Even after 32 years, indignity after indignity is still being heaped on the victims of the Hillsborough disaster. One of the most dispiriting weeks in the entire campaign for justice ended with the mayors of Greater Manchester and the Liverpool city region sending a formal complaint to the Bar Standards Board about the comments made on Wednesday on national radio by a senior barrister about the behaviour of supporters in 1989.
Jonathan Goldberg QC, who acted for one of the defendants in the final criminal trial connected with the deaths of the 96 people who were killed on the Leppings Lane terrace of Sheffield Wednesday’s ground, told the BBC that the behaviour of Liverpool fans was “perfectly appalling.”
Hours after the trial of two former South Yorkshire policemen and the force’s retired solicitor on charges of perverting the course of justice collapsed, Goldberg repeated slurs that were shown to have no substance almost a decade ago.
The barrister said 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.”
Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester and Steve Rotherham, his Liverpool city region counterpart, have written to Mark Neale, the director general of the Bar Standards Board, asking whether Goldberg’s comments “are consistent with him being a member of the bar.” The letter demands a retraction and apology. The barrister’s statement caused considerable anguish for families and survivors.
The Hillsborough Independent Panel produced an exhaustive report nine years ago that dismissed claims that fans behaved in this manner. The panel’s conclusions were endorsed by the longest inquest in British history which was completed in 2016 and found the dead were unlawfully killed and that there was no evidence to suggest the conduct of supporters contributed to the deaths.
In the aftermath of Goldberg’s unchallenged assertion on BBC Five Live, Ian Byrne, the Labour MP for Liverpool’s West Derby constituency, wrote a letter co-signed by 22 MPs and members of the House of Lords to the BBC Director General.
The complaint said that the fact “a Queen’s Counsel can go on the BBC and make such false and inaccurate statements and face no challenge whatsoever is astounding, concerning and completely unacceptable.”
Byrne, a Hillsborough survivor, said today that hearing the allegations was shocking and painful. “It was like a knife to the heart,” he said. “We thought that page had been turned and those lies had been nailed for good.”
Goldberg was speaking after Peter Metcalf, his client, retired chief superintendent Donald Denton and former deputy chief inspector Alan Foster walked free from court. The men were alleged to have amended the statements of 68 West Yorkshire policemen to shift the blame away from the force to supporters.
The judge ruled that as the statements were prepared for Lord Justice Taylor’s inquiry into the disaster in 1989, where evidence was not given under oath, that it was not in the “course of public justice” and the men had no case to answer.
The verdict has caused rage beyond Merseyside and led to renewed calls for a “Hillsborough Law,” which would require public servants and the authorities to tell the truth in court proceedings, inquiries and investigations. A “statutory duty of candour” is especially important, Byrne said, in the present environment, where there is expected to be a public inquiry into the handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Trust in the police should be hardwired into the national mentality,” Byrne said. “But it has been undermined by the behaviour of the authorities over Hillsborough.
“The only way you can repair trust is by ensuring that policemen are obliged to tell the truth. The only positive thing that can come out of Hillsborough is a law ensuring this kind of conduct never happens again. It is much bigger than Liverpool and football.”
Burnham introduced a bill to Parliament four years ago when he was an MP but, despite cross-bench support, Boris Johnson’s government has shown no political will to enact the legislation. David Cameron and Theresa May were both keen to see accountability over Hillsborough. Cameron apologised in the House of Commons for the treatment of families and survivors and May was sympathetic to the cause. The present Prime Minister has no interest. While editor of The Spectator, Johnson allowed a columnist to produce similar misinformation to that pedalled by Goldberg.
The criminal phase of the Hillsborough proceedings is now over but the legal battles continue. The civil actions by the families of the dead and the survivors still have to run their course. David Duckenfield, the match commander who ordered the opening of the gates at the Leppings Lane end that allowed fans to enter the ground without showing their tickets, was found not guilty of gross negligence manslaughter two years ago. No one connected with the South Yorkshire force will ever be held responsibility for Hillsborough.
The events of this week have left the relatives of those killed disconsolate. “It’s the worst I’ve felt in 32 years,” one family member said on Wednesday. “Even on the day itself.”
Burnham and Rotherham have written to the bar because Goldberg made things worse when there was no need. His client, while not exonerated, was found not guilty on a technicality. Had Metcalf undergone the scrutiny endured by the supporters, he may not have been so lucky.
The allegations of fan misbehaviour were proven untrue a long time ago. Their renewed airing piles on the pain for those who have suffered the trauma of Hillsborough.