Socialist Worker

Top cop Bettison 'tried to concoct a story of drunken fans' at Hillsborough

by Sadie Robinson
Issue No. 2452

Memorial to those who died at Hillsborough

Memorial to those who died at Hillsborough (Picture: Edmund N Gall)


A former chief inspector was part of an internal police group tasked with blaming football fans for the Hillsborough disaster, a court has heard.

Some 96 Liverpool fans died as a result of the 1989 disaster. John Barry and Mark Ellaby gave evidence to fresh inquests into their deaths last week.

They were on a part time business course with then chief inspector Norman Bettison at the time of the disaster.

John Barry described being in a pub with Bettison. He told the court, “Norman said, ‘I’ve been asked by my senior officers to pull together the South Yorkshire Police (SYP) evidence for the inquiry and we’re going to try and concoct a story that all of the Liverpool fans were drunk and that we were afraid they were going to break down the gates so we decided to open them.”

John said that Bettison may have “felt it was a feather in his cap and an indication of how well he was doing in his job”.

He said he thought Bettison made his comments sometime in May. Paul Greaney representing the Police Federation said that Bettison “didn’t attend a single class during May and June”.

Peter Wilcock QC, representing 75 families, pointed out that “there is no documentary evidence” as to whether Bettison attended or not.

Mark Ellaby described a separate conversation involving Bettison and other students a few weeks after the disaster. He told the court, “I remember Mr Bettison saying that he’d been seconded to an internal team in South Yorkshire Police who were tasked with making sure that South Yorkshire Police bore no blame for the Hillsborough disaster and it was all the fault of the drunken Liverpool supporters.”

Impression 

He added, “I got the impression that he saw it as a positive career advancement”.

Sir Norman Bettison began giving evidence to the inquests on Thursday of last week. He denied John and Mark’s accounts. Bettison said he was involved in a conversation with other students about the disaster but said, “I did not express any view about the cause of the disaster”.

Bettison confirmed he was part of a team that gathered information about the disaster and prepared the SYP proof of evidence for the 1989-90 Taylor inquiry. He said the aim was “to provide suitable material for the lawyers to present a case on behalf of the force”.

The court was shown a fax dated 3 July 1989 which Bettison sent to SYP barrister Mr Woodward. Bettison said it included some of his “musings” about policing at Hillsborough.

This included the point, “Overwhelmed by late and joint arrival of supporters, many of whom were determined to undermine the police operation that existed”.

The note set out criticisms of the police that were difficult to counter. They included the delay in police realising problems with crowd build-up outside Leppings Lane.

It also said, “No steps were taken to gather additional information; to make plans for the intake of the 2,000 supporters; to communicate the intention to 20 other police officers and club officials”.

The note went on, “No attempt was made to monitor the movement of the fans inside the ground. No plan was made for systematic opening of gates (‘open the gates’ appeared to have been a panic reaction).”

Bettison said he took on tasks given to him by more senior officers. “I was a servant of many masters,” he said.

He was promoted to superintendent in October 1989. Bettison agreed that a superintendent would be “rather a senior person to be just a link in the chain”.

Bettison said he wasn’t involved in amending officers’ statements. The court was shown a fax from Bettison to SYP solicitor Peter Metcalf dated 7 August 1989. It attached the statement of officer Robin Herold and said, “I have recommended the following amendments”.

He said this referred to “prompts” he had given as Herold read his statement.

Behalf 

Mr Hough on behalf of the coroner asked Bettison about a meeting on 3 October 1989 at SYP Police Federation headquarters. Tory MP Michael Shersby was present and Bettison presented a video to the meeting.

Hough asked if Bettison might have referred to the crowd as being “massively uncooperative”. Bettison replied, “I can’t recall”.

A number of officers at the meeting made derogatory comments about fans. Bettison denied that they were made in the presence of an MP to help advance a position in parliament.

The court was shown a report written by Bettison that recorded a meeting in the House of Commons with 12 MPs in early November. It said that a parliamentary debate on the Taylor inquiry had been postponed.

It went on, “At least two Conservative MPs expressed disappointment that the debate was not more imminent as they believed the passage of time will diminish the impact of their ‘promised’ attack upon the findings of the interim report.”

Bettison said he was given the task of looking for evidence that focused on fans’ drinking or misbehaviour. He agreed that SYP was looking to put forward witnesses who would be “likely to describe large numbers of ticketless fans or fans behaving in a drunken way”.

He said did not think this was wrong “per se.”

Bettison was asked about a statement he made in the wake of the Independent Panel Report into Hillsborough in 2012.

It said, “Taylor was right in saying that the disaster was caused mainly through a lack of police control. 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.”

Bettison expressed “regret” for the statement because it was wrong to say it “at that time”. He added that it “was a summary of my honestly held beliefs”.

Bettison was due to continue giving evidence as Socialist Worker went to press.


Letters shown in court 

John Mervyn Jones gave evidence to the inquests last week. He was assistant chief constable of West Midlands Police (WMP) at the time of the Hillsborough disaster.

WMP investigated South Yorkshire Police (SYP) in the wake of the disaster.

Jones agreed that he had a “plan” with SYP chief constable Peter Wright that unamended statements wouldn’t be used during the Taylor inquiry.

He told the court that he “never thought” to ask Wright more about the process of vetting statements.

The court was shown a letter sent by Jones to government legal body Treasury Solicitors dated 9 June 1989. It included statements from senior officers about Everton fans’ behaviour at another semi-final match on the day of the Hillsborough disaster.

The letter said, “I had not previously experienced dealing with supporters in such great number who had consumed so much alcohol. The accounts that I have read on Liverpool supporters’ behaviour at Hillsborough show some remarkable coincidences which may indicate some Liverpool characteristic.”

Jones denied that he sent the letter after a request from SYP.

Rajiv Menon QC asked Jones about a memo written by chief inspector Ross. It described an anonymous SYP officer phoning WMP to complain about amendments made to their statement.

The memo said that “he and other officers were very disenchanted” with the vetting process. It said Ross responded by saying there was an “accepted procedure” that statements were vetted to remove anything that could be “embarrassing or detrimental” to SYP.

Understood

Jones told the court Ross was “saying something there which was not the policy as I understood it”. But he didn’t discuss this with Ross. Jones denied that WMP had a “lack of impartiality” in relation to SYP.

Peter Metcalf, SYP’s solicitor in the wake of the disaster, also gave evidence. The solicitors edited SYP’s proof of evidence before it was submitted to the Taylor inquiry.

The editing removed the only two references to the closure of the tunnel to pens 3 and 4. Metcalf told the court that these weren’t relevant as he was told they referred to matches on a different scale to the semi-final.

Metcalf sent a letter to SYP deputy chief constable Peter Hayes in 1990 asking for four officers to review their evidence. The evidence said police had responsibility for monitoring numbers of fans in the pens at the Leppings Lane end of the ground.

He denied he was “attempting to pervert the course of justice”.

Metcalf confirmed that solicitors reviewed statements mindful that they could be used in future criminal proceedings against officers. He denied that this amounted to “trying to protect the force at all costs”.

The court was shown a letter written by Metcalf to the insurers. It said that SYP “have been contacting other police forces asking for comments about the behaviour of Liverpool fans arriving without tickets for all-ticket matches.”

Michael Mansfield QC asked Metcalf, “Why on earth were South Yorkshire Police with your knowledge and consent going about enquiries like this?”

Metcalf replied, “I think that is a very good point. Perhaps I should have said, ‘Well, I’m not sure you should be doing this’, and I don’t think I did.”


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