'I had witnessed corruption of evidence in the past, but this was shocking'
Queen's University Professor Phil Scraton, who played a key role in uncovering the truth about the 1989 Hillsborough disaster, talks to Deborah McAleese about the long road to justice.
Q. When did you first realise that the truth about Hillsborough was being rewritten?
A. In the June after the disaster I was away with my students in Scotland. I realised the media coverage had turned against the fans, the survivors and ultimately the families. I had enough evidence from people who had been involved directly, including doctors, nurses and those who had been at the match; I had enough evidence to demonstrate that what we were reading in the newspapers was a reconstruction of those people's experiences. There was this juxtaposition of the story that was coming from survivors and the bereaved over what had happened on the day and the night and the days that followed and what was coming from official sources.
Q. How did you react to that?
A. I rang the (Liverpool) City Council and said it was necessary that we should develop a research project that would unpick the stories of Hillsborough. The council funded the research and I appointed a research team. We published our first report in 1990. That told the story of what happened on the day from eye-witness accounts, and the appalling treatment of families that evening when they went to identify the bodies.
Q. What was the most shocking thing you uncovered during all your years of investigating the truth?
A. I met a former police officer from the South Yorkshire Police, David Frost. The third time we met we went to a pub for a cup of tea. He gave me his statements. The first statement he had hand-written. The second statement was typed up by those in the South Yorkshire Police office and had 53 sentences removed, scored through and the rest of his statement was altered. Then came the final statement on Criminal Justice Act notepaper and that was the pristine statement having been altered. I said to David, 'when I look at the pages of the final statement, the problem is your signature is on the bottom of each page so you obviously saw it and signed it'. I wasn't prepared for what he said next. He said: 'It might be my signature, but I didn't put it there.' So now I was left completely shocked.
Q. What went through your mind?
A. Over the years I had witnessed corruption of evidence but I had never seen anything like this, it was shocking. Attached to the statements was a letter from one of the largest firms of solicitors in the UK, Hammond Suddards, from a senior partner, Peter Metcalf, to the head of management services of the South Yorkshire Police, Donald Denton. That letter stated that any statements without annotations made on them have not been subject to review and alteration. That was shocking, I had never seen anything like that. It amounted, in my view, to a corruption of evidence.
Q. There was some hope in 1997 when Lord Justice Stuart-Smith was appointed to lead the review of evidence, only for him to conclude there was no case for inquiry. That must have been demoralising?
A. The families hoped that by going to see him, he would realise the depth and significance of what they saw as a developing miscarriage of justice. I had the letter from the solicitors which stated they were reviewing and altering all police statements. Stuart-Smith stated he didn't consider it amounted to such a major issue and he dismissed me. I think the way I felt was that there was something very seriously amiss here. But it just made me more determined because I knew now the situation was serious. So as a consequence, I took 14 weeks in the summer of 1998 and I wrote the book, Hillsborough: The Truth.
Q. Did the authorities try to stop the book at any stage?
A. No. What did happen was one of the officers who played a major role at the aftermath of Hillsborough, Norman Bettison (below), was appointed Chief Constable at Merseyside. The families discovered this and they were highly critical. When the book came out I had a phone call to my ex-directory number from Norman Bettison and he asked me was he in the book. He warned me if I ever wrote about him, basically he would see me in court. I took that as a threat. I published a new edition of Hillsborough: The Truth and I wrote extensively about Norman Bettison and how he got appointed at Merseyside and his involvement at Hillsborough.
Q. It wasn't until 2012, with the publication of the Hillsborough Panel report, of which you were a member, that the full scale of the establishment cover-up was revealed. What was it like delivering that report to the families?
A. One of the key issues I had learned from the Bloody Sunday Inquiry was the principle of families first. What I wanted was to ensure that nobody in authority, nobody in any of the organisations and no politician, would see the report before the families. The report was published in September 2012 in the Anglican Cathedral. That's a day I will never forget. The only people allowed in were the families, the civil servants and the panel. I delivered the report for an hour and 20 minutes. We got to the end of the report, looking down at the families in front of me there was just totally silence and then after what seemed an age they stood and applauded for five minutes. Even then I didn't realise the enormity of what we had done. We had a giant screen in the Cathedral and David Cameron came on from the House of Commons and beamed live into the Cathedral was the double apology - the apology for what had happened in the first place and the apology for the failure to uncover all that had happened appropriately.
Q. The campaign for justice seemed to snowball from there.
A. I didn't really foresee what was going to happen next. What followed was extraordinary. They quashed the original inquest findings and ordered new inquests. They set up the biggest ever police investigation, which is still ongoing, and the biggest ever criminal investigation into policing. We were in uncharted waters. There had never been a case like this. We weren't dealing with matters of national security here. We weren't dealing with stuff around so-called terrorism. We were dealing with 96 men, women and children who had died at a football match and yet this case had become elevated into the biggest ever case in legal history in terms of the amount of money spent on the investigation, the amount of different forms of investigations and, now, this massive miscarriage of justice.
Q. The new inquest process lasted two years. Why did it last so long?
A. I am very critical of that. Police officers who were already under caution with the probability they will be prosecuted, they came to court and they told the stories they wanted to tell. So having the police case totally discredited we were now confronted with them rerunning all the same myths about crowd disorder, the behaviour of fans, etc, etc. So all the lies were rerun. The police coming back into court and rerunning all those myths of Hillsborough put the families and survivors through another year of hearings. And the cost of that is immense. All you could think of during that time is what is this doing to the jury.
Q. The jury saw through the lies though, reaching a verdict of unlawful killing and stating that the fans were not responsible. After more than a quarter of century trying to uncover the truth, that must have been an emotional moment for you?
A. I could not have predicted that the jury would come to that conclusion because they had heard two years of quite contradictory evidence. There was a lot of personal investment in terms of my academic and intellectual credibility and when the verdict was delivered I broke down. I still have my notes with the tears on the ink. It was a remarkable moment. I have never doubted the truth of Hillsborough. Now to see it played out beyond reasonable doubt in a court of law, that to me was the ultimate endorsement of the research we had done.
Q. Was there ever any stage over those 27 years that you thought, I can't do this anymore?
A. I had one moment of crisis. I was on my own with my two boys and I had a phone call telling me I was no longer safe, they named my boys, what school they went to. I was worried, I was uptight, I went to see the police. It didn't feel like a crank. They could name my movements. That made me think again because I had two young children, but I worked on the basis it was more of an attempt to put me off. There are also times where the loneliness of work like this and the self doubts - have I got the capacity, the ability, the understanding, access to the material - they are all inside your head. You are thinking to yourself am I up to this?
Q. What pushed you on?
A. Unless you are prepared to see something to the end you don't embark on it. My tacit agreement when I set out is that I will see it through. Now nobody expects something to last 27 years, but I made that commitment, and if I made that commitment I had to see it through.
Q. Do you want prosecutions?
A. I can't work in a school of law and say the law shouldn't take its course. If there are cases to be answered they have to be answered in the appropriate court, whether the criminal courts or civil courts. There should be prosecutions and I trust there will be and they could range from serious offences, right across the board to perjury.
Q. What sort of punishment should those found guilty expect? Prison?
A. I see no reason after all this time to imprison people. But for those police officers at a senior level who have been economical with the truth, I believe their pension should be taken away. I think it is inappropriate that people should fail so greatly in public office and still be able to draw a full pension. That to me would be significant punishment and also the criticism levelled against their reputation.
Q. What the Hillsborough families have gone through is in many ways similar to what the Loughinisland families have experienced. Were you surprised by the level of collusion exposed by the Police Ombudsman in the Loughinisland massacre?
A. No, I wasn't surprised. I was surprised by the strength of the report. I felt that Michael Maguire showed great integrity confronting our politicians and our society here with an unpalatable truth. I feel there is far more to come out in terms of, not just Loughinisland, but a whole series of other cases. I do draw a parallel between the way in which the Hillsborough Independent Panel was established and the court cases that followed immediately afterwards and a situation in the north where people have the same right to full investigation.
Q. It has been suggested by some commentators that a line should be drawn under Northern Ireland's violent past. Would you agree?
A. To me you can't draw a line until there is resolution and people have a right to that resolution in their lifetime. If they die then their sons and daughters and grandsons and granddaughters have a right to resolution. That much I have learned from Hillsborough, that when I go now into meetings with the families I am surrounded by young people who weren't even born at the time of Hillsborough but have grown up under the shadow of Hillsborough. They carried the baton after their grandparents died. I would draw exactly the same analogy to the north. If you don't resolve historic cases the baton has to be picked up by the next generations. The least we can do for the families of the north is to have full and thorough inquests as soon as is feasible.
Q. In cases like Hillsborough and Loughinisland, even though the events were over 20 years ago, how damaging is it to public confidence in policing?
A. There is no question that public confidence in policing has suffered greatly, especially in Britain over the last two decades. We only have to look at how many senior officers at the moment in England and Wales are currently under suspension to see there is a real problem and a real issue about how policing is conducted and the lack of full accountability to the communities they serve.
Q. What about the PSNI?
A. You have to give credit to some of the developments within the PSNI internally, particularly in recent years. We have clearly seen a sea change in how policing is conducted. The proof of the pudding is going to be how well the police in the north conduct their affairs in the future and there's no question that real strides and advances have been made. We can only have faith in these institutions once they can demonstrate that what they have put in place is open and transparent and accountable. I do think there have been good moves in that direction.
Professor Scraton will launch the latest edition of his book Hillsborough: The Truth at Queen's university tomorrow