There was a dreary irony about the promotional strap attached to the 2009 version of Dr Phil Scraton’s book Hillsborough, The Truth, proclaiming it as the '20th Anniversary Edition', two decades on from the football stadium disaster. The Truth can be hard to get out.
It had been on sale for a decade by then, was lauded by the writer Jimmy McGovern as "dynamite, a brilliant achievement, a real page turner," good enough to leave The Independent's reviewer in "a fog of anger" and had exposed much of what we have just learned about one of Britain's biggest institutional failings and cover-ups . Yet this book – whose latest edition is up alongside Bob Woodward's works on George W Bush's foreign policy among the finest pieces of investigative storytelling of the past decade – was still minority interest. The problem is that booksellers don’t know where to file it, Scraton says.
He was the first on the list when the former Home Secretary Jacqui Smith went about establishing the nine-strong Hillsborough Independent Panel - for which the Labour MP Andy Burnham paved the way in 2009. A professor of criminology and criminal justice at Queen’s University, Belfast , he was reluctant to lead the Panel and the Bishop of Liverpool James Jones’ role became the necessary figurehead. But Scraton was the force behind the 398-page report published last week, unanimously agreed by the others.
The most significant new material within it are the medical records which demonstrate that up to 41 of the 96 who died at Hillsborough might have survived. This will probably lead the way to a re-opening of inquests into some who died, even though the families may not still not get the manslaughter or gross negligence verdicts that some hope for. A repeat verdict of accidental death, only with a damning narrative verdict this time, may be a more realistic hope. Many families want the previous verdict overturned but establishing that negligence caused death is fraught with problems in law.
Scraton also received more significant disclosures just days before the Panel published its final report, providing the final piece in what has been his 13-year quest to unravel the genesis of The Sun's notorious 'The Truth' front page. After a cache of information released to the panel by The Sun disclosed next-to nothing, a letter from Sheffield’s Whites news agency to London's Evening Standard provided a trail back to four South Yorkshire officers, whose concocted stories to the agency were so severe that some were “watered down” before they were filed.
But the core of the Panel’s findings has been there in Scraton’s work all along. Turn to Hillsborough, The Truth, for example, to discover his modus operandi in uncovering the fact that junior South Yorkshire Police officers’ statements were doctored. The book reveals how, after flicking through the TV channels one night, seven years after Hillsborough, Scraton alighted on a programme discussing how rescuers suffer post-traumatic stress. A quietly-spoke South Yorkshire office was telling the interviewer that "people tried to alter the truth… so that it could be a bit more a hygienic day for all concerned." Scraton sought out the transcript, found the officer, walked with him on three occasions in the Peak District and, with trust established, received a box file of doctored statements from him. The search for more reached the House of Lords library, from where four compelling statements were published by this newspaper last week. Within the aegis of the Independent Panel's inquiry, Scraton established this to have been a systematic process of "review and alteration."
His book is out there on sale, though it can be hard to find. Manchester Deansgate's Waterstones had one copy in this week, filed away in the Liverpool Football Club section.
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