'Embarrassed? Nothing about Hillsborough embarrasses me': What controversial police chief told Merseyside councillors

The disgraced officer, who has quit after claims he smeared Liverpool fans in the aftermath of the disaster, told the police authority the most awkward moment of his career was falling over on his first day as a constable

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The Independent Online

Disgraced police chief Sir Norman Bettison infuriated Merseyside councillors, it emerged this weekend, when he told them the episode in his career he would most like to forget was not the Hillsborough disaster, but falling over on his first day as a constable.

Sir Norman, who resigned last week as chief constable of West Yorkshire, told an interview panel in October 1998, when he was applying for the top post at Merseyside Police, that the incident he would most like to forget was "that fall on my first day in uniform".

The following month, during an "informal meeting" with all members of the police authority, he was challenged over why he had not used the opportunity to express regret for the Hillsborough disaster. He insisted instead: "Nothing about Hillsborough embarrasses me." The exchange came only months after he had been named as a member of a South Yorkshire Police unit set up to "deflect blame" away from senior officers in the months following the crush that killed 96 Liverpool fans at the FA Cup semi-final in April 1989.

Relatives of Hillsborough victims, and the MP who first revealed Sir Norman's role in the aftermath of the disaster, condemned the revelation yesterday, but said it was entirely in line with his refusal to accept any responsibility for the behaviour of South Yorkshire Police after Hillsborough.

The Hillsborough Independent Panel reported last month that the force had amended scores of witness statements to remove criticism of the police, in an attempt to shift blame on to the fans. In Sir Norman's resignation statement last week, he said that an inquiry into his role after Hillsborough was "a distraction" to the West Yorkshire force.

Sir Norman's appointment to head policing across the Liverpool area only nine years after Hillsborough sparked huge protests from victims' relatives and MPs, who complained that the decision was "insensitive to say the least".

Six months earlier, Liverpool MP Maria Eagle had told the House of Commons that Sir Norman was part of a South Yorkshire team set up to orchestrate "a black propaganda campaign which aimed to deflect the blame for what had happened on to anyone other than themselves". He has always denied this.

At least four councillors on the nine-strong appointments panel subsequently claimed they had been given no idea of Sir Norman's Hillsborough connections before they rubber-stamped his appointment in October 1998. Three later resigned. Sir Norman's application form, submitted while he was assistant chief constable at South Yorkshire, referred to his policing experience only from October 1989, six months after Hillsborough.

Minutes of an "informal meeting" between Sir Norman and the full police authority on 2 November 1989, released by the Hillsborough Independent Inquiry, show that councillor Frank Prendergast queried the new chief constable on the answer he had given to the interview question about "the incident you would most like to forget".

Mr Prendergast said: "I cannot understand how your Hillsborough experience could not have been touched on in your answer."

Sir Norman replied: "I considered [the question] to relate to my proudest achievement and my most embarrassing incident as a police officer. I did not interpret it to mean the most traumatic. The embarrassing moment that flashed in my mind was that fall on my first day in uniform.

"Nothing about Hillsborough embarrasses me. I didn't think of Hillsborough when the question was posed, I still believe it to be tangential. Humour was an approach that I adopted to that part of the question."

Mr Prendergast added: "I find it hard to believe that a major catastrophe was not the issue you would most wish to forget."

Phil Hammond, whose 14-year-old son Philip was one of the youngest to die at Hillsborough, said yesterday: "Well that's Norman Bettison all over. He doesn't think; he just ploughs ahead.

"The day he came down to the police authority he was just all smiles, as though nothing had happened. He should have been prosecuted. He needs to pay for what he has done wrong."

Ms Eagle said: "This is in line with Bettison's attitude towards Hillsborough. His application was very cleverly written, and did not make any reference either to him being at the ground on the day or his involvement afterwards."

Sir Norman's resignation came two days after Ms Eagle accused him in Parliament of boasting about making up false stories to blame Liverpool supporters for the Hillsborough disaster while he was serving with South Yorkshire police.

The Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC), which is undertaking two investigations into Sir Norman, issued a statement saying: "Retirement or resignation does not prevent criminal prosecution should the investigation identify criminal offences, including misconduct in a public office."