Keith Duggan: Families being asked to accept Hillsborough just happened
After 30 years campaigners have been failed yet again but they won’t quit now
David Duckenfield, who is now 75. At the official inquest in 2016, he acknowledged that he had told a “terrible lie” in relation to that gate. He had ordered its opening. It had not been breached by Liverpool fans. Photograph: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
One of the incidental aspects of the harrowing footage of the Hillsborough disaster is that it stands as testimony to the era when the BBC all but owned the big football matches.
Rupert Murdoch’s big idea – Sky Sports – would be launched the following March, changing everything. But the BBC had their big guns on duty for what should have been a mouth-watering FA Cup semi-final clash between Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest and Kenny Dalglish’s Liverpool team.
John Motson was in the commentary box. Jimmy Hill was alongside him. Like every broadcaster in the stadium that afternoon, Motson had to move through a day that was transformed from football to unfolding horror and grief.
At one stage during the broadcast, he switches over to Des Lynam, who was standing in the tunnel waiting to report. This is perhaps 15 minutes after the game has been stopped and the urgent, ad hoc response of the Liverpool fans, desperately trying to help the stricken and dying, is flooding the television screens.
Liverpool fans were indeed blamed in the days and months after Hillsborough
Lynam made a career as the debonair front man of BBC television sport. But this 90 seconds when he is heard and not seen may go down as his most powerful contribution of his career.
“Well John, I have been hearing the points of view of so many Liverpool fans who’ve come past me over the last few minutes,” he begins.
“I’m in the tunnel at the moment and there are people in tears here. And people who don’t understand the situation. There has been no violence as far as the Liverpool fans are concerned. They simply said they got the wrong end of the ground, that there were too many people given tickets for that end of the ground, and furthermore they say that the gates were opened, tickets were not inspected, and too many of their fans were allowed into the ground.
“There are grown men coming by me here in tears. Exhausted, troubled, concerned that they are going to get the blame for this again, the Liverpool fans, when their behaviour has been sound and solid. A lot of people clearly have been hurt. Several have seen them and some are very, very concerned for their friends.”
It is odd to consider, in the wake of Friday’s verdict at Preston Crown Court acquitting David Duckenfield, the chief superintendent in charge that day, of manslaughter, just how closely Lynam’s instinctive observations brushed against the truths for which the Hillsborough families would fight so fiercely for more than 30 years.
Liverpool fans were indeed blamed in the days and months afterwards. The reputation of the club and, by extension, the city, was besmirched. Family members of the 96 people who lost their lives in the Hillsborough disaster waged a slow-burning, inestimably painful and relentlessly dignified campaign for justice which has now gone on for three decades.
RTÉ also broadcast the game live that day. It was easier then: rights were nothing like as expensive and general interest not as intense.
George Hamilton sat alongside John Giles and together they responded with increasing gravity and concern to what was happening in the terrace because for the first couple of minutes, there was just confusion.
Giles had spent a lifetime as a star midfielder in England’s football grounds. Even then he had an instinct for how they worked and, as he spoke, it was with the terrible logic of someone who was able to grasp what was happening more quickly than those in charge.
He wondered why the crowd wasn’t simply directed back through the tunnel entrance to relieve the crush at the front. He made the observation that at big games “ a lot of the kids” tend to go to the front of the terraces to get a better view of their heroes, of the game. And he was worried by that.
One of the most moving responses to the acquittal came from Margie Matthews who said that one man can’t be held as 'a whipping boy for the whole tragedy'
George Hamilton told viewers that the terrace behind the Liverpool goal had filled with people after “there was a gate broken”. On BBC, John Motson would also refer to a gate that “was broken”. So even as the tragedy was still happening, the first piece of crucial misinformation had been delivered to the broadcast booths in the stadium.
The decision to open the gate at the Leppings Lane end remained central to the evidence heard throughout the trial in Preston. At the official inquest in 2016, Mr Duckenfield had acknowledged that he had told a “terrible lie” in relation to that gate. He had ordered its opening. It had not been breached by Liverpool fans.
But the truths established at the inquest were, under the direction of the trial judge, Peter Openshaw, deemed irrelevant. For the purposes of a criminal case, everything was up for debate.
So 30 years later, the Hillsborough families heard the same painful arguments made – that supporters had arrived late that day, that they had been pushing, that they had been drinking. The crown prosecution did not, they feel, press or emphasise what the families believed to be crucial points in determining guilt.
In his summary, Justice Openshaw noted that Duckenfield had “genuinely formed the opinion that the gate had been forced open”. He repeated the chief superintendent’s assertion that while he had supervised big concerts in the jurisdiction, “the atmosphere of those events – and the kind of people attending them – were very different from those attending a semi-final”.
It’s the inference within the throwaway phrase “the kind of people” against which the Hillsborough campaigners have campaigned through the decades, as they moved from childhood or young mother and fatherhood.
They’ve fought against against the insinuation that the victims were, in some way, second-class citizens and that their deaths could be merely be brushed aside as one of those things.
Through dauntless campaigning and persistence, they’ve forced the establishment to not just acknowledge their innocence but to accept, through the 2016 inquest findings, that they were “unlawfully killed”. This acquittal leaves them with the truth still established but with no accountability for those deaths. They’ve been asked to accept that Hillsborough just happened.
David Duckenfield is 75 years old now. He cut a vulnerable figure in court. One of the most moving responses to the acquittal came from Margie Matthews, one of the widowed, who told Sky News that one man can’t be held as “a whipping boy for the whole tragedy”.
Those 96 Liverpool supporters would hardly recognise the game they followed or the stadiums in which it is played if they could see them now
“I don’t hate the man – I feel sorry for him right now ... the age he has got to and he has lived with this for 30 ... I mean, I wouldn’t like to swap his mind, his thoughts, his emotions for anything in the world.”
Given that she lost her husband at Hillsborough, it’s a very humane view. But then human decency, alongside the flaming clarity of purpose and conscience, has kept the Hillsborough campaign going through the decades when it would have been easier just to quit.
What they have always wanted is to have the establishment unequivocally acknowledge that the what happened in Sheffield that day was a slaughter of innocent people; to establish a recognition that their loved ones were failed by the political and judicial system and by the country, and to have some semblance of accountability.
Thirty years is a long time for Liverpool fans to wait to see another league title. Those 96 Liverpool supporters would hardly recognise the game they followed or the stadiums in which it is played if they could see them now. English football has undergone a metamorphosis that may have its origins in that terrible day.
But 30 years is an unconscionable period of time to put their families through an ordeal which would have broken all but the most exceptional spirits. After everything, they’ve been failed again and after everything, they won’t quit now.