Hillsborough: Changing Statements
November 11, 2012
by Martin Odoni
‘Today’s Report finds that a hundred-and-sixty-four statements were significantly amended, and a hundred and sixteen explicitly removed negative comments about the policing operation, including its lack of leadership.’ – David Cameron, UK Prime Minister making a statement to the House Of Commons on September 12th 2012.
‘The police lost a lot of dignity and pride that day. People tried to alter the truth and embellish certain bits and just not admit to certain bits… It was devastating, completely, and you almost feel after that day you were never clean again.’ – Anonymous ex-officer of the South Yorkshire Police, speaking in 1998.
‘If you asked me to sit down and write you a police witness statement as a professional witness, obviously it would be very different to this.’ – The same anonymous ex-officer, speaking to Lord Justice Stuart-Smith in 1997.
Here’s a little riddle. When is tampering with evidence not tampering with evidence? Answer; when the evidence was put together in exactly the fashion you asked for, and then you go and change it anyway.
When the long-awaited Report of The Hillsborough Independent Panel was finally released in mid-September, much that was in it was not really news, but the familiarity of some of it made it no less hideous. The matter of the 3:15pm ‘cut-off’ time at the original Coroner’s Inquest into the Hillsborough Disaster being proven invalid was perhaps the most significant and worrisome discovery. The revelation that as many as forty-one of the victims might still have been saved had the rescue effort by the emergency services been handled correctly was probably the most heartbreaking and tearful. But the detail that the national media seemed to obsess over, such were its James Bond-esque implications, was the foul-smelling scandal of the South Yorkshire Police editing, occasionally re-writing, official witness statements provided by its own officers. It just has such a vivid, conspiracy-thriller overtone that, to our ever-shallow, sensation-ravenous media, it was bound to be the development that drew most attention. Never mind that we had already known most of the details about it for fourteen years…
But beyond the broad description, what exactly do we know of that part of the cover-up? For sure, over one hundred and sixty statements by South Yorkshire Police officers were altered, but what were the mechanics of the process? How ‘wrong’ was this process really? What was the motive for doing it? And was the process illegal?
Some apologists for the South Yorkshire Police – yes even with the release of the Report they still cannot stop trying to push the blame onto the Liverpool supporters – have tried to muster a defence of the practise, of a sort. They point to the claim the Police themselves made to the Lord Justice Stuart-Smith ‘Scrutiny Of Evidence’ in 1997 for what they did, which was that they were trying to remove ‘conjecture’ and ‘opinion’ from what were supposed to be factual accounts, nothing more. Is that claim true?
Well, let’s try to un-shroud the process somewhat and get to the nub of what the South Yorkshire Police actually did.
In the days after the Disaster, every police officer who had been on duty at Hillsborough had been sent away with a pen and an A4 sheet of paper – not an official Criminal Justice form please note – and was given a brief to provide a full account of everything they had seen on the day that had been relevant to the tragedy. These accounts, they were ordered, were to include the feelings, emotions, and personal impressions they had experienced as the calamity struck. In other words, the South Yorkshire Police leadership wanted to have everything in writing, “warts-‘n’-all”. These statements were semi-officially referred to as ‘recollections’.
The aim of this process was unclear to the rank-and-file officers at this stage. Some thought it was some kind of ‘counselling outlet’. To others, it was purely for the police leadership to get a clear, detailed picture of what had happened on the day, upon which to base investigations and to construct the explanation they would give to the Lord Justice Taylor Inquiry. The officers did not imagine for a moment that the ‘recollections’ they were writing would themselves be passed to the Inquiry as well. As a result, the ‘recollections’ as written were quite different from the form official police statements would normally take. They are usually written in flat, functional, almost boring language. Colourless, bare-factual, very literal. Not so with these ‘recollections’. They were full of personal detail, emotional reaction, thoughts on how badly the day had unfolded, opinions on the conduct of individuals – policemen and football supporters – and on inadequacies in procedure.
A few days – in some cases weeks – after submitting their ‘recollections’, the officers would receive back a new sheet of paper, on which there was a word-processed type-up of their statements. An unusual practise, certainly, but nothing untoward in itself. Except for several rather major details; most of the statements were now heavily-annotated, with many entire sentences re-worded or scored out altogether. The force’s solicitors, Hammonds Suddards, had reviewed the ‘recollections’ and begun converting them into formal statements for submission to the Inquiry being conducted by Lord Justice Taylor and the West Midlands Police, without the officers who had written them being given any hint that the accounts were to be used in such a way.
But more than that, much of the content in many of the ‘recollections’ was converted as well. Not just converted from handwritten copperplate into typed copy, but substantially altered in terms of word-selection and overall meaning. Sometimes an odd word here or there was removed, or substituted. Sometimes large blocks of sentences were compacted into a vaguer, more easily-digestible form. Sometimes entire paragraphs were heavily-excised or removed altogether. (As an example, one officer submitted the following in his ‘recollections’; “People were very aggressive because no information was forthcoming. Nobody seemed to know what was happening and there was total confusion throughout the rear of the stand.” In the official statement, this entire paragraph had been shorn of all context when it was swallowed up into the opening words, “People were very aggressive.”)
The officers were now being ‘asked’ to study the edits applied to the ‘recollections’, to agree to them, and then when they were re-typed in their final form, to put their signatures on them. Many officers were uneasy enough just to learn that they had been made to write the ‘recollections’ under false pretences in the first place. But now being asked to change them before submission came as a real shock. Excerpts from South Yorkshire Police files show that some officers who had reservations about carrying out such an instruction were ‘helped’ with it i.e. leaned on, by their superiors.
As mentioned above, when Lord Justice Murray Stuart-Smith conducted a formal ‘Scrutiny of Evidence’ relating to the Hillsborough Disaster in 1997-98, he did look into the issue of amending of statements, but in fact, Lord Justice Taylor had uncovered the practise as well during his Inquiry in 1989; it appears that one officer’s original, unedited ‘recollections’ had been passed to the Inquiry alongside the altered version (perhaps proving the old adage that one should never confuse skulduggery with competence). When pressed on why these edits had been performed, the explanation given by Chief Superintendent Donald Denton was that they were purely about removing conjecture, comment, and opinion, and to make sure that the ‘recollections’ were kept ‘factual’ in their content.
This claim is impossible to uphold, for two reasons; –
Firstly, given that the brief the officers were given when they were initially instructed to write the ‘recollections’ was that they should include an account of “their fears, feelings and observations”, it was quite explicit that the officers were not only free, but were actively commanded, to include as much conjecture, comment and opinion as possible. Why did the senior police give such a brief to their officers, if carrying it out would by its very nature render the end-product inadmissible?
Secondly, and even more insidiously, the simple reality of the statements in their submitted form was that they were still saturated with comment, opinion and conjecture, and that the bare facts only played an intermittent role. What had been removed from them was not all opinion, but only opinion that cast the performance of the police on the day of the Hillsborough Disaster in a poor light. Among what was left in from the ‘recollections’ were still barrel-loads of opinion; that is to say, negative opinion on the supposedly aggressive, disorderly or drunken behaviour of the Liverpool supporters. (As an example of a highly speculative snippet of opinion that went completely untouched by the vetting process, one officer wrote, “Perhaps on reflection [the fans] became animals, fighting for survival in the heavy atmosphere being created by body heat.”) Some of it was even subtly embellished to play up how bad the putative behaviour of some of the crowd was. For instance, one statement originally read, “The general feeling was the fans arrived too late, and a lot of them under the influence of drink, to get into the ground in time for the kick-off.” The first four words were removed during the edit, changing this expression of opinion into a supposed statement of impermeable fact, when, if the process was all it was claimed to be, it would surely have been removed altogether.
Where there was any deletion of criticism of the fans, it was more a change of terminology than of implication, where crude slurs such as ‘rabble’, ‘louts’ or ‘yobs’ were removed, but only to be substituted by more conventionally-acceptable pejoratives such as ‘hooligans’. The actual opinions expressed by such sentences still remained the same after the amendments, and while they sounded less crude, they were still expressions of opinion and nothing more.
The picture the submitted statements painted was of a high-pressure, violent, chaotic, powder-keg scenario created by widescale loutishness and irresponsibility, a scenario that sounded so impossible for the police to control that, if true, it would greatly extenuate their mishandling of the crowd.
Now to analyse this statement-gathering process, it is possible to offer the upper echelons of the police a reluctant, through-gritted-teeth compliment of a sort. It is almost impossible to admire their morals – so far as they had any – but there was a kind of psychological cleverness to the process, one that involved misleading their own rank-and-file officers, with the aim of misleading everyone else. They had tricked (sorry but there is no other word for it) their officers into providing extremely vivid accounts of everything that went badly on the day, including expressions of their own disgust at how poorly-led the police operation was, and how frighteningly the crowd appeared to be behaving. Then, the force’s solicitors simply removed the references to poor policing, while leaving in, sometimes playing up, all references to public disorder, and hey presto! The senior officers of the South Yorkshire Police had successfully created exactly the wildly exaggerated partial picture they wanted for submission to Lord Justice Taylor, one that cast themselves in a helpless ‘we-were-damned-whatever-we-did’ light, and heavily shifting blame onto the victims of the Disaster. All put together in exactly the sort of form they wanted, and without writing it themselves. It was cynical, it was diabolical, it was manipulative, it was corrupt, it was deceitful. But, galling though it is to admit it, it must be conceded that it was clever.
As PC Ken Greenway wrote quite shamelessly in his official comments on the vetting process, “We should not be handing ammunition to our opponents,” (see the Independent Panel document SYP000096870001) which makes it all too obvious what the real purpose was behind the editing of statements.
Where does all this bring us to legally though? The claim that the police were merely removing opinion does not stand up, whatever their apologists want to believe, but as asked at the beginning of this essay, how ‘wrong’ was this process? More specifically, was it actually illegal?
Well, this is probably the scariest lesson for the British Judiciary to take from the Hillsborough Independent Panel’s findings; it was undoubtedly very wrong, highly irregular, and blatantly deceitful – part of a broader attempt (which as a whole was undoubtedly illegal) to conceal and distort the full truth of what happened at Hillsborough – but in isolation, the process of altering statements probably wasn’t illegal. It should be, beyond any doubt in my mind. It should be covered unequivocally by the definition of tampering with evidence, and thus attempting to pervert the course of justice, one of the most serious crimes a police officer can ever be accused of.
Unfortunately, editing of statements to remove opinion is one of those things a police force can do without necessarily being incriminated. While I have outlined why that proviso does not fit the facts in this case, it could still be raised as a defence, and when such a claim is made for it, it is very difficult to prove conclusively otherwise. So long as the meanings are not changed and none of the important details in the statements are cut out, there can be genuinely honest, practical reasons for editing, especially when embarking on an Inquiry into a matter as great as a stadium disaster that caused the deaths of scores of people. The scope of such an Inquiry is bound to be vast, and will take a gruellingly long time even when performed ‘by shorthand’. Such a slow process can constitute a severe delay-of-justice; hence summarised evidence is desirable. So the practise of editing cannot be outlawed entirely.
But the truly frightening point is that there are no real safeguards in place against its abuse; when a force under investigation performs such edits, they are not even under any obligation to inform the investigators of having done it, nor to provide the original versions of the statements unless explicitly demanded.
Since the release of the Hillsborough Independent Panel’s Report, another ugly discovery about the South Yorkshire Police’s activities in the 1980’s has come to light; in October, the BBC uncovered written statements submitted by South Yorkshire officers to the trial of striking miners in the aftermath of the so-called ‘Battle of Orgreave’ of 1984. There has long been great suspicion over the South Yorkshire Police’s handling of evidence during the Miners’ Strikes, and sure enough, on analysis the statements the BBC found showed clear symptoms of mass duplication. Quite simply, many different officers wrote substantially identical statements; often entire paragraphs were found to be verbatim. This strongly suggests that officers had had the accounts dictated to them by their superiors as part of an attempt to distort the real story of how the skirmish at the Orgreave Coking Plant had played out. The distorted version tried to make undeniable police brutality and aggression on the day of the skirmish appear purely defensive. (See http://www.dailymotion.com/video/xukkmm_orgreave-bbc-battle-for-orgreave_news#.UQ7bMfKM5Xk.)
Other recent reports in the media add still further to that revelation; according to the Guardian newspaper, survivors of the Hillsborough Disaster have come forward to reveal that in its aftermath they were bullied by the West Midlands Police into changing their witness statements as well. Given the appalling record of corrupt practises the West Midlands force of the time had – their part in framing up the ‘Birmingham Six’ in 1975 for instance – this discovery is not exactly surprising, but it is all-the-more telling. For a deeply frightening pattern is emerging that simply must be investigated and stamped out; because witness statements are not physical evidence, British ‘justice’ has a bad habit of assuming that it means they are not evidence of any kind at all, that it is not terribly important when they are changed. Hence Lord Justice Stuart-Smith treating the matter with such shameful casualness during his ‘Scrutiny of Evidence’.
Witness statements are less solid than physical evidence, it is true. But that does not stop them being evidence, and it does not make it any less serious, any less of a lie, when they are altered. We now have to ponder, with great unease, how commonplace the practise was, how commonplace it might still be today, and how many convictions of that era and since, which were the work of the South Yorkshire or West Midlands forces, we can be confident were safe.
To change statements, to alter their meaning, is to tamper with evidence, and tampered evidence will always lead away from the truth. This is why it is not accepted in a court.
It seems the British police are not very good at grasping this.
EDIT: 19th June 2013.
The issue touched on above about the South Yorkshire Police not using official Criminal Justice Forms is not, as someone has recently suggested to me in very mocking terms, some minor procedural quibble. It is a very substantial irregularity with a serious implication behind it. Any statement taken down on a proper Criminal Justice form becomes property of the state, and therefore may not be subject to alteration at the whim of any police officer or other agency. When taken on blank sheets of paper instead, they are the property of, if anybody, the police force that initiated the process, and therefore can be changed at their own discretion, without even having to tell anybody that the changes have been made. Hence the decision to avoid using the correct forms was one of the major and most disturbing departures from procedure in the post-Hillsborough investigations, as it gave the South Yorkshire Police the power to do whatever they pleased with the statements.
On that subject, all notes and information taken down by an officer in his official pocket notebook are covered by the same rules; again, the South Yorkshire Police gave instructions in the days after the Disaster that no such notes should be taken, except on blank sheets of paper. This rendered all such information taken the property of the South Yorkshire Police and not of the state, and therefore, again, subject to alteration or censorship at their own discretion, with no external oversight.
In fact, the ban on using official pocket notebooks has become the subject of a recent Freedom Of Information request. See this link; –
Links to sources and other essays relating to Hillsborough; –
http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/1845964950 – in particular, see chapter 10, Sanitising Hillsborough.