In the long-ago days before Covid-19 lockdowns, when we made regular visits to our family in Sheffield, we drove into the city past the Hillsborough Stadium, the haunting home-ground of Sheffield Wednesday – scene of the UK’s worst football disaster. On a sunny afternoon in April 1989, 96 Liverpool football supporters who had arrived at the stadium to watch an FA Cup semi-final match against Nottingham Forest were crushed to death, penned like farm animals into the steel cages that were considered an appropriate way to contain ‘football hooligans’. The first inquest in 1991 found the 96 deaths to have been ‘accidental’; twenty-seven years after the disaster, a second inquest, held after an indefatigable campaign by the bereaved families, found that they had been unlawfully killed as a result of grossly negligent failures by the police; last week, another five years later, the latest, but one hopes not the last, chapter in this shameful saga was written when a judge found that the last of those charged with any kind of responsibility for what happened had no case to answer. So, if they happen to be football supporters, 96 people can be unlawfully killed but nobody can be held responsible.
Ten years after Hillsborough, Professor Phil Scraton published his definitive account of the tragedy, Hillsborough: The Truth, (Mainstream Publishing Projects, 1999), whose Preface tells us: ‘It is a story of how those in authority seek to cover their tracks to avoid blame and responsibility. It is a story of how the ‘law’ fails to provide appropriate means of discovery and redress for those who suffer through institutionalised neglect and personal negligence. It is a story of how ordinary people can be subjected to the insensitivity and hostility of agencies which place their professional priorities ahead of the personal needs and collective rights of the bereaved and survivors.’
The survivors of the bereaved families will have been extremely surprised, and deeply disappointed, to discover that the two retired senior police officers who had overseen the doctoring of police statements to eliminate any criticism of those in charge of the match, and the solicitor who advised them to do the doctoring, had no case to answer. It had been abundantly clear as early as 1990, when Lord Taylor published his report following a public inquiry, that the police statements had been amended to ensure that all blame for the disaster was laid at the door of the Liverpool supporters. Not only was it claimed that they were all drunk and forced their way into the stadium, but the police fed lies to the tabloids, telling them that inebriated Liverpudlians had staggered around urinating on policemen trying to resuscitate the dying victims. The Sun relished and published the lies, and has been boycotted in Liverpool ever since – as it should have been everywhere else in the country. The police deception first revealed by the Taylor Report was further revealed in painstaking detail in 2012 by the Hillsborough Independent Panel (HIP) which, as Tony Evans put it, ‘trawled through more than 450,000 documents, some of which showed the full extent of the police’s deception.’*
So, if there was no question whatever that the police had doctored their statements, and the trial had heard evidence to that effect, how could it be that the accused had no case to answer where perverting the course of justice was concerned? The answer beggars belief, and demonstrates if anything ever did that, as George Chapman is said to have first put it in 1654, ‘the law is an ass’. The three men could not have been perverting the course of justice because, it was held, the statements were amended for Lord Taylor’s public inquiry and as one ’expert witness, Sir Robert Francis QC, told the jury, there was no legal duty of candour for police at a public inquiry.’ Lizzie Dearden explained further in Thursday’s Independent: ‘Mr Justice William Davis ruled that amending the statements of police officers who were on duty at the FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest was not captured by the offence of perverting the course of justice …. because the amended statements were intended for a public inquiry into safety at sports grounds led by Lord Justice Taylor.’ So the judge instructed the jury to acquit all three of the defendants because it is fine for the police to tell lies to public inquiries: they aren’t judicial proceedings, the police don’t have to give their testimony on oath and it is apparently acceptable for them to tell whatever lies they like.**
Tony Evans writes: ‘None of those involved in the quest for truth are surprised at the outcome in Salford. After the HIP’s report was released nine years ago, prime minister David Cameron apologised for the “double injustice” suffered by the families and survivors. Cameron was sympathetic to the Hillsborough cause, as was his successor, Theresa May. Both felt there needed to be a reckoning for those who failed in their duty. The political momentum evaporated when Boris Johnson replaced May.’ That will be the Boris Johnson who wrote in The Spectator in 2004 about: ‘Liverpool’s failure to acknowledge even to this day the part played in the disaster by the drunken fans at the back of the crowd who mindlessly tried to fight their way into the ground that Saturday afternoon.’
The collapse of the trial allowed Jonathan Goldberg QC, who had represented the accused solicitor Metcalf, to declare “There was no cover-up at Hillsborough,” to refer to the successive investigations as a “witch hunt”, and to go on to repeat the lies told by the police 32 years ago as though they hadn’t been disproved 31 years ago: ‘Supporters caused a riot that led to the gate having to be opened, that unfortunately let the people in and crushed to death the innocents as they were – complete innocents – who were at the front of the pens, who had arrived early and were not drunk and were behaving perfectly well.’*** Goldberg did, however, manage to hit the nail on the head when, in summing up his case for the defence, he asserted: “This court is not a court of morals. This court is not a court of common decency.”
Nobody would expect morals or common decency where Boris Johnson is concerned, and with our prime minister setting the scene it would appear that morals and common decency are going to remain in short supply where the bereaved families of the victims of the South Yorkshire Police’s gross negligence at Hillsborough are concerned. The words of the anthem that has kept their campaign going for 32 years are going to need to keep them going still further: ‘Walk on, walk on, with hope in your heart, and you’ll never walk alone.’