Perverting the course of justice: “cover-up of the cover-up of the cover-up”

The Guardian reports:

Bereaved Hillsborough disaster families have condemned the “ludicrous” decision to acquit two former South Yorkshire police officers and the force’s former solicitor on charges of perverting the course of justice, bringing to a close their 32-year fight for justice.

Peter Metcalf, 72, a former solicitor for the force, and the then Ch Supt Donald Denton, 83, and DCI Alan Foster, 74, had been accused of changing 68 officers’ statements to withhold important evidence and criticisms of the police operation, and “mask the failings” of the force.

However, the judge at the trial at Salford’s Lowry theatre, Mr Justice William Davis, ruled there was no legal case to answer because the altered police statements were prepared for Lord Justice Taylor’s public inquiry into the disaster.

That was not a statutory public inquiry, at which evidence is given on oath, but an “administrative exercise”, Davis told the jury, so it was not a “course of public justice” that could be perverted.

Margaret Aspinall, whose 18-year-old son, James, was killed in the disaster and who was the last chair of the Hillsborough Family Support Group, called the outcome a “cover-up of the cover-up of the cover-up”, adding: “We’ve been put through a 32-year legal nightmare looking for the truth and accountability. Now they’re saying the police were allowed to change statements and cover up at Taylor. The legal system in this country really has to change.”

I am grateful to my dear friend and comrade, Phil Scraton for this extract from his chapter 10, Sanitising Hillsborough from his book, ‘Hillsborough: The Truth’.

‘Towards the end of an intense programme on how rescuers suffer post-traumatic stress a former South Yorkshire Police officer talked with depth and integrity about his realisation of the damage done to him at Hillsborough … Living with what he felt was the personal guilt of failing to breathe life back into those he attempted to save, the experiences had overwhelmed him. But his suffering was not solely related to his efforts on the terraces.

Speaking quietly, and with carefully chosen words, he said, ‘The police lost a lot of dignity and pride that day. People tried to alter the truth and embellish certain bits and just not admit to certain bits, so that it could be more of a hygienic day for all concerned. It was devastating, completely, and you almost feel after that day you were never clean again and can never be clean again’…

Months later on a cold early winter’s day high in the hills above Hathersage the former officer recalled the dreadful moments in the pens as he fought to save lives. He remembered the pain and sorrow, the anger and insults, the sense of failure. But he also detailed the aftermath. The moment when a young officer with eight years service was asked to change his statement……

Their brief: to provide full and detailed account including feelings, emotions and impressions. These were not usual police statements; bland, factual and written on Criminal Justice Act forms. They were handwritten on blank A4 sheets. Officers thought it had something to do with counselling, like ‘getting it out of your system’.

Not so … he received back a word-processed version of his recollections. It was annotated, sentences scored out, words altered. His most personal comments, his experiences, deleted. Someone had systematically gone through his recollections and reshaped them. He was devastated; the implication being that ‘recollections’ had been taken and turned into ‘statements’ …

He took out the 6 pages of word-processed recollections, altered exactly as he had described. The 154 sentences or phrases from his original hand-written recollections were all there. But 57 had a line through them. A further 28 were substantially edited. The statement was fronted by a solicitor’s letter from one of the North’s leading firms, Hammond Suddards, the South Yorkshire Police solicitors. Referenced in the initials of a senior partner, Peter Metcalf, it was addressed to Chief Superintendent Denton of South Yorkshire Police Management Services.

We have the following further comments on statements requested by the West Midlands inquiry. As before, the mention of a name without comment indicates that the statement has been read and we have no suggestions for review or alteration’. The words ‘review’ and ‘alteration’ were stunning. They implied that officers’ recollections, self-written and unwitnessed, had been sent to the solicitors where they were scrutinised as part of a process of transformation into formal statements.

From that moment on, he felt ‘betrayed’ by the Force, the uniform. Other officers had discussed the procedure – and were unhappy about having to alter their recollections. Usual practice had been abandoned. Told not to write a record of the day in their pocket-books, then given sheets of paper to write personal emotional accounts, none of the Criminal Justice Act procedures had been followed. Hillsborough, he said, was being ‘sanitised’.

My much missed friend, Steve Waterhouse, a life-long Liverpool supporter, to whom this blog is partly dedicated, would be incensed. A “cover-up of the cover-up of the cover-up” indeed.

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