Rehashing failed police claims about Hillsborough is not free speech. It is cruel and wrong

or families of the 97 people unlawfully killed at Hillsborough it is yet another traumatic blow that the Bar Standards Board (BSB) has cleared Jonathan Goldberg QC of misconduct over his inflammatory little speeches about the disaster that he made last year. During the decades since they lost their loved ones owing to the gross negligence of South Yorkshire police families have been forced to fight relentless police lies and cover-ups about the cause of the disaster, and many legal letdowns.

But contemplating Goldberg’s repetition of the original 1989 police case, that the victims, Liverpool supporters themselves, were to blame for the disaster, and the BSB’s self-important, tin-eared exoneration, it is striking how forcefully the families did succeed in establishing the truth. It is increasingly important now, given the disturbing impulse of some football fans to disrespect the 97, the incalculable human suffering, and subject Liverpool supporters to hateful chanting.

Goldberg made his comments when his client Peter Metcalf, South Yorkshire police’s solicitor in 1989, was acquitted by a judge’s direction of perverting the course of public justice for advising that police officers’ accounts of the disaster be amended. Outside the court, then in a BBC radio interview, Goldberg portrayed the acquittal of Metcalf and two former police officers as a finding that there was no cover-up, and said Liverpool supporters’ behaviour on the day had been “perfectly appalling”.

But Metcalf’s acquittal was based on a somewhat narrow ruling by the judge, Mr Justice William Davis, much criticised by families. Davis dismissed the prosecution mainly on the basis that Lord Justice Taylor’s official inquiry, to which the amended statements were sent, was not a course of public justice. But Davis stated that, had the Taylor inquiry been a course of public justice, Metcalf would have had “a case to answer”, in relation to four officers’ statements.

These involved removing evidence that, at previous Hillsborough matches, police officers closed a tunnel leading to the Leppings Lane terrace when the central “pens” were full. At the 1989 FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest, Ch Supt David Duckenfield, in charge of his first match at Hillsborough, did not close off that tunnel. He had failed to manage access for 24,000 Liverpool supporters through the bottleneck, hazardous approach to just 23 Leppings Lane turnstiles, and a compacted crush built up there. At 2:52pm Duckenfield ordered a wide exit gate to be opened and allowed 2,000 people through together. Most headed down the open tunnel, and the 97 men, women and children were killed in the resulting crush. Hundreds more people suffered injuries, including brain damage from loss of oxygen.

On the 33rd anniversary this year David Hughes, 17 when his father Eric, 42, died at Hillsborough, made public the damage to his mental health caused by these subsequent years of police lies, the families’ having to fight them, and the endless legal proceedings which constantly revisit and replay the horrific details. So even having to restate the truth, because somebody resurrected the lies or some football fans disgraced themselves, puts families through it yet again.

Duckenfield himself, notoriously, started the lies even while the disaster was continuing, falsely saying supporters had forced the gate that he had opened. That detail was soon withdrawn but South Yorkshire police embraced the substance of that myth, denying their own failures and seeking to blame the victims.

In the decades of proceedings the police case was disbelieved in the most senior arenas. Taylor rejected it in his official inquiry report of August 1989 and severely criticised the police for advancing it. Nevertheless the force tried it again at the first inquest, in 1990-91, of Dr Stefan Popper, the local Sheffield coroner. Popper decided on the day at Hillsborough, after conversations with police officers, that supporters drinking might be a factor, and he ordered blood samples to be taken and tested for alcohol – from all the victims, even the young children. That is a violation that still causes profound outrage.

Popper’s inquest, and its verdict of accidental death, was a miscarriage of justice that devoured families’ lives for 21 years before they finally saw it quashed in 2012. Doing so, the Lord Chief Justice, Igor Judge, said of the police case: “Notwithstanding its falsity the tendency to blame the fans was disappointingly tenacious and it lingered on for many years.”

At the new, 2014-16 inquests, under the Human Rights Act, the families had “exceptional funding” for their own lawyers for the first time and they demolished the police case. The jury determined that the 97 were unlawfully killed owing to gross negligence manslaughter by Duckenfield. The police advanced their allegations again, and officers were questioned on their statements in exhaustive detail. Video of the scenes outside was played repeatedly, showing how early people arrived, how they conducted themselves, and that congestion built up at the too-few turnstiles from 2:15pm. Asked the question directly, the jury found that the police case was not borne out by the evidence and determined that no behaviour of Liverpool supporters contributed to the disaster.

It was another ordeal for the families when the same discredited allegations were nevertheless raised again at Duckenfield’s 2019 prosecution for gross negligence manslaughter, where he was acquitted. The torture of the legal system, apparently approved by the BSB, is that hard-won truths are not preserved; everything is up for grabs again in the next adversarial process. But the inquest verdict is more concrete: unlawful killing is the stated cause of death on official certificates of 97 people. Nobody has challenged it.

So when Goldberg strode out of court after Metcalf’s acquittal, he might have been expected not to trample on that; to restrict his comments, if he had to make any, to Davis’s ruling. Instead he said the Liverpool fans had caused “a riot” at Hillsborough, and he repeated the falsity that the people who came through the gate crushed those who had arrived in the pens early. The terrace’s dangerous condition was such that 30 of those who died had themselves come through the exit gate.

Goldberg said afterwards that he was not disrespecting the inquest, nor repeating or endorsing the police narrative as true. But the BSB cleared Goldberg on the basis that he was entitled to do that anyway, as a matter of free speech. They decided to opine on the disaster themselves, saying the BSB panel had reviewed the past proceedings and police statements and decided that “a reasonable person” acting “in good faith” could still form the view that Goldberg expressed.

The BSB’s position appears to occupy a huge irony. Step out of their self-regulating bubble into a modern football stadium, where fans can now drink far more around matches than they ever did in the basic facilities of the 1980s. Some fans for whom football is a vehicle for poisonous tribalism perpetuate in toxic chants the original police lies and their dissemination by the Sun. By lending legitimacy to old, discredited accusations of misbehaviour, the BSB appears to have aligned itself with those who misbehave now.

Ten more years have passed since the Lord Chief Justice said the false police case was “disappointingly tenacious”. Everybody should know better by now.

About Paul Ponting 55 Articles
Active campaigner and part-time journalist targetting Police Corruption and Misconduct

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