David Crompton, the Chief Constable of South Yorkshire Police, had apologised for “inappropriate and insensitive” remarks in an email last year that essentially accused the families of the Hillsborough victims of lying about the disaster. Ian Herbert reflects on another depressing setback in the struggle for truth and transparency about a disaster that claimed 96 lives – and reveals what the principal author of the HIP report, Professor Phil Scraton, says Crompton’s email tells us about the police’s attitude.
25 February 2013
Tell me why the South Yorkshire Police force can’t stop trying to manufacture a version of events about what happened at Hillsborough – and instead let the truth speak its own name.
The force has been compelled to release under Freedom of Information legislation an email that South Yorkshire’s chief constable David Crompton dispatched early on a Saturday morning last September, four days before the publication of the Hillsborough Independent Panel’s report.
Crompton was seeking a meeting with his assistant chief constable, Andy Holt, and head of media, Mark Thompson – or “Gents,” as he calls them.
Mr Crompton posits the idea of establishing a website called ‘Hillsborough .… did you know?’. (“I’m trying to think of a non-threatening title,” he says.)
It would include previous police apologies, a memo from Peter Wright, chief constable at the time of the disaster, “saying we would not criticise the fans” and more. The chief was keen on this idea. “I think we might be missing a trick,” he says.
It is not unreasonable of the police force to be preparing their response for the publication of a report which was bound to condemn them – just how comprehensively, they were about to find out. Spin and crisis management is a fact of life, however unsavoury that might seem when set against the fabric of the 96 lives lost at Hillsborough.
But the language and unexplained details of the memo (extract below) shows it to be something more malign than an act of media management.
There is a suggestion that the Hillsborough families have – in some way which the force has not explained – told lies. “Their version of certain events has become ‘the truth’ even though it isn’t,” Crompton tells his men in his email.
There is also an implication – again, not explained – that the very significant testimony of WPC Debra Martin might potentially be undermined by the force on its new web page. “The conclusions about Deborah [sic] Martin” might be published therein,” Crompton suggests.
WPC Debra Martin was the junior officer who testified that Kevin Williams, who died in her arms at Hillsborough, had said or mouthed the word “Mum” as she cradled him before life ebbed away. The young officer’s testimony fundamentally undermined the decision of Stefan Popper, coroner at the initial main inquest, to impose a cut-off time, claiming all the victims had suffered instantaneous, pain-free death before 3.15pm.
Many of the junior officers on duty that April day in 1989 have lived for years with the memories and the ‘what-ifs’ which come from presiding, at ground level, over a disaster that their superiors were incapable of employing an strategy to prevent.
WPC Martin, whom we also know was also coerced into changing her statement, is one of them. God knows how she would have perceived the intended web page’s links to “the conclusions about Deborah Martin.”
Professor Phil Scraton, the principal author of the Hillsborough Independent Panel (HIP) report, has been left astonished by the defensive tone of Crompton’s email, which reflected the force’s response to the disaster right across the course of the past 23 years and revealed Crompton’s priorities just days before the HIP report was published.
Professor Scraton tells me: “It is astonishing that the Chief Constable should express his concerns in this manner.
“In content, language, presentation and style his comments reflect the defensive, disingenuous damage limitation that typified senior officers’ responses in the aftermath of the disaster and revealed by our research
“Whatever his eventual public statement of apology, just days before the Report was published, behind the scenes he remained concerned only with preserving the reputation of his Force. It was a reputation so severely impugned by senior officers at the time.”
Referring to the tone and language used by the Chief Constable, Professor Scraton also tells me: “As the Panel’s Report showed, the phrases used by the Chief Constable such as ‘missing a trick’, ‘case for the defence’ and ‘fighting chance’ demonstrate a mind-set that prevailed in the Force at the time of Hillsborough.
“This impacted on the investigations, inquiries and inquests. In a most offensive choice of words he denied that the families’ ‘version of certain events’ constituted the ‘truth’. He feared that the ‘media machine’ now ‘favoured the families’ and without a counter strategy the South Yorkshire Police would ‘just be roadkill’.
“While the [South Yorkshire] Police Commissioner explained that his Chief Constable’s response was made at a time of ‘intense public scrutiny and pressure for the South Yorkshire Police’ this did not mitigate the intemperate language used. Further, it is not that this language could be construed as inappropriate an offensive, as stated by the Commissioner – it was.”
The long journey towards new inquests on the 96 who died at Hillsborough is now under way and there are already grounds for encouragement.
A significant change to the Coroners Act announced earlier this month means that the inquests can be held anywhere in England and Wales, if it is in the best interest of the bereaved family and others, such as witnesses. That means that the families will not be heading back to Sheffield, or indeed Doncaster, which is within the same coronial jurisdiction.
Lord Justice Goldring, who sat on the trial of 10-year-old Damilola Taylor’s killers, has been appointed as assistant deputy coroner, but for the purposes of the new inquests he have the same powers as a coroner.
But what the process requires as much as anything is a South Yorkshire force which is willing to divorce itself from the dissembling of 24 long years, during which attempts to get to the bottom of Hillsborough have been written through with a lack of transparency.
It requires modern a police force; one which will build on the liberating force of truth which made the publication of the Hillsborough Independent Panel report such a source of celebration.
Ian Herbert, who has been shortlisted as Sports Journalist of the Year in the prestigious Press Awards, notably for his coverage of the Hillsborough Independent Panel, is The Independent’s Northern Football Correspondent (see archive of his work here). Follow Herbie on Twitter here.