Fresh efforts to throw blame for the Hillsborough disaster back at fans must be rejected in the wake of news that police forces have agreed to pay compensation to victims and their families
After the last criminal trial over Hillsborough collapsed last week, the news that South Yorkshire and West Midlands police forces have agreed to pay compensation to 601 people is positive news. “[Police] actions on the day of the disaster tragically led to lives being lost and many being injured [and] the force’s subsequent failings also caused huge distress, suffering and pain, both to the victims and their families,” Lauren Poultney, the acting Chief Constable of the South Yorkshire force said.
The families of the 96 people who died at the FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest on 15 April 1989 will benefit from the civil claim, as will many who survived the crush on the Leppings Lane. The agreement was reached in April but could not be announced until after the completion of last week’s trial.
A statement from Saunders Law, the lead solicitors in the group litigation, was stark. “The claims related only to damage caused by the cover-up and not the disaster itself.” The deflection of blame by the police and more than three decades of finger-pointing at supporters has caused huge amounts of mental anguish for everyone connected with the campaign for justice. The compensation for this suffering is paltry – the basic payment for survivors is in the region of £15,000. It is not much for 32 years of pain.
The indignities will not end here. On Thursday The Spectator published an article by Chris Daw, QC, headlined “There was no Hillsborough ‘cover-up’”. The right-wing magazine, as every Liverpool fan knows, has a dishonourable record on the subject. In 2004, when Boris Johnson was the editor, it ran a leader column that bemoaned: “Liverpool’s failure to acknowledge, even to this day, the part played in the disaster by drunken fans at the back of the crowd who mindlessly tried to fight their way into the ground that Saturday afternoon.” It went on: “The police became a convenient scapegoat, and the Sun newspaper a whipping-boy for daring, albeit in a tasteless fashion, to hint at the wider causes of the incident.”
Well, not every Liverpool supporter. Daw, who was leading counsel for one of the retired South Yorkshire officers cleared last week of charges of perverting the course of justice, lays down his credentials in the third paragraph. “I have been a lifelong Liverpool fan and was a season ticket holder for years,” he wrote. “I was not at the fateful semi-final … [but] The case was very close to home for me.”
Not quite as close to home as the families of the dead or those who witnessed the carnage.
Everyone understands that the case against Daw’s client, retired chief superintendent Donald Denton, was thrown out on a technicality. Denton, ex-detective chief inspector Alan Foster and former force solicitor Peter Metcalf, were accused of altering police statements. Because these statements were presented to Lord Justice Taylor’s 1989 inquiry which was not conducted under oath, the judge ruled there were no charges to answer.
The verdict has led to demands for a ‘Hillsborough law’ where policemen and public servants would be obliged to tell the truth. There are moves under way to create a statutory duty of candour.
Daw contends in his piece that although the men did amend the accounts of junior officers, it was merely “to submit purely factual statements… rather than the emotive and highly personal notes officers made immediately after the event as a form of ‘catharsis’”.
Daw makes everything sound normal. He should know it is not.
At the second Hillsborough inquests that began in 2014 and ran for two years before concluding that the victims were unlawfully killed, Daw cross-examined Sergeant Stephen Thomas, who wrote three paragraphs titled ‘police deployment’ in his original statement. They were removed. Thomas testified, under oath, that officers were told by their superiors not to record the events of the day in their notebooks and agreed this was a “highly unusual request”. Thomas said notebooks were used to detail “relatively concise factual information”.
That was not the only thing that the sergeant found remarkable about police procedure in the aftermath of Hillsborough. Thomas, responding to a question from Daw, said that: “I felt it strange that they should take out the criticism regarding the police deployment, yes.”
There was other information cut out of Thomas’s original statement. In the three paragraphs removed he was critical of the behaviour of Liverpool fans. Jonathan Goldberg, QC, who represented Peter Metcalf, the police solicitor in the most recent trial, argued that criticism of supporters, as well as senior officers, was stripped from the statements and presented this fact as evidence there was no cover-up.
It is true that condemnation of fans was part of the three paragraphs deleted from Thomas’s account but that tells only half the story. Observations about bad behaviour by supporters crop up later in the statement and remained unchanged.
Goldberg’s comments to the BBC in the aftermath of the trial last week generated an angry response. Andy Burnham and Steve Rotherham, the mayors of Greater Manchester and the Liverpool city region respectively, wrote to the Bar Standards Board to complain that the barrister had repeated disproven slurs when he called the conduct of fans outside the Leppings Lane “perfectly appalling”.
The QC’s own chambers distanced themselves from the comments and Goldberg apologised on his website, saying: “My offence lies in not making it clear that I was referring to actual evidence heard at the Metcalf trial, which my client to his credit had cut in 1989. I was not endorsing it.”
The apology may not be enough. Many of Goldberg’s legal colleagues were appalled by his appearance on the BBC. The Bar Standards Board can expect more complaints about his behaviour, this time from big-hitting QCs.
Poultney’s statement was contrite but one survivor said yesterday that he was appalled and upset when he read it. “After all they have put us through over the years,” he said. “They expect people to believe they are sorry.”
It took 27 years and the longest inquest in British history to get to the truth about Hillsborough. The police forces involved – and no one should forget that the West Midlands force changed the statements of survivors and witnesses without their consent – have accepted their culpability grudgingly, fighting every step of the way. To see members of the legal profession promoting a different narrative, one that stretches back to 1989 when it was easy to demonise supporters, is dispiriting.
Hillsborough continues to be at the centre of a culture war. In the wake of Goldberg’s comments and The Spectator piece, the deniers have emerged again on social media, promoting the myths that started within minutes of the disaster occurring 32 years ago when the match commander, David Duckenfield, told the FA chief executive Graham Kelly that fans had forced the gates that he had ordered open himself.
Ordinary people have no doubt: there was a Hillsborough cover-up. By settling the civil suit, they believe the police have made that clear. But the attempts to dissemble, throw the blame back at the fans and rewrite history are beginning anew. Do not be fooled.