Hillsborough: “Wow! Duckenfield’s Apologised!” No Big Deal.

May 11, 2015

by Martin Odoni

As I type, it is the evening of the 11th of March 2015, although it will be a long while yet before anyone gets to read this. The revived Inquests into the causes of the Hillsborough Disaster of 1989 have been in progress for a little under eleven months – nearly twelve if you count the opening day of 31st March 2014, although that day was only used for the appointment of the jury. The last two days have been amongst the most nervously anticipated of the entire proceedings, for the Match Commander at the Hillsborough Stadium on the day of the Disaster, then-Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield of the South Yorkshire Police, has taken to the stand to answer questions about his handling of the police operation that fateful day.

There was a considerable hullabaloo on social media in the later afternoon today, especially on the Twittersphere, after Duckenfield expressed his apologies to the survivors of the Disaster, and the families of its victims, and for his various failures on the day. Most particularly, he apologised for the notorious lie he told to Graham Kelly and Glen Kirton, then of the Football Association, that “Liverpool fans without tickets had forced open an exit gate” in order to get into the stadium without paying. There was some excitement among many Hillsborough campaign-supporters about this apology, as though it were a resounding new development.

Well, I hardly imagine that I can ‘rain on the parade’, given that the current blackout on social media discussion of the Disaster for the duration of the Inquests means I will probably not be able to publish this until long after next Christmas, but I feel there is a record that must be put straight here sooner or later. While I certainly do not feel any impulse actually to defend the man, for the sake of historical accuracy, I do feel compelled to point out that there is nothing new whatever in Duckenfield apologising for his shambolic role at Hillsborough. It is therefore not really fair that his words today are being spoken of in some quarters as the first time he has swallowed his pride. He has unquestionably been evading attempts to hold him fully to account down the years, but he has used the simple words “I’m sorry” before now. In fact, his first apology, even though it was not really directed to the victims or the bereaved families, was made not long after the Disaster itself; the Interim Report into Hillsborough, published by Lord Justice Peter Taylor in August 1989, makes quite explicit on page 50 that Duckenfield had apologised for the lie during cross-examination at the first Inquiry; –

apologyTaylor’s description makes it sound like the apology had to be rather pulled out of Duckenfield like teeth from healthy gums, but fair is fair; Duckenfield did apologise, and long ago.

Indeed, today was not even the first time Duckenfield had apologised during the rebooted Inquest. He apologised, somewhat half-heartedly again it must be said, just yesterday, when acknowledging in rather fudged, rambling terms the failings in the way he led the police operation at Hillsborough. His use of the conditional words ‘If there was a failing’ beforehand perhaps gives the apology a grudging, not-very-magnanimous quality – as though hoping to play on any lingering doubts there might still be that he had failed – but even so, he quite definitely used the words ‘I apologise’.

No, this latest apology is not a big deal in itself. The only aspect that makes it significant is the fact that, for the first time, Duckenfield directed the words quite explicitly towards the families of the victims. That is long, long overdue, as is the fact that this time, unlike during the Taylor Inquiry and the original Coroner’s Inquests, where he was an evasive and unhelpful witness, he has made some kind of effort to offer account for what he did twenty-six years ago. Studying it, the account he gives is at times confused and contradictory, or stands in stark contradiction of what he has said previously. But even so, the account is of far more substance than his previous attempts, and he has at last shown a willingness to acknowledge mistakes and omissions in his conduct, and that he was not the right man to lead the police effort on the day. Whether that will ever be enough for his apologies to be accepted is not for me to decide, but it needs acknowledging that it is far more than he has ever conceded previously.

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