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The Hillsborough documents: What we've learned so far

An examination of the report and 450,000 documents released by the Hillsborough Independent Panel has shed new light on the stadium disaster, a discredited scrutiny of evidence, and the conduct of a senior police officer.

A line of Policeman shield some injured fans as they receive treatment at Hillsborough in 1989.
A line of Policeman shield some injured fans as they receive treatment at Hillsborough in 1989.
Image: PA Photos/PA Archive/Press Association Images

IT HAS BEEN just over two weeks since the report of the Hillsborough Independent Panel revealed what has been described in some quarters as the greatest cover-up in British history.

A 395-page report was released on 12 September along with a tranche of 450,000 documents detailing an inadequate emergency response to the Sheffield football stadium disaster which killed 96 Liverpool fans on 15 April 1989 and a police cover-up in its aftermath which shifted the blame on the fans.

The content of the report was shocking and led to Prime Minister David Cameron issuing a full apology to the victims’ families for what he described as the double injustice – the death of their loved ones due to failures of the State and the authorities’ behaviour in the aftermath in smearing those who died.

But as Sheila Coleman from the Hillsborough Justice Campaign wrote for TheJournal.ie last week, the full truth of what happened that day and in its aftermath is still to come. Victims’ families are now pushing for the original inquest verdict of ‘accidental death’ in the case of all 96 who died to be overturned. Criminal and civil prosecutions may also be on the cards but it will be a lengthy process for those who have already waited 23 years for the truth of what happened at Hillsborough.

In the meantime there have been plenty of new revelations emerging from the 450,000 documents that have been poured over by journalists and interested parties in the last fortnight. Here, TheJournal.ie rounds-up some of the revelations so far and identifies a few other interesting snippets from the documents:

Families’ lawyer said they would want their “15 minutes of fame” at inquests

A lawyer representing the families of those who died told South Yorkshire Police (SYP) and the coroner that families would want their “15 minutes of fame” during what turned out to be highly controversial inquests.

Doug Fraser, a member of the Hillsborough Steering Committee, also suggested that the controversial cut-off point of 3.15pm (the point at which the coroner ruled all victims would have been dead, preventing evidence of events beyond this point being heard at the inquests) could actually be nine minutes earlier.

The comments, which were uncovered by the Liverpool Echo, have led to considerable pressure being placed on Fraser to resign as Liverpool’s deputy coroner, a position he has held for the past 12 years.

At various points the documents show him playing down the concerns of families about the nature of the hugely controversial inquests. He even recommended at one point that the inquests – held in Sheffield – should start earlier as “there is one family who would swell the coffers of the local hostelry before they arrived”. He also referred to one family as “hotheads” according to the documentation disclosed earlier this month.

Dr Stefan Popper, coroner for the west district of South Yorkshire, who held the inquests into the death of Liverpool fans at Hillsborough.

Another member of the Hillsborough Steering Committee also sent a letter of praise to the coroner, Dr Stefan Popper, thanking him for his “care and sensitivity” in dealing with  the inquests. However families have and continue to be heavily critical of Dr Popper for both his conduct during the inquest and the imposition of the 3.15pm cut-off point which meant no evidence regarding what transpired to be an inadequate emergency response could be heard.

The Hillsborough Independent Panel’s report disclosed that as many as 41 people could have survived had there been a better response. This week, some victims’ families have been learning whether their loved ones were part of those 41.

The involvement of Norman Bettison in the aftermath

Sir Norman Bettison. Pic: Dave Higgens/PA Wire/Press Association Images

The current chief constable of West Yorkshire Police, Sir Norman Bettison, was an off-duty South Yorkshire Police (SYP) officer at Hillsborough on the day of the disaster and was later part of its internal inquiry into the force’s handling of it.

Following the publication of the report, Bettison said that he had “nothing to hide” about his conduct but enraged families by stating “fans behaviour, to the extent that it was relevant at all, made the job of the police, in the crush outside Leppings Lane turnstiles, harder than it needed to be.” He later issued a further statement apologising for those remarks. He is currently the subject of an investigation by the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC).

The panel’s report and the documents that support it detail the extent of Bettison’s involvement in the whole affair with the Liverpool Echo’s David Bartlett and Paddy Shennan reporting extensively on this in recent days.

In the days following the disaster Bettison was one of a number of officers involved in pulling together evidence for SYP’s case for the forthcoming Taylor Inquiry into the disaster. The conduct of this internal process was notable for the five officers involved being advised by legal counsel that it “may help if we look upon ourselves as “the accused”.” (see pages 187-188 of the Hillsborough Independent Panel report)

The work of these officers culminated in the the Wain Report of which an early version was submitted to the Taylor Inquiry in May 1989 and which placed an emphasis on ticketless fans, the involvement of alcohol and crowd behaviour on the day which the “changed dramatically” as 3pm kick-off approached with the crush outside the Leppings Lane end of the ground “exacerbated by the obvious influx of a large number of Liverpool supporters who did not have at ticket”.

This theory was rejected entirely by the Taylor Inquiry and by the report of the independent panel.

Lord Justice Taylor going through the gate at Hillsborough during his inquiry into the disaster

After the Taylor Inquiry, which heavily criticised police and said that their failure to control the crowd was the primary cause of the disaster, Bettison met with Michael Shersby, an MP supportive of the police’s case, at a meeting of the South Yorkshire Police Federation (the representative body for rank-and-file police officers).

At this meeting Bettison presented a 29-minute video that he had culled from 65 hours of CCTV footage from the day of the disaster and, according to minutes of the meeting, presented commentary which described fans as “massively uncooperative” with the meeting also hearing that fans “all came in the last 20 minutes” (before kick off) and “from licensed premises”. (See pages 359-361) This video was later shown to a group of MPs at the Houses of Parliament.

There is one other notable contribution to the matter from Bettison. The report notes in its footnotes on page 186 that three days after the disaster Lord Justice Taylor visited Sheffield and in conversation with Geoffrey Dear, chief constable of West Midlands Police, (who carried out a now discredited investigation into SYP’s handling of Hillsborough) was heard to say “I suppose you realise that to give this inquiry any credibility we have to apportion the majority of the blame on the police?” to which the chief constable was alleged to have replied “I suppose we do”.

This alleged conversation was recorded by a unnamed junior officer who did not disclose it until almost a year after it occurred following a discussion with Norman Bettison. SYP then asked the Director of Public Prosecutions to investigate the matter but no criminal offence had been committed and Taylor later dismissed it as “nonsense” while Dear said that he could not recall the conversation.

SYP’s attempt to prosecute Taylor – whose report into the disaster was widely welcomed and praised – was taken no further.

Bettison is currently the most senior police officer still in service who was involved with the Hillsborough disaster and his role is now being scrutinised by the IPCC as part of a wider scrutiny of the Panel’s report to determine if any further action needs to be taken.

His role in what Liverpool MP Maria Eagle, under parliamentary privilege, labelled a “black propaganda campaign” has led to calls for his resignation and that he be stripped of his knighthood. Bettison, who was appointed Chief Constable of Merseyside Police in 1998, has said that Eagle’s claims are nonsense. He has at various times offered a robust defence of his role in Hillsborough’s aftermath including in a statement to the Merseyside Police Authority in November 1998.

The discussion about blaming ‘Officer X’ for opening the gate

One of the key decisions which led to the fatal crush at the Leppings Lane end of Hillsborough stadium was the decision to open exit Gate C outside the ground where fans had gathered to gain entrance through the turnstiles before kick off. As an uncomfortable situation developed for supporters and police failed to get control of it, the decision was given by match commander Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield to open Gate C shortly before kick off.

Once this happened, fans went through the gate and directly down the tunnel leading into pens 3 and 4 of the stand where 96 fans were crushed to death. At the same game a year previously the tunnel had been closed off once those central pens were full. But on this occasion the decision to open the gate and not close off the tunnel proved devastating, later described by Lord Justice Taylor as a “blunder of the first magnitude”.

The tunnel leading to the pens where the crush occurred

In the immediate aftermath, Duckenfield told the chief executive of the Football Association, Graham Kelly, that the gate had been forced open by fans, a lie which was repeated by Kelly to the media and led radio, television and newspapers’ initial reporting of the disaster.

In the days that followed it has emerged through documents examined by the Liverpool Echo that the deputy chief constable of South Yorkshire Police, Peter Hayes, discussed with legal counsel, the police authority and its insurers the possibility of pinning the blame for the opening of Gate C on a mystery junior officer.

A record of the meeting quotes Hayes as saying: “Just to clarify that, if it emerges that the opening of the gates at this particular time was clearly significant to the tragedy that occurred, etc, and these two senior officers could say, ‘well I was never asked about the opening of that gate, I never authorised the opening of that gate, I was not there when the gate was opened ….’ and officer ‘X’ appeared who says, ‘well I saw the wall moving, I was terrified and I opened the gate,’ then he might be one of the individuals who might become the Duckenfield/Marshall (another senior officer on duty that day) extension.”

Duckenfield was later the subject of a disciplinary investigation by the force but it was dropped in 1992 when he retired for medical reasons.

The failings of the Stuart-Smith Scrutiny

In 1997, eight years after the disaster, the new Home Secretary Jack Straw sought to establish a judge-led scrutiny of evidence related to the Hillsborough disaster. Before the this ‘scrutiny’ got under way Straw had conveyed his belief to the judge he appointed – Lord Justice Stuart-Smith – that “there was not sufficient evidence to justify a new inquiry“.

Jack Straw announcing a new investigation into the Hillsborough disaster in June 1997

His scepticism was echoed by his Prime Minister Tony Blair who scribbled “Why? What is the point” on a briefing note (see below) informing him of the proposed scrutiny “as a response to public pressure”. This briefing note details the scepticism of one of Blair’s advisers as well:

Stuart-Smith was effectively tasked with determining whether or not there was sufficient evidence for a new public inquiry to be held into the Hillsborough disaster as the families argued. But the documents outline the belief of the government which appointed him that his task was perfunctory and would yield no new evidence.

Stuart-Smith said he was “not enthusiastic but that the case was persuasive” and he “recognised that this would be a sensitive task”. Yet, in October 1997 when he arrived at the Liverpool Maritime Museum to hear evidence from the families he remarked to them: “Have you got a few of your people or are they like the Liverpool fans, turn up at the last minute?”

Later, as the Independent on Sunday recently reported, Stuart-Smith heard evidence from a police constable on duty that fateful day that there was a coordinated cover-up of the police’s failings. PC David Frost told Stuart-Smith that his superiors made “wholesale changes” to the statements by him  in order to “sanitise and protect themselves”.

In documents disclosed by the panel you can see the wholesale crossing out of Frost’s account of the day which ran to 16-pages. By contrast his redacted statement is just six-pages and cuts down on much of his description of what he saw that day. His was one of just 116 statements that were altered.

A portion of PC David Frost’s original statement with lines through it

Frost told Stuart-Smith that in the days after the disaster: “We were taken to the pub by a certain [redacted], who basically said: ‘It’s backs to the wall, boys. We’ve all got to say the same thing.’ We were taken out for a drink by this [redacted] and we were basically told: ‘Look, unless we all get our heads together and straighten it out, there are heads going to roll.’”

Later in evidence Frost recounted how he and other officers were told to submit their statements on plain paper rather than CJA witness paper a move which Frost “considered to be unprecedented”. Despite this Stuart-Smith would later rule that there was no malpractice involved in the altering of police statements and insufficient evidence to warrant a public inquiry as Straw and his government believed was the case when they appointed him.

The panel’s report two weeks ago revealed a cover-up involving over a hundred statements being altered and a media briefing campaign designed to shift blame on the fans for the disaster. On the alteration of police statements, the panel’s report noted that Stuart-Smith “raised concerns about the appropriateness of the process” but “considered there was no evidence of malpractice involved”.

The families would be left to wait another 14 years before the full details of what happened would be exposed.

Accused senior officers told they wouldn’t go to jail before manslaughter trial

Retired police officer Bernard Murray and former police officer David Duckenfield (F) leave Leeds Crown Court during their trial in 2000. Pic: Owen Humphreys/PA Archive/Press Association Images

In 2000, the aforementioned chief superintendent Duckenfield and his deputy Superintendent Bernard Murray were the subject of a private prosecution by the victims’ families through the Hillsborough Family Support Group (HSFG). Accused of manslaughter, the judge at Leeds Crown Court, Anthony Hooper first rejected a defence team application to halt the prosecution.

But he also assured the two accused that if they were to be found guilty of manslaughter they would not go to jail, an assurance that was not disclosed until after the trial but has taken on a new importance in the wake of the panel’s report. The judge told the pair prior to the trial that if they were jailed there would be “considerable risk of serious injury if not death at the hands of those who feel very strongly about Hillsborough”. It was an unprecedented move that legal experts have said is a departure from the impartiality expected of a judge.

In the end Murray was found not guilty while a verdict could not be reached on Duckenfield. Families have always believed that their case against Duckenfield and Murray was hampered by key evidence being ruled inadmissible while they have also alleged that Hooper’s summing-up was biased against a guilty verdict. The panel ‘s report described the assurance that the judge gave the accused pair as “extraordinary”.(see pages 56-58)

Murray has since died while Duckenfield did not give evidence at the trial and has never spoken publicly about his involvement at Hillsborough.

***

These disclosures from the civil manslaughter trial have been known for many years (published in more detail here) but only now come to prominence in the aftermath of the report which led to the type of government apology rarely uttered by a Prime Minister from the dispatch box in the House of Commons.

The revelations from the report and further scrutiny of the documents have arguably done more for the Hillsborough victims and survivors than anything in the past 23 years, over two decades riven with mismanagement, mishandling, deceit, cover-up, lies and neglect.

Further scrutiny of the documents – which you can view on the Hillsborough Independent Panel website – may yield yet more revelations.

Column: The full story of the Hillsborough disaster is still to come

In photos: What happened at Hillsborough on 15 April 1989

More on Hillsborough disaster and the recent report >

About the author:

Hugh O'Connell

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