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Former police chief Sir Norman Bettison 'accused over Hillsborough cover-up'

Published 01/05/2015

Former police chief Sir Norman Bettison arrives to give evidence at the Hillsborough inquests in Warrington
Former police chief Sir Norman Bettison arrives to give evidence at the Hillsborough inquests in Warrington

Former police chief Sir Norman Bettison choked back his emotions as he told the Hillsborough inquests he was blamed for a "cover-up" to smear fans.

Sir Norman was a chief inspector with South Yorkshire Police at the time 96 Liverpool fans were crushed to death at Sheffield Wednesday's Hillsborough ground in 1989, but had no involvement in policing the game.

But he was accused of being part of a cover-up years later following the publication of the Hillsborough Independent Panel report in 2012 which led to the quashing of the original inquest verdicts.

Sir Norman, who later became Chief Constable of Merseyside Police, appeared emotional, his voice almost breaking, as he told the new inquests into the disaster of the fallout from the report's publication.

The next day he released a "hurried and ill thought through" statement saying the behaviour of Liverpool fans made policing at the Hillsborough tragedy "harder than it needed to be".

It prompted a "firestorm", he told the inquest, with journalists besieging his home.

Sir Norman then issued a second statement, apologising to fans and stating categorically that Liverpool supporters were "in no way to blame for the disaster" and he had never intended to "besmirch" fans.

Sir Norman said: "I had been personally named as someone at the centre of the police cover-up that was not a feature of the Hillsborough Independent Panel report but it was a feature of the commentary that followed.

"The strategy I had adopted prior to the publication of the report was to make no comment whatsoever and yet on the publication and subsequent press meeting that took place, I had become front and centre of the serious allegation of cover-up and putting blame on the Liverpool fans for causing the deaths of 96 innocent people.

"I made a judgment I needed to respond to that.

"The communication I put out was hurried, it was ill thought through and it was wrong at that time.

"What it was was a summary of my honestly-held beliefs."

Sir Norman said his words had been his "mantra" for the last 23 years but conceded: "There's a time and a place and communication needs to be not simply the message provided but how the message is received."

He added: "I regret putting out that statement on September 13 2012."

Jonathan Hough QC, counsel to the inquests, questioned the witness about his role for the South Yorkshire force in the aftermath of the disaster.

Sir Norman maintained he made no "significant" contribution to the management or leadership of the South Yorkshire force's response to the tragedy in the run-up to holding the original inquests in 1990.

Sir Norman said: "I thought what I was doing was putting forward evidence to lawyers that would enable them to put forward the case of the chief constable."

Mr Hough said: "The case would be whatever the senior officers and lawyers determined it should be?"

Sir Norman replied: "Exactly."

Earlier, he denied being at a meeting of police officers, two days after the disaster, who were told the force was going to blame "drunken, ticketless" Liverpool fans for the tragedy at the 1989 FA Cup semi-final.

He has also denied telling two men in separate pub conversations that he was part of a South Yorkshire Police internal team seeking to blame "drunken" Liverpool supporters for the Hillsborough tragedy.

The court also heard that Oxford-educated Sir Norman, who rose through the ranks from chief inspector to assistant chief constable in three years, had not mentioned his duties in relation to the Hillsborough disaster when he later applied for the top job at the Merseyside force.

The jury was shown his original application for the job.

Mr Hough continued: "In the course of this form, you did not mention, I think, your work within South Yorkshire Police in relation to Hillsborough?"

Sir Norman said: "Because there was not the opportunity to.

"Two reasons - even though I was applying to Merseyside, it was irrelevant in a job application sense, and the second thing is there was no opportunity on either the form or the interview to address it."

Mr Hough then asked the witness: "Sir Norman, as an intelligent man, did it not occur to you at the time that any work you had done in connection with Hillsborough might be seen in Merseyside as significant?"

Sir Norman replied: "No," adding that at the time of his application he had not been criticised by anyone in relation to Hillsborough, and he had "definitely not" intentionally played down his role.

The hearing was adjourned until next Tuesday.

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