Former police chief Sir Norman Bettison chokes back his emotions as he tells the Hillsborough inquests into the deaths of 96 Liverpool supporters that he was blamed for a cover-up to smear fans.
“There is a time and a place,” Sir Norman Bettison told the Hillsborough inquests today. The former police chief was talking about 13 September 2012.
It was the day after the publication of the Hillsborough independent report that absolved Liverpool fans of any blame for the tragedy. It was the day Sir Norman issued a statement that would lead to his resignation as chief constable of South Yorkshire Police.
Partly as a result of media coverage, Sir Norman told the Hillsborough inquests in Warrington he had found himself “front and centre of the very serious allegation of cover-up and putting blame on the Liverpool fans for causing the deaths of 96 innocent people”.
“I needed to respond to that,” Sir Norman said. He now describes the statement he issued as “hurried” and “ill thought through”. Sir Norman read it out before the jury, a hint of a crack in his voice. It went like this:
“I sat through every single day of the Taylor inquiry, in the summer of 1989. I learned so much. Taylor was right in saying that the disaster was caused, mainly, through a lack of police control.
“Fans’ behaviour, to the extent that it was relevant at all, made the job of the police, in the crush outside Leppings Lane turnstiles, harder than it needed to be. But it didn’t cause the disaster any more than the sunny day that encouraged people to linger outside the stadium as kick-off approached.”
Sir Norman said it wasn’t long before reporters were camped outside his house. He now says he didn’t need to mention fans’ behaviour “at all”. He expressed “regret” for issuing the statement “in the terms that I did on the day that I did”.
But what of the views themselves that caused such controversy? “What it was was a summary of my honestly held beliefs,” he said. “However, even if it was honestly held to be true, and even if it was consistent with what I’ve always said, there is a time and a place and communication needs to be not simply the message provided, but how the message is received.”
In his resignation letter Sir Norman said he had “never blamed the fans for causing the tragedy”.
Earlier, Sir Norman was questioned about events just two days after the tragedy. The inquests in Warrington had previously heard evidence that on 17 April 1989, high-ranking police figures had gathered for a meeting.
According to former inspector Clive Davis, a senior colleague said they were going to pin the blame for the disaster on Liverpool supporters. According to Mr Davis, Norman Bettison was not only present, he had encouraged him to attend as it might be “career advancing”.
Sir Norman Bettison today described those claims as “untrue”. How sure was he that he had not attended the meeting, he was asked. Sir Norman said he could say with “absolute confidence” he had not attended a meeting.
As for inspector Davis? “I gave him no such encouragement,” he said. The senior colleague alleged to have made the comments about Liverpool fans has also denied making them.
Sir Norman will continue to give evidence when the inquests resume on Tuesday.