December 14, 2016
by Martin Odoni
A few years back, Peter Marshall created a Panorama documentary for the BBC about the Hillsborough Disaster, of which I was mildly critical, as it did largely feel like a rather needless retread of familiar, very harrowing details. This week, he released a new documentary on ITV, Hillsborough: Smears, Survivors & The Search For Truth. This one was certainly a more constructive programme, as it focused on comparatively new research and investigations that have been carried out while the rebooted Inquests were in progress. Much of the material Marshall covered I personally was already aware of (because I peripherally observed some of the research), but most of the public are not, so this new programme felt far fresher than the one from 2013. The upshot of the programme therefore is that the Report of The Hillsborough Independent Panel, while remaining enormously significant, is now effectively ‘out-of-date’, as very few of the details Marshall discussed were examined by the Report – perhaps were not even noticed by the Panel – four years ago. So anyone who imagines that the HIP Report is the ultimate position of research into the Disaster is well behind the times.
Aspects of the new documentary I found refreshing were that there was less focus than usually happens on the South Yorkshire Police, more attention than usual was paid to the (too-often-overlooked) misconduct of the West Midlands Police, the much-neglected Hillsborough Justice Campaign was given more recognition than the Hillsborough Families Support Group for a change, and there was more of an ‘outlet’ for traumatised survivors of the Disaster and not only for the bereaved families.
The only detail I want to dwell on for now though is the interview with Ray Lewis. He was the referee for the 1989 FA Cup semi-final at Hillsborough, and was famously the man who blew the whistle and ordered the players to clear the pitch six minutes into the game when fans spilled over from the overcrowded terrace.
Lewis reveals that he gave a verbal statement to Superintendent Barry Mason of the West Midlands Police after the Disaster. During the statement, he described the crowd outside the stadium on the day of the tragedy as ‘mixed’, by which he meant that he saw Liverpool and Nottingham Forest supporters mingling freely, peacefully and in good spirits.
A quarter of a century later, Lewis finally got to see the type-up of his words, and to his consternation, he found that the word mixed had been substituted with the word pissed. An investigator from the Independent Police Complaints Commission discussed the alteration with Lewis, and apparently concluded that it was probably just a typographical error.
Now, as a rule, I tend to subscribe to cock-up theory far more than conspiracy theory, but in this case, I reckon this is a classic IPCC excuse for being too lazy to investigate. To my mind, the odds on the change-of-words being an error are pretty remote.
For one thing, a typing error is usually just a spelling mistake, frequently just getting one letter wrong, by inadvertently hitting a key adjacent to the correct key. For instance, mixes would be a typo for mixed. Moxed would be a typo for mixed. Nixes would be a typo for mixed. But on a standard ‘QWERTY’ keyboard, the letter P is not adjacent to the letter M. Pissed also has more letters than mixed and is therefore a doubtful result of a typographical error
Secondly, if we assume instead that the typist misread what was on the page, it still does not look like they would objectively assume that pissed could be the word Lewis had used. The handwriting, as Lewis himself concedes, was very poor, but even so, from studying pictures of the handwritten document, it is still thoroughly clear that the word Mason wrote down begins with the letter M. Looking at the word in isolation, if I were pushed into saying what word I think it is, I would answer, “It probably says mined“; –
For sure, that would stop the sentence from making the slightest bit of sense, and the typist would have to come up with an alternative word, but it would be a ludicrous leap from there to assume it was pissed. As much as anything else, implying legless drunkenness runs somewhat contrary to the spirit of what Lewis had said earlier in the sentence about the crowd being in good humour.
But thirdly – and this is the clincher for me – is it not just a bit too much of a coincidence that the word the officer chose as a substitute ‘just happened’ to be slang for drunkenness? Of all the possible substitutes the typist could have chosen, and there must be dozens, (s)he ‘just happened’ to choose the one that emphasises the impression of drunk-and-disorderly behaviour, which ‘just happened’ to be the very impression that officers in both West Midlands and South Yorkshire had been trying so very hard to convey?
Not for the first time when discussing the Hillsborough Disaster, I find myself asking the question, “Do the British police really think the public are that stupid?”