Former South Yorkshire police chief denies being part of ‘black propaganda unit’ set up to blame Liverpool fans for Hillsborough disaster

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A former South Yorkshire police chief has denied being part of a ‘black propaganda unit’ set up to put the blame for the Hillsborough disaster on Liverpool fans.

Former Chief Inspector Norman Bettison, who went on to become the Chief Constable of Merseyside and West Yorkshire police forces, told jurors ‘nothing about Hillsborough embarrasses me’.

Sir Norman responded to questions at the inquests into the deaths of 96 supporters as to why he did not mention Hillsborough in his application form or interview for the top post at Merseyside Police in 1998.

He explained that he felt ‘no opportunity’ arose to provide that information.

Sir Norman was a spectator at Hillsborough football stadium on the day of the disaster in April 1989.

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 of accidental death.

The jury has heard he was part of a team that gathered evidence for South Yorkshire Police’s response to the tragedy for the Taylor Inquiry - a team which allegedly was ordered to place the blame on Liverpool fans.

When interviewed for the post of Chief Constable at Merseyside he did not mention the disaster when asked by a selection panel what incident he would most like to forget in his career, the court in Warrington was told.

He later told Merseyside Police Authority members that he interpreted the question as asking what his ‘most embarrassing’ moment was, not the ‘most traumatic’.

Sir Norman told the jury: “Nothing about Hillsborough embarrasses me. I did not think of Hillsborough when the question was posed.”

Peter Wilcock QC, representing 75 bereaved families, suggested to him that he omitted the information because of his involvement in blaming the fans.

Sir Norman replied: “I am not embarrassed by the issue. I was not involved in a black propaganda unit to put the blame on fans.”

Paul Greaney QC, representing the Police Federation, asked him: “You appreciate that your application to the role led to it generating strong feelings on the part of the bereaved families?”

Sir Norman answered: “I genuinely did not anticipate that but I did understand it immediately.”

He explained that by the time he applied to Merseyside he had five years of experience as an assistant chief constable at West Yorkshire Police and had ‘many many’ examples of senior command work.

Mr Greaney asked: “Did it even occur to you mention, given your substantial senior command experience you had by 1998, experiences that you had as a much more junior officer?”

“No it did not,” said Sir Norman.

Mr Greaney continued: “Is that one important reason why you did not mention your role in the Wain team (the 1989 evidence gathering team) in that application?”

Sir Norman said: “It was a very significant reason.”

The witness went on to say he had not been criticised for his role at Hillsborough at that point.

Mr Greaney asked: “Did you deliberately conceal your role in the aftermath of Hillsborough from the selection panel or from anyone else concerning your appointment?”

Sir Norman said: “No, I didn’t then and I never would.”

The jury heard that Sir Norman gave a statement to the Independent Police Complaints Commission last July in which he said he believed that ‘96 people died as a result of overcrowding in an unsafe stadium, no individual spectator or group of spectators is in any way responsible for that’.

Sir Norman has previously publicly stated that the evidence at the Taylor Inquiry was ‘overwhelming’ that the police failed to control the situation which ‘ultimately led to the tragic deaths of 96 innocent people’.

In his role as ‘liaison man’ for South Yorkshire Police at the Taylor Inquiry he wrote an analysis of the unfolding evidence for the force’s lead barrister.

Among the evidence he highlighted was that there had been no contingency plan in dealing with the circumstances that arose at the Leppings Lane end of the ground and no steps to make plans for the sudden intake of 2,000 supporters into the ground when an exit gate was opened by the police.

He agreed these were criticisms of the force that were ‘difficult to counter’.

Sir Norman told the jury that had contributed to the deaths but he thought there were ‘other contributing factors’ which were a matter for the court.

But the court heard that none of those concerns made it into South Yorkshire Police’s final submissions to Lord Justice Taylor as they accepted no blame for the disaster at the time.

Mark George QC, representing 22 families, asked: “When you heard the submissions you must have wondered ‘what on earth is going on?’”

Sir Norman said: “I expected some of those issues to be addressed.”

Mr George said: “You would have expected that your police force, the South Yorkshire Police, was trying to help Lord Justice Taylor to discover what had caused this dreadful disaster?”

Sir Norman said: “It had been a theme from the outset, openness.”

Asked if the submissions completely ignored the evidence, Sir Norman said was not sure he was in a position to second guess the barrister who made the submissions.

Earlier, Sir Norman was also asked about a video presentation on Hillsborough - which included general scenes of hooliganism at football matches - that he made to Police Federation representatives in October 1989 and to MPs the following month.

He said the Police Federation meeting at police HQ was in response to the force ‘being on its knees’ following the tragedy.

He agreed that some of those present had expressed ‘fairly aggressive views’ in the national media about what had happened at Hillsborough and others held similar views about Lord Justice Taylor’s initial inquiry findings.

One unnamed officer was said to have told the meeting: “When Liverpool come back here next season, what will the attitude be? Liverpool think they are untouchable.”

Mr Wilcock put it to Sir Norman: “This sort of language, does this strike you as in any way helpful or meaningful in the context of discussing the Taylor Inquiry?”

Sir Norman said: “It struck me as entirely unprofessional but this was a meeting that I viewed as cathartic. People getting things off their chest.”

The barrister continued: “The bile that you had seen from attendees at this meeting, it was directed towards Liverpool fans?”

Sir Norman replied: “It was directed towards their personal experiences.”

Mr Wilcock said: “It was directed towards Liverpool football fans.”

Sir Norman said: “I do not deny that, Mr Wilcock.”

The former police chief pointed out though ‘how little I contributed to that meeting’.

Then parliamentary advisor to the Police Federation, Tory MP Michael Shersby, was at the meeting and was among MPs who later viewed the video at the House of Commons ahead of a planned debate on Hillsborough.

Sir Norman denied the video formed any sort of ‘counter-attack’ against the Taylor Inquiry findings that fans were not to blame.

The hearing continues today.