The UK’s junior justice minister, Maria Eagle, has said that South Yorkshire police should “come clean” about what she described as a “conspiracy to cover up” the force’s culpability for the Hillsborough Disaster, in which 96 Liverpool supporters died at an FA Cup semi-final 20 years ago today.
Eagle, member of parliament for Liverpool Garston, where three of the bereaved families lived, accused South Yorkshire police in parliament in 1998 of having operated “a black propaganda campaign” to deflect blame for the disaster away from the force and lay it on Liverpool supporters instead.
She based the accusation on the discovery that dozens of statements by junior police officers about the circumstances of the disaster had been amended after being vetted by senior officers.
Eagle named six senior South Yorkshire police officers of the time whose role, she said, was to “orchestrate that campaign.”
One of the officers named was Norman Bettison, who, when he was subsequently appointed chief constable of Merseyside police, denied any role in any such campaign. He said instead that after Hillsborough he worked in a unit whose functions included “making some sense of what happened on the day for the chief constable and his team” and that there was “another unit headed by a detective chief inspector” that was “logging in and logging out the statements.”
Eagle asked publicly who was in that unit and what it was doing, but says she has never received an answer to that question.
“I said there was a black propaganda campaign, involved in a conspiracy to cover up, and I do not retreat from those words at all,” she said. “Lord Justice Taylor saw through it and in his official report he pinned the blame for the disaster firmly on the police. But at the inquest, the police presented that view again, blaming anybody but themselves, and the families felt that it worked.”
“It is still an anguish to the families to know that this process went on and even now the police should come clean, tell us who was in the unit which vetted the statements, what was the unit headed by the DCI [detective chief inspector] doing, who changed the statements, and who supervised the process,” she said. “If that were accompanied by a genuine apology and a human approach, it could go some way to healing the wounds borne by the families.”
The police statements, including those that had been amended, were placed by South Yorkshire police in the House of Commons library after the 1997 judicial scrutiny by Lord Justice Stuart-Smith. He concluded the changing of statements was not a cover-up, although he criticized the deletion of officers’ comments in a small number of statements. Eagle also complains that the documents were “dumped in the library, with no covering letter and no evidence that everything was there.”