The new evidence released today about the Hillsborough Disaster in 1989 is truly disturbing, but does it really add to our understanding of the crisis?
The manifold failings of South Yorkshire Police were clearly highlighted in Lord Justice Taylor’s original report: “…although there were other causes, the main reason for the disaster was the failure of police control.” He also goes on to specifically highlight the lack of training for police commanders at football matches as a significant contributory factor to this failure. The more general long-term failing of the authorities to address issues of safety at football grounds was subsequently analysed in detail by Dominic Elliott and Denis Smith in their 1993 article “Football Stadia Disasters in the UK: Learning from Tragedy?” Nothing that we have learnt today has really added anything new to their analysis.
The most shocking aspect of the new evidence has been the extent to which South Yorkshire Police sought to pass blame for the disaster onto the victims themselves. Whilst this was truly abhorrent, and an abject lesson in how not to conduct crisis communications; the credibility of the police account was already in serious doubt many years ago – Lord Justice Taylor noting that “…with some notable exceptions, the senior officers in command were defensive and evasive witnesses.”
Whilst not underestimating the momentous importance of today’s revelations, and the subsequent apology from the Prime Minister, to survivors of the disaster and victims’ families; I suspect that we have not actually gained any new insights into Crisis Management from the report. Indeed we must not let the completely understandable desire to see someone now accept responsibility for the tragedy obscure the fact that, in common with other such incidents, the disaster arose from the complex interaction of many factors and not just the avoidable mistakes of a few individuals. Recognising this simple truth gives us the best chance of preventing similar disasters in the future.