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We shouldn't let Chief Constable Bettison off the hook on Hillsborough just because he's retiring

Our sportswriter, who scooped the country on the Hillsborough cover-up, explores the critical role played by one of the original police inquiry team

The only problem with Norman Bettison’s decision to retire as West Yorkshire Police Chief Constable, at a date and on grounds of his own choosing, is that it raises the prospect of the investigation into his role in the events following the Hillsborough Disaster being pursued with a little less vigour.

Precisely what that role was now stands as one of the major unanswered questions about the 1989 tragedy. Government and the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) must pick up the threads and follow them unceasingly.

Mr Bettison has been playing down his involvement in the events of that April Saturday ever since he was appointed Chief Constable of Merseyside Police, in 1998. His application did not contain so much as a passing reference to the Disaster. But the name ‘Bettison’ did not go unrecognized among those who had already been fighting for nine years for the justice which would take until 2012 to arrive. Home Secretary Jack Straw, who approved Mr Bettison’s appointment, criticized the local councillors who cleared it, for failing to read their briefing papers. But they were blameless. A briefing note on all candidates, prepared by the nine-person police authority appointment panel, included a cursory mention in one of 12 bullet points to Mr Bettison’s role as a member of “a small inquiry team reporting to the Chief Constable [of South Yorkshire Police] on the Hillsborough incident.”

All of this is detailed in Prof Phil Scraton’s essential book Hillsborough: The Truth though the fullest  sense of how disingenuous Mr Bettison’s application to the Merseyside force really was has emerged in documents released by last month’s Hillsborough Independent Panel. They reveal Mr Bettison’s full role in the South Yorkshire force’s attempts to get its narrative right and present itself in a more generous light.

Mr Bettison’s name appears 24 times in the Independent Panel’s report and its footnotes. There are 159 documents in the Panel archive which allude to him.  But in few places is the significance of his role greater than in the typewritten minutes of an all-day meeting between the South Yorkshire Police Federation and the late Conservative MP Michael Shersby in October 1989 – six months after the disaster and shortly after the force had been heavily censured by the interim Lord Justice Taylor Report. The minutes of the gathering - convened to help Mr Shersby present the South Yorkshire case in parliament - can be read here.

They record how the then Chief Inspector Bettison of South Yorkshire’s “Hillsborough Inquiry Team” led a 29-minute video presentation in the morning session to create a better understanding of the Disaster. Then the disjointed minutes of the afternoon session record Mr Bettison describing to his audience how officers’ statements were amended – the process of “review and alteration” which lies at the heart of the South Yorkshire Police cover up. He told the officers present and the MP that “you have an opportunity to present more balance to the [Taylor] Report: fit those paragraphs much more in context. Removal of certain items of evidence that were presented to the Hillsborough Inquiry Team. For example, [a comment about] Liverpool fans that ‘they were all animals’ [and other] matters of conjecture and opinion were removed from those statements. Officers who were aggrieved were asked to let me.” This very important document makes Mr Bettison complicit in “review and alteration.” In early November that year, he took his video presentation on the road, to an invited group of 40-plus MPs.

He pops up at other significant junctures, too. He is listed as one of five officers, led by a Chief Superintendent Wain, who gathered evidence soon after Hillsborough, in a way which ran contrary to police training policy that events should be recorded in officers’ pocket books. He provided a full report to the South Yorkshire’s Deputy Chief Constable, outlining preparations for a court case to recover contributions to damages from Sheffield Wednesday FC, stadium engineers and the local council.

The picture became clearer last month but it is not yet complete. Mr Bettison says he welcomes a full IPCC investigation. That should apply as much to a senior officer still  in post as to one who will be 57 when he retires, next March, on a full pension.