“This court is not a court of morals,” said Jonathan Goldberg QC, the barrister for Peter Metcalf, one of the accused. “This court is not a court of common decency.”
The case against Peter Metcalf, the former South Yorkshire Police solicitor, ex-chief superintendent Donald Denton and retired detective chief inspector Alan Foster collapsed on Wednesday. The trio were charged with changing the statements of officers on duty at Sheffield Wednesday’s stadium on 15 April, 1989, when 96 Liverpool supporters were killed in a crush during the FA Cup semi-final against Nottingham Forest.
The longest inquest in British history ended five years ago with a verdict that the victims were unlawfully killed. The inquest laid out in detail the mistakes of the South Yorkshire force that led to the disaster.
In the aftermath, senior police figures began a concerted effort to shift the blame onto the fans. This involved doctoring the statements of officers on duty to remove any criticism of the senior commanders and reinforce the idea that supporters were the catalyst for the horror that unfolded on the Leppings Lane terrace. The details of the cover-up operation were revealed by the Hillsborough Independent Panel (HIP) nine years ago. The HIP trawled through more than 450,000 documents, some of which showed the full extent of the police’s deception.
The trial collapsed not because Metcalf, Denton and Foster were vindicated by a jury. The rewritten statements were produced for the original inquiry into the disaster, conducted by Lord Justice Taylor in 1989. Mr Justice William Davis, presiding over the trial in Salford, directed the jury that the Taylor inquiry was “not the course of public justice”. Effectively, the actions of the trio have not been scrutinised.
The discharge of Metcalf, Denton and Foster completes another phase of the Hillsborough saga. Two years ago, David Duckenfield, the match commander whose decision to open a gate and allow supporters into the ground without showing their tickets, was acquitted of manslaughter. The only person found guilty of a charge pertaining to the deaths of 96 people is Graham Mackrell, the former secretary of Sheffield Wednesday, who was convicted of failing to ensure there were enough turnstiles to cope with the crowd. He was fined £6,500.
This is not the end of the campaign for justice. A vast wealth of information was revealed by the HIP which contains shocking detail of the South Yorkshire police’s methods and the lengths that the force went to in a bid to protect its reputation. Campaigners have been unable to release these documents for fear they could prejudice the criminal trials. Now that they are over they will reach the public domain.
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.
Many people across the country are bored with the topic of Hillsborough. In a political climate when lies have been normalised there will be barely any shock that public servants could change the narrative of a disaster instead of carrying out their duty. Yet the failings of 1989 and the subsequent dissembling echo down the years. Some of the institutional problems that led to avoidable fatalities at the Manchester bombing four years ago were distressingly similar to those at Hillsborough. Had the truth been pursued 32 years ago the emergency services might have been better equipped to deal with the carnage at the Ariana Grande concert.
And the bigger question is this: is what has happened right? Is this the sort of behaviour that is acceptable in public life? Maybe it is time for the court of common decency. None of the families of the Hillsborough dead, the survivors and those who have fought for justice alongside them is expecting a shred of decency from the authorities.