaster demonstrates the collective interest in demonising the victims of the tragedy as drunken, unruly and criminal. The archive shows that these baseless claims were continually used by members of the government, the police and Murdoch press journalists to reinforce their prejudices up until the most recent inquiry.

On the matter of inquiries, the archive also has a wealth of material submitted to the original Taylor Inquiry in 1989-90 and fits into a wider history of the role on public inquiries in the Thatcher era. Between 1981 with the Scarman Inquiry and the Taylor Inquiry in 1989-90, there were numerous inquiries into the behaviour of the police and their handling of public order situations. Although these inquiries did have some impact, such as the introduction of the PaCE Act in 1984, the fact that these inquiries continued to be held show that the police were slow to change their ways and the same problems reoccurred time and time again under the Thatcher government.

THE GAP BETWEEN THE ARCHIVAL RECORD AND ‘WHAT ACTUALLY HAPPENED’

Although the Hillsborough Independent Panel has collated all these primary documents, the archival record cannot definitively tell us ‘what actually happened’. One of the challenges that historians face when dealing with government documents, as well as archival materials in general, is the ‘gap’ between the archival record and ‘what actually happened’ – what Ann Laura Stoler has referred to as ‘silences’ in the archival record. This is something that is particularly relevant in conducting research into public inquiries and has been noted as a point of contention in the previous investigations into the Hillsborough Disaster, where accusations have been made that information provided by various agencies was manipulated or distorted. Historians of the recent past must rely on the documentary evidence and where possible, compare the written record with other sources, such as audio-visual material and oral testimony, but still acknowledge that we cannot fully uncover ‘what actually happened’ and highlight this when required.

DEALING WITH SENSITIVE INFORMATION

As the terms of reference for the Hillsborough Independent Panel state, ‘[t]he Hillsborough disaster was a personal tragedy for hundreds of people’ and this needs to be taken into consideration when conducting research into the archival materials disclosed. While a lot of the personal information has been redacted, sensitive information about particular individuals, including victims and employees of certain government and public agencies, such as the police, the ambulance service and the local civil service, is still accessible through these disclosed documents. Any kind of information along these lines should be handled sensitively and with due care. The website of the Panel reminds those conducting research using the archive that while deeply sensitive material has been redacted, some of the content available is still distressing.

Keeping these issues in mind, the online archive created by the Hillsborough Independent Panel is a valuable resource for historians of contemporary Britain and the Thatcherite era. Although limited in its historical scope, centred around a single tragic event, the archival documents provide great insight into a variety of historical narratives that extrapolate out from the Hillsborough Disaster.

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