Details of a spin operation by the government in the late 1990s, set up to suppress media criticism and pressure from campaigners angry at its decision not to hold a second public inquiry into Hillsborough, emerged this weekend. It became clear that senior Home Office civil servants had agreed a plan to "neutralise the local media" before the publication of Lord Justice Stuart-Smith's much criticised 1998 report in which the judge concluded that there was no case for a new inquiry. They also briefed Liverpool MPs to ensure they were "on message" ahead of Jack Straw's announcement on Stuart-Smith's report. Ninety-six Liverpool fans died in the stadium disaster during the 1989 FA Cup semi-final.
Memos prepared for senior ministers indicated that the then Home Office minister George Howarth, the defence minister Peter Kilfoyle, and the Labour whip Jane Kennedy – all Liverpool MPs – agreed at a meeting to try to ensure "all local MPs were on message (ie, would support the government's position once the report is published)".
The memos were unearthed by the Hillsborough Independent Panel, whose report was released earlier this month. It concluded that football fans were wrongly blamed for the disaster, in part to deflect blame from police failures.
The first public inquiry into the disaster, under Lord Justice Taylor, reported in 1990. Seven years later, Jack Straw, then home secretary, ordered an investigation into whether there should be another inquiry in the light of new evidence. Lord Justice Stuart-Smith's review determined in 1998 that there was insufficient evidence to warrant another inquiry. His conclusions were greeted with fury, despite the spin operation that had been put in place behind the scenes.
Details of that operation came to light this weekend among hundreds of thousands of documents published earlier this month by the Hillsborough Independent Panel, which found evidence of a widespread cover-up by emergency services and that no Liverpool fans were responsible for the disaster.
Victims' families reacted angrily yesterday to the latest revelations. Sheila Coleman, of the Hillsborough Justice Campaign, said: "This is a great example of how the establishment closes ranks," she said. "Advice given to Mr Straw that a line needed to be drawn under Hillsborough further points to the Stuart-Smith report being an exercise in going through the motions. To state that it would be doing a disservice to families to hold out the hope of an inquiry is incredible when they had at their finger tips the evidence of cover-up."
All three MPs involved yesterday denied attempting to stage-manage the publication of the Stuart-Smith report. Mr Howarth said: "The terms 'on message' and 'neutralise the local media' were her [the Home Office official's] words and not words we would have used. Our overriding concern was to ensure that the feelings of the families were dealt with respectfully and sensitively."
Ms Kennedy, now Labour's candidate for Merseyside's police commissioner, said: "This wasn't a formal meeting; it was probably a conversation. The language that is attributed [in the memo] is completely alien to anything any of us would have used."
Last week, The Independent on Sunday revealed how Jack Straw had made up his mind within five weeks of coming to power in 1997 that there was no need for a new public inquiry.