Take your time on Hillsborough. No, really

Don't worry about grammatical errors in a police statement. They’ll change it anyway

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This inquiry being held into the Hillsborough disaster is racing along isn’t it? This week it was revealed that just 24 years after it happened, and only one year after the original verdict of accidental death was declared false, the inquiry has already interviewed 1 per cent of the police officers whose original statements were mysteriously altered.

At this rate the whole interviewing process will be done in another 99 years, then after a short break of four or five years for a snack it should reach a verdict sometime in the 23rd century. They would be even quicker, but they’re already conducting an inquiry into the Battle of Waterloo and their conclusions are due any day soon.

To be fair, they’d reached this figure of three interviews by mid-August, so yesterday they were asked if the number had gone up since then, and a spokesman said, “It’s changing on a daily basis so we’re not giving a rolling total.” You might spot, if you’ve a keen detective’s eye, that if they’ve interviewed three people in a year it’s not strictly speaking changing on a daily basis. But obviously they’re keen not to waste time, and if, when they’ve interviewed someone else, they have to fuss about calculating a new rolling total by adding that one to the other three, that could hold them up even more.

Maybe the idea is that as it’s been established the 96 deaths weren’t accidental, that’s pretty much got everything cleared up. It would be so much simpler if we had this attitude with murder trials. Once it’s agreed there’s been a murder, it seems churlish to waste time raking up evidence just for the detail of who exactly did it.

What we knew already was that 164 police statements from the day had been changed before being presented to the first panel, most of them to remove anything negative about police behaviour. What we didn’t know until this week is that this figure is unfair to the police, as it now turns out they altered 238, and they changed the handwritten statements of 90 fans as well.

This is a splendid service that few of us were aware of. Now we no longer have to worry, when we make a police statement, that in the tension of the moment we might make a grammatical error or use clunky prose, as it will all be rearranged by the police later on anyway.

We also knew they conducted a campaign to smear the fans by making up stories about them to the press. In fairness this may have been a misunderstanding, because they informed The Sun that some people looted the dead bodies after the disaster. The Sun printed this on its front page, causing outrage, but to be fair to them it’s turned out to be true. The only detail they got wrong is it wasn’t the Liverpool fans doing it, it was the police, who have admitted to putting the cash they “found” in their funds. Still, waste not want not I suppose.

A much larger sum was claimed by, among others, Norman Bettison, the policeman who’s been named by colleagues as the person allegedly responsible for spreading the stories to the press about the fans looting the dead. He made a claim to the Hillsborough Victims Fund for money to buy an overseas holiday home for officers, stating that as they’d been there on the day they were victims as well. I suppose he had a point, in the same way that the money raised for the family of Madeleine McCann could be claimed by the person who abducted her, on the grounds that his life’s been a right pickle ever since it happened.

A year ago, when the original panel threw out the verdict of accidental deaths, Norman Bettison became a subject of the new inquiry. He says he was made to resign. His estimated pension of a million pounds will remain intact, along with his knighthood. He’s been criticised for this. Perhaps  he’s now trying to gain all the qualifications he needs to become a tin-pot dictator. There are plenty of vacancies springing up and when he goes for the interview he wants a CV that shows he has the skills and brazen front necessary for the job.

Now the new investigation is in the hands of the Independent Police Complaints Commission, which is so independent that it’s run by John Stoddart, whose previous job was chief of police.

One of the reasons they’ve not got far in the last year, they say, is they’ve been recruiting people to conduct the investigation, and many of the people they’ve recruited have been retired policemen. But in these days of self-service payments at supermarkets and self-check-in desks at airports, it’s only natural that we have self-service investigations when 96 people are killed as well.

The last puzzle is that certain newspapers love a good scream about criminal behaviour being treated too lightly in this liberal age. So this story should be perfect for them – a tale of a gang that’s lied, cheated and stolen for 24 years but they’re still free, paid for by the taxpayer and even asking for a free holiday home. I’m sure they’ll put it on their front page soon, but there’s no point in rushing is there.

Twitter: @mrmarksteel

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