by Martin Odoni

So, David Duckenfield, former chief superintendent of the South Yorkshire Police Force, officially ‘gets away with it’. The man whose botched handling of the Hillsborough Disaster of 1989 led to British sport’s greatest tragedy, was today found not guilty of gross negligence/manslaughter, at the end of his re-trial at Preston Crown Court.

I find myself both in a state of shock as the door on justice probably closes forever, and yet also in a state of complete non-surprise. This has now been a thirty-year struggle for justice, accountability, and responsibility, and at every other turning, these boons have never arrived. Why expect any different of this?

That Duckenfield was culpable that dreadful day is beyond sensible doubt. He was the man in charge. He was the man who made the key decisions. If he is not responsible for the horrors of the 15th of April 1989, well, what the blazes was he even doing in the control box at Hillsborough at all?

Yes, I accept that there is considerable blame to spread around, and it was wrong that Duckenfield alone was poised to take all of it. The South Yorkshire Police Force itself must carry considerable blame for appointing him to a role he was so blatantly ill-suited to perform. Officials of the time at Sheffield Wednesday Football Club must carry the can for allowing their stadium to become such a death-trap. The Football Association deserves castigation for choosing a venue for a showpiece occasion apparently without taking safety into account. The local council should face sanctions of some kind for its startling negligence in allowing Hillsborough’s safety certificate to get some eight years, and countless changes to the stadium lay-out, out-of-date.

But none of these outcomes looks very likely to happen on any serious scale. Even the lowly conviction earlier this year of Graham MacKrell, Wednesday’s club secretary in the 1980s, leaves a bad taste in the mouth. Well okay, a fine of £6,500 will not make MacKrell’s old age any more comfortable, I realise that. But it adds up to about £67 per death, which sounds less like justice and more like a feeble gesture. It is also noticeable that the only body to be held responsible at all – Sheffield Wednesday through MacKrell – is the one that is not part of the British state, and that is what is particularly irksome about today’s ruling.

At no stage has the British state wanted to come to terms with itself over Hillsborough. At no stage has it been happy to turn the spotlight on itself, and to face up to how much its reality differs from how it would like to be perceived. State institutions are corrupt, inflexible, intractable, and are always less concerned with justice or truth than they are with protecting their structures. Even when those structures are the very problems that make the state inflexible, it will still protect them, and that desire to keep its organisation as it is is what makes it act corruptly.

In a way, one can argue that there is therefore a good side to Duckenfield getting away with it. I used to warn Hillsborough campaigners not to keep getting fixated on bringing down Norman Bettison, and I still stand by that today. The obsession with the ‘pantomime villain’ led people to miss how the problems that led to Hillsborough and its cover-up were far more deep-rooted and systemic than one ‘bent copper’. And in recent years, that same problem had simply transferred from Bettison to Duckenfield. If Duckenfield had been successfully prosecuted (scapegoated in a way), then many would have accepted that and said, “Right, fine, that’s all over with.” And the British state would have sighed with relief, because all the structural problems that had led to Duckenfield being a high-ranking officer would have remained un-reformed. The structure would have been protected simply by scapegoating one old man who had not been a police officer since the early-1990s anyway. Little of real value would have been sifted from that.

But at the same time, the search for justice has now stretched to over thirty years, and still, the British state seems incapable of holding itself or its servants to account. One conviction – a modest fine –  for an ex-club secretary, is all there is to show for an effort that started way back before Sylvester McCoy had finished his stint as Doctor Who.

That cannot be right. During the riots across England eight years ago, people were being put behind bars for stealing bottles of water. Ninety-six people were crushed to death at Hillsborough, there is a clear, evidence-rich narrative as to how it happened, and who was to blame for it, and yet the only repercussion is one private sector bureaucrat getting a fine. The horrible fear that Hillsborough has often instilled in informed people in Britain is that the state cares more about its own image than it does the health and well-being of its people.

Sent to die by South Yorkshire Police

Screencap from ‘Jimmy McGovern’s Hillsborough‘, in which Ricky Tomlinson leaves us in no doubt as to the real cause of Britain’s worst stadium disaster.

That unease has only been heightened by the fact that, today, the man who was so blatantly and transparently at fault for the Hillsborough Disaster, has walked free, and can now never be tried in connection with the tragedy again.

Nice to feel valued, eh?

The campaigns for justice have not been a failure, let me stress. Just getting the botched Inquest from the early-90s overturned and re-run, before getting a new verdict of Unlawful Killing, was an amazing achievement, and set the straightened record of the tragedy into law. That was a key step towards justice. But subsequent steps have been few, short, and far-between.

The state now accepts that the victims of Hillsborough were unlawfully killed. But, as I pondered a couple of years ago, are we really supposed to be satisfied with that?