A detailed picture of how the evidence of junior police officers present at the Hillsborough football disaster was systematically distorted can be revealed today, as an independent panel prepares to deliver the findings of its exhaustive investigation into the afternoon that claimed the lives of 96 fans.
The Independent has obtained four previously unpublished witness statements written by police constables, who were all on duty at the Leppings Lane end on the disastrous day of Liverpool's FA Cup semi-final with Nottingham Forest in 1989. They show how the documents, originally prepared for an internal inquiry, were altered prior to Lord Taylor's official inquiry later that year to ensure that South Yorkshire Police emerged from the tragedy in a significantly more positive light.
The testimony of one constable, 31-year-old Martin McLoughlin, was crossed through so two paragraphs of criticism were entirely deleted. PC McLoughlin, who had nine years' service with the force, described how police had "appeared to be a bit thin on the ground for the numbers of people involved" on the fateful afternoon of 15 April 1989. He also detailed how officers on duty at the stadium had a "poor supply of personal radios" when the catastrophic decision to allow fans to enter the Leppings Lane end through an exit gate led to many being crushed to death inside a stadium, which lacked an up-to-date safety certificate. Pc McLoughlin described how "it seemed very bad that only one in our serial – the sergeant – should have a personal radio. We had great difficulty in finding out what happened and what was happening and for too long a time we were basically working in the dark." All of these criticisms are struck through and an earlier reference to "the only officer with a personal radio" has been rewritten to read "who had a personal radio", making it appear as though the officers were better-equipped.
Pc McLoughlin's testimony that he could hear "the voices of more and more officers … getting desperate" over the police radio is replaced simply with the words "increased radio traffic". Another of the phrases deleted from his testimony reads: "Basically it was chaos".
A similar picture of institutional failing emerges in the testimony of Pc Alan Wadsworth, in whose report the following words were crossed out: "There was no leadership at the Leppings Lane end following the disaster, either in person or on the radio. The only officer I heard on the radio with any form of organization and method was Chief Superintendent Nesbitt (sic) [a reference to John Nesbit, traffic division commander] who did not arrive until later."
An attempt to deliver praise to Liverpool fans appears to have been crossed from the testimony of a fourth officer, David Sumner, who says that "many fans assisted in the removal of the dead and injured from the field".
The apparent manipulation of evidence is revealed in documents that were initially written as part of the original South Yorkshire Police investigation into the disaster. Many still showed their annotations when Lord Justice Taylor suddenly demanded them for his 1989 inquiry into tragedy. They were placed in the House of Lords library several years ago when the former Labour Home Secretary, Jack Straw, ordered that South Yorkshire Police disclose them.
Deposited in 10 boxes, over the years some have emerged to paint a partial picture of the cover-up, upon which these testimonies shed new light. The Labour MP Andy Burnham, himself from Merseyside, drew attention to several manipulated testimonies in the House of Commons last October.
The doctored statements are one example of the volumes of evidence – 40,000 pages in all – which the Independent Panel will have examined since being established in January 2010 on the initiative of Mr Burnham, then the Culture Secretary, to bring "full public disclosure" of all relevant national and local government documentation relating to Hillsborough.
The most keenly awaited evidence in the report to be published today is the medical records of the 96 fans who died in the disaster, which may demonstrate that the Hillsborough inquest coroner, Stefan Popper, was wrong to say that nothing could have been done after his self-imposed 3.15pm "cut-off" time to save any of the lives lost. This decision severely limited the scope of the inquests, which delivered an accidental death verdict.
There is a growing sense on Merseyside that the "cut-off" time will be shown to be discredited, paving the way for fresh inquests into the deaths. Since no court, tribunal or public inquiry has ever examined what happened after 3.15pm, the emergency service response to the events of the fateful afternoon have gone unchallenged since Lord Justice Taylor's report into the tragedy was published in 1990.
A further statement from the boxes reveals how statements were entirely rewritten by officers, allowing none of the criticisms which Lord Justice Taylor directed in his report towards the inexperienced Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield for "failing to take effective control" and making the calamitous decision to open Exit Gate C.
One version of the second officer's statement includes the genuine conclusions he reached. "After the incident I felt shocked and upset," he said. "My enduring feelings are anger and guilt. I was less than 20 yards from people struggling for their life and was not aware of their plight. No radio or Tannoy communications were apparent throughout the incident."
A handwritten annotated note attached to the report asked the Pc to "remove the last page, excluding last paragraph". Another note states: "rewritten as requested". In a second version of the report, also included in the file, all the original criticisms are absent.
What the officers witnessed clearly took its toll on some of them. In 2004, Sheffield Crown Court heard how Pc McLoughlin was so traumatised by the events he witnessed at Hillsborough that he lost his job, marriage and almost his life, when he used skills acquired in the force to make a hoax bomb device and threatened to detonate it at high-security psychiatric unit in Rotherham.
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