Former Merseyside chief constable Sir Norman Bettison toured TV and radio studios this week exonerating himself from any wrongdoing in the disaster. Photograph: Peter Byrne/PA
Sir Norman Bettison, a chief inspector in the South Yorkshire police at the time of the Hillsborough disaster, has been derided this week for publishing a book, Hillsborough Untold, in which he once again places himself at the centre of the story and poses as a victim of unfair criticism. Bereaved families, who were put through a 27-year legal nightmare fighting police lies before this year’s verdict that their 96 loved ones were unlawfully killed, have attacked Bettison’s timing and labelled him a narcissist.
Yet as Bettison toured TV and radio studios this week exonerating himself from any wrongdoing, his purpose in writing this book has become evident. He is seeking to deny the truth, yet again.
In the book, Bettison confirms that he is a suspect in the huge criminal investigation currently being conducted by the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) into the disaster and the South Yorkshire force’s alleged cover-up after it. The IPCC has said that by the turn of the year, it will send files to the Crown Prosecution Service, which will consider possible criminal charges of perjury and perverting the course of justice by South Yorkshire police officers.
Bettison actually suggests on page 319 of his book, in a chapter entitled “In the Shadow of Salem” that explicitly portrays himself as the victim of a witch hunt, that this is his effort to influence the CPS. He clearly intends it to help him avoid any criminal charges.
Bettison argues that he himself did nothing to obscure the truth or falsely blame Liverpool supporters for the disaster. But incredibly, given the evidence that has emerged under the pressure of relentless campaigning, he also argues that the force itself, and its chief constable Peter Wright, orchestrated no corporate effort to blame supporters.
Bettison’s role in the force’s alleged cover-up was never volunteered by him, but it has been dug out over the many years in which the families fought for the truth. In 1999, after he applied to be chief constable of Merseyside police without including his Hillsborough work on the record of his career, Bettison, when challenged about it, described his involvement as “peripheral”. In a BBC Newsnight interview on Wednesday, he accepted that was untrue. He was exposed by the Labour MP Maria Eagle in 1998 for involvement in the notorious process of changing police statements, which he presents again in his book as wholly innocent and administrative, save for isolated errors of judgment. It was only in 2012, after the disclosure of South Yorkshire police documents and the report by the Hillsborough Independent Panel (HIP), that the families learned that after Lord Justice Taylor’s 1989 report, Bettison had compiled a video and taken it to show MPs in parliament. His own memo to Wright notes that two Conservative MPs promised him they would “attack” Taylor’s report, which concluded the disaster was predominantly the police’s fault. Some MPs who have seen the video describe it as propaganda for the force, which blamed supporters again, but Bettison says in his book it was produced for “a better understanding of what happened”.
Also after the publication of the HIP report, 23 years after the unlawful killings, the families learned of the “Wain report”, the South Yorkshire police’s draft submission to the Taylor inquiry, which blamed supporters and did not admit police failings, not even that the officer in command, Ch Supt David Duckenfield, was inexperienced at Hillsborough. At the inquests, the officer responsible, former Ch Supt Terry Wain, said much of the narrative was written by Bettison. The force’s former solicitor, Peter Metcalf, had ultimately decided not to submit the narrative to Taylor because, he told the inquests, it was “too one-sided”. Yet in the book, Bettison presents his work as a compilation of “objective” police testimony, produced as an internal briefing.
But in exonerating Wright and the force as a whole, Bettison is flying in the face of what has been established over these agonising years for the families, including the two-year ordeal of the new inquests, the longest case ever heard by a jury in British legal history. It was drawn out because the South Yorkshire police and their former officers again, despite all that was known, repeated their blame of the victims, which the families’ lawyers had to challenge day after day. Yet Bettison nevertheless claims there was no corporate effort to blame supporters, that the foul lies about Liverpool supporters were the briefings of a few junior officers, and that Wright “did not commission or command a black propaganda exercise after Hillsborough”.
This is despite internal documents exposing the corporate effort, which was anyway conducted in public. Minutes show that on the very morning after the disaster, Wright exonerated his officers from any responsibility, said the force had to prepare “a rock solid story” and that the “animalistic” behaviour of supporters would emerge in the evidence. Bettison argues there was no cover up because Taylor came to the right conclusion, but that was in spite of the case South Yorkshire police made to blame supporters, which Taylor himself criticised in his report. Missing from Bettison’s pleadings is that while Wright accepted Taylor’s findings in public, within the force’s corridors efforts were redoubled to avoid blame at the first inquest.
Bettison acknowledged in his evidence at the new inquests that he did a search for key words in witness statements relating to fans’ behaviour, which included “drunk, unruly, pushing, shoving, fighting, violent, ticketless”.
He was also given the job of searching the police computer to find witnesses who had given the most emphatic evidence alleging Liverpool supporters were misbehaving, drunk or had no tickets. His case then was that he was merely a “functionary”, and played no leadership role in the orchestration of this case.
At the first inquest, the police slurs against supporters were repeated even more forcefully, and a verdict of accidental death returned in 1991. That denial of justice was what led families to the awful, heroic fight for 25 more years before they secured the unlawful killing verdicts this year.
The IPCC has now said it has no legal grounds for injuncting Bettison’s manifesto, because in narrow terms it does not prejudice ongoing inquiries. That does not mean, however, that it is accurate, and it is designed to influence the CPS. Bettison’s piece of work does further damage to the precious term abused so dreadfully in the tragic history of Hillsborough: the truth.