Hillsborough: What Exactly Is Sir Norman Bettison In Trouble For?
October 29, 2012
by Martin Odoni
There has been a lot of excitement yet again over the last week or so on what is fast becoming an almost monotonously-active front – the Sordid-Revelations-About-The-Hillsborough-Disaster front. On Monday, the findings of the Report of The Hillsborough Independent Panel, published 12th September, were debated in the House of Commons. It was certainly a very lively debate, with some impressively passionate speeches, for instance from Andy Burnham, Alison McGovern, Alec Shelbrooke, Stephen Mosley, and Steve Rotheram. But probably the most eyebrow-raising moment of the whole evening was delivered by Maria Eagle, Merseyside MP for Garston & Halewood. She dramatically announced that she is in contact with a survivor of the Hillsborough Disaster called John Barry, who was willing to testify under oath that in the weeks after the Disaster, he was told that the South Yorkshire Police were rigging a false story blaming supporters for the Disaster as being drunk and ticketless. The man he says blurted this information to him was a police officer called Norman Bettison. Up until a few days ago, Sir Norman Bettison was Chief Constable of the West Yorkshire Police – he resigned two days after Eagle’s announcement. At the time of the Hillsborough Disaster in 1989, he was a middle-ranking officer in the South Yorkshire Police.
Eagle quoted a letter, written by Barry in 1998 to a solicitor called Ann Adlington, in which Bettison was accused of boasting to Barry about his role in helping to smear the Liverpool supporters who had been at Hillsborough. Bettison is quoted as saying, “We are trying to concoct a story that all the Liverpool fans were drunk and we were afraid that they were going to break down the gates so we decided to open them.”
It needs to be made clear before I say anything further that unambiguous evidence that Bettison was knowingly involved in the cover-up has yet to be found and assessed*; he has always maintained that he knew nothing of it at the time. If the putative testimony of John Barry can be corroborated, it will be the first solid evidence against Bettison that has been uncovered to date. In truth, while there is much reason to be suspicious of him, as I shall outline below, Bettison’s precise role in the machinations of Hillsborough is somewhat obscure – in keeping, it is tempting to say, with almost everything the South Yorkshire Police were doing at the time. The principle reason there is so much hostility to him is less what he was doing then, more what happened later when he was promoted to Chief Constable in 1998, and in a chapter of astounding general insensitivity, he was appointed to replace Jim Sharples as head of the Merseyside Police force. It was well-understood in Liverpool that Bettison had been with the South Yorkshire Police in 1989, and there was considerable anger in the local press when his appointment was made public. A few months before the appointment, the aforementioned Maria Eagle had delivered another noteworthy speech in Parliament that claimed that in the weeks after the Disaster, the South Yorkshire force had set up a six-officer ‘black propaganda’ unit exclusively committed to smearing the Liverpool supporters who were at Hillsborough. Now, the Merseyside media repeated her claim that Bettison was a key member of that unit. Bettison has always insisted that Eagle got it wrong.
Was she wrong? Well, sort of.
It is true that Bettison was appointed to a special unit within the South Yorkshire force, to do work relating to the investigations into Hillsborough. This was known as the ‘Wain Group’, as it was headed up by a Chief Superintendent Terry Wain. Whether it was specifically set up to be a ‘black propaganda’ unit has been very difficult to pin down though, and the six-officer unit that Eagle referred to appears to have been a different team established during the Coroner’s Inquests in 1990.
So yes, Eagle may have confused a couple of aspects, and so technically Bettison is correct to say that she got it wrong. But only over circumstantial details. As the Hillsborough Independent Panel concluded when they released their Report last month, the Wain Group was largely responsible for the fictitious version of the Disaster’s genesis that became dominant in the British media, regardless of whether that was the task it was set up to do. It is unclear whether Bettison himself directly contributed to that fiction, but it is awfully apparent that he was working very closely with those who were.
In this light, it is hardly surprising that there was such an irate response in Liverpool to his appointment to the Merseyside top job in 1998. But Bettison himself remained defiant, insisting he had never had anything to do with the smear campaign, and that he was not even aware that it was happening. He had attended the FA Cup Semi-Final at which the Disaster unfolded, but only as a spectator, thus clearing him of any possible charges of incompetence or negligence over the day itself. He has also stated on more than one occasion that his role in the subsequent investigations was only ‘peripheral’, and that the unit he had been assigned to only had two duties; to assist the West Midlands Police (who were the force assigned – inexplicably given their own sadly-chequered history of grotesque misconduct and corruption – to conduct the investigation into the South Yorkshire force’s handling of the Disaster) in their enquiries, including submission of South Yorkshire’s evidence to them, and to monitor the progress of the Taylor Inquiry – later of the Coroner’s Inquests as well.
The difficulty with his story is that, firstly, the role of a liaison between a force under investigation and the force doing the investigating can hardly be described as ‘peripheral’. And secondly, he appears to have avoided mention of the fact that several officers of the Wain Group had signatures on memos explicitly relating to the practise of the review and alteration of statements, before their submission to the Taylor Inquiry. Quite clearly, he was working very closely (again!) with officers who were heavily-implicated in evidence-tampering. Furthermore, a letter written by Peter Metcalf, a solicitor acting for the South Yorkshire force in 1989, to the Stuart-Smith ‘Scrutiny’ in 1997, cites Bettison as the minute-taker of a meeting held just two days after the Disaster, at which the Chief Constable Peter Wright gave the instruction to take hand-written ‘personal recollections’ from the officers who had been on duty, and to have them edited into formal statements.
To reiterate, there is no memo or document so far uncovered that firmly implicates Bettison in the shabby actions that the South Yorkshire Police indulged in after Hillsborough, but there are an awful lot of indications that make it very, very difficult to give him the benefit of the doubt. In fairness to him, he raised a good point last week when responding to Maria Eagle’s revelation in the House Of Commons; if he was taking part in a bid to cover up Police failures, why would he blab about it to a passing acquaintance like John Barry? That is, at first glance, a very good question, and it perhaps raises a reasonable doubt over how plausible Barry’s expected testimony will be.
But here is the remarkable aspect; in some ways it is tempting to take Bettison at his word over accusations of collusion, but not because his innocence would exonerate him. On the contrary, it would damn him just as much as his complicity. For what good can it possibly say of Bettison, for him to have been so close to the corrupt processes that were in action, to have been minuting meetings that strategised how to perform these processes, to have been working day-to-day on the same unit with the officers overseeing these processes, and to have so much of the tampered evidence passing through his own hands before it was handed over to the West Midlands Police, and yet somehow not to have twigged on at any stage to the possibility that there was something shifty going on?
Very simply, if he is not the bent copper we suspect him to be**, he must be the most phenomenally stupid police officer to rise to the position of a Chief Constable in British history. Stupidity rather than corruption is good for Bettison on a practical level, as it will keep his handsome pension rights intact, but it will not do his posterity any favours.
He has already done great damage to that himself, with a number of bewilderingly crass and ill-judged public remarks. He famously responded to the Independent Panel’s Report with a bizarre attempt to accept blame on the South Yorkshire Police’s behalf, and to accept that the Liverpool supporters were absolved, but done with a completely needless, if mild, swipe at the victims. During the selection process that brought him to Merseyside in 1998, when he was asked what incident he most wished to forget from his career, he answered that he had an embarrassing fall on his first day on duty. When later asked whether the Hillsborough Disaster was not a greater regret, he answered, “Nothing about Hillsborough embarrasses me.” Given how stupid he is effectively claiming to have been, something about it should embarrass him very deeply, but what else is noticeable about this remark is the flippant insensitivity of it. Apparently, in Bettison’s world, regrets are not measured by degree of tragedy, but by degree of embarrassment.
So going back to the question he asked last week – about why he would blab about a cover-up he was helping out with to a passing acquaintance – while it is a good question, it is not terribly difficult to suggest a credible answer. He appears to have an unattractive, insensitive characteristic, one of unthinking, loose-lipped crassness. The loose lips are all-important here. For all some people need do to lose all sense of discretion is to get a few drinks into them. And interestingly enough, Barry did say in his letter to Adlington that he and Bettison were ‘in a pub after an evening class’ when the beans were spilt.
An officer uses false accusations of drunkenness to smear the innocent, and is then brought down by the indiscretion brought on by his own very real drop-too-many?
It may not have been that way of course. But it would be deliciously ironic if it were, would it not?
* EDIT 23/10/2013: This document recently analysed in the Hillsborough Archive could well qualify as unambiguous evidence of Bettison’s involvement in the cover-up. It shows that in July 1990, during the preparations for the Coroner’s Inquests, Bettison held meetings with a number of other officers to discuss their witness statements, and potentially to press them to change their content. At the very least, this rather contradicts Bettison’s defiant insistence on the 13th of September 2012 that he “never altered a statement, nor asked for one to be altered”.
And once again, this does make it very difficult to believe Bettison when he claims that he knew nothing of the cover-up.
** There is a long list of other scandalous whispers surrounding Bettison, mainly from his time in charge of the West Yorkshire Police. Which of the stories are true and which of the stories are tall is not easy to tell, but there is no doubt at all about the authenticity of at least one of them; I recommend putting ‘Operation Douglas’ in Google if you want to read a particularly hair-raising example of protracted police corruption, all of which happened under Bettison’s stewardship. The final judgement of the Supreme Court, published in response to a formal investigation into ‘Douglas’, itemises sleazy details that will make many a face turn bright white.
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