Hillsborough: Meet A Silly Old Dear

May 21, 2013

by Martin Odoni

In the end, the latest edition of the BBC’s top investigative journalism programme, Panorama, did prove to be somewhat interesting on Monday night. Now Hillsborough – How They Buried The Truth was not exactly illuminating, as there was very little information to take from it that could not be had from a dozen other sources, most of them probably over ten years older. Indeed that makes the programme all-the-more unimpressive, as much of its information has been easily accessible for so long, and yet it took until eight months after the release of the Report of the Hillsborough Independent Panel for the documentary to be made. Call me smug if you like, but my overall reaction was, I could have told you all this, BBC, and I wasn’t even there! Where have you been for the last twenty-four years? Yes, there was some new video footage from the day of the Hillsborough Disaster that had previously been long-buried, which was useful, but otherwise it was largely quite a generic re-tread of familiar details.

This is not to say that it was not harrowing or angering to revisit the horrors of April 1989 once more, merely that it felt more like the trauma was being renewed again to little positive advantage.

One aspect of the programme was very memorable though, for all the wrong reasons, and that was an interview with Lord Geoffrey Dear. For those not familiar with the long-term aftermath of the Hillsborough Disaster, ‘Baron Dear of Willersey’ was, from 1985 to 1990, not yet a peer but the Chief Constable of the West Midlands Police force. In 1989, his force was appointed to run an investigation into the role of the South Yorkshire Police in the Disaster, in support of the Inquiry led by Lord Justice Peter Taylor.

As Dear talked to the BBC’s Peter Marshall, he discussed the bizarre decision to allow the South Yorkshire Police, the force in charge of security at Hillsborough on the day of the Disaster, in effect to gather all Police evidence that would be presented for Taylor’s perusal, instead of the West Midlands Police gathering it for them. This decision paved the way for the South Yorkshire force to take witness statements from their own officers, and to vet and edit them at their own discretion before they were submitted to the Taylor Inquiry. The West Midlands Police had therefore, in effect, decided to allow the South Yorkshire Police to investigate itself.

When Marshall asked whether the right approach for an investigating force to take would have been to handle such an important process directly, Dear’s response was to imply that it was an easy thing to say with “the wisdom of twenty-twenty hindsight.” He also stated that one has to trust a Police force to tell the truth of what had happened, even when that truth might be detrimental to it.

It is no overstatement to suggest that, when I heard him say all this, I was absolutely gob-smacked. And that is quite an unwelcome sensation on this subject. I had thought after the release of the Independent Panel’s Report last Autumn, and the stunning news that forty-one (perhaps even fifty-eight) of the victims still had the potential to survive past the ‘cut-off time’ imposed by the Coroner’s Inquest, that there could be nothing left hidden in the history of the Hillsborough Disaster that could shock me anymore. But it seems I was still wrong. We can see from Dear’s incredibly blasé remarks that, if the Disaster itself was in large part a result of establishment complacency, the cover-up that followed was no less. And complacency of a type you would not see anywhere else, not even from a teacher trying to discipline a pupil simply for not doing his homework.

Listening to Dear, it sounds like it never crossed his mind that an investigation should not be carried out by the force that is under investigation. For him to call the suggestion a product of “Twenty-twenty hindsight” makes him sound like he’s either bone-idle or a complete idiot. Or both. The classic combination of the stuffed-shirt, in fact.

Now, the notion that self-investigation by the accused is a bad idea is not some new-fangled, modernist attitude that was only invented some time after Dear retired in the early-1990’s. The whole reason why we have had things like law courts for so many centuries is precisely because we’ve known for all that time that self-investigation is a bad idea. Indeed, it is one of the reasons why we have the Police at all – because we know that as a rule, when someone might have broken the law, we cannot rely on him or her just to own up and try to make amends.

It should have been obvious to Dear and his associates from the moment they read the preliminary summaries of the Disaster that they would have to take a rigorous, hands-on approach. These summaries would have included the critical information that the match commander, who committed the key mistake of not closing access to enclosures when they were full, had had no experience of policing a football game since the late-1970’s.

Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield’s appointment to the role by the senior officers in South Yorkshire was therefore one of the most bewildering acts of unthinking stupidity in the history of the British Police. So naturally it would not have been a matter that those same senior officers would have wanted investigations to look at too closely. Therefore, the last thing you would want to do is to let the South Yorkshire Police control the investigations themselves.

So of course, the West Midlands Police let them do precisely that. Which in turn must go down as one of the other most astonishing acts of unthinking stupidity in the history of the British Police. Incredibly, it seems that, during the Taylor Inquiry, Dear never became suspicious of the statement-vetting process, even after he had stumbled onto the reality that statements had been altered. He never asked, not once, to check any of the statements in their original forms to make sure that no important information was being cut from them. (Which of course it was. See https://thegreatcritique.wordpress.com/2012/11/11/hillsborough-changing-statements/ for more on this subject.)

On Panorama, Geoffrey Dear came across as one of the worst modern British stereotypes – the complacent, ineffectual public servant. A procedurally-literate man in a suit, with a job-for-life, and a disinclination to look too closely at anything untoward on the Establishment side, for fear that exposing one scandal might expose dozens of others. Think of all the difficult work that could lead to! With his unskeptical attitude of, “We must take our chaps’ word for it, dontcha know?”, I would class him as the living embodiment of a character called Sir Desmond Glazebrook, from Yes, Prime Minister. (Use Google if you are unaware of him.) Accepting the idea of the South Yorkshire Police investigating themselves was akin to asking Nick Leeson to investigate corruption at Barings Bank. Come to that, Dr. Crippin or Harold Shipman would have loved to have practised their ‘unique’ brands of medicine under this fool’s jurisdiction; –

I say, Harold, we’ve noticed rather a lot of your patients keep… well, how can I put this? They keep… you know… dying, wot?”

“Do they? Well, don’t let it worry you, Geoff, I’ll look into it for you.” 

“Oh, good sport! In your own time though, Harold, no rush.”

Is it any wonder that the West Midlands Police force was so mired in corruption between the 70’s and the 90’s, with casual buffoons like Geoffrey Dear overseeing them?

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You can see the Panorama documentary at www.youtube.com/watch?v=T2L_8sj6Wyc

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Other essays about the Hillsborough Disaster; –

The Myths

Ticketlessness Was Not A Factor, And This Is How We Know

Discursive Types

In Its Correct Historical Context

Did Gate C Even Matter?

The Toppling Gate

The Air Of Shock Should Itself Be Shocking

What Exactly Is Sir Norman Bettison In Trouble For?

Is Thatcher Guilty? And If So, What Of?

More On Thatcher – That Quote That Never Goes Away

Whittle’s Claim

Digging The Dirt

More On That Panorama Documentary

Lateness Caused The Disaster? Are You Serious? What Lateness There Was Saved Lives

Pleeeeeeease Stop Obsessing Over Norman Bleedin’ Bettison

After A Year The Sun’s Apology Is Still Not Accepted – And Nor Should It Be

The Institutional Guilt Lies Not Only With The Police

Where Was I?

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