Hillsborough inquests: Retired chief 'wrong over fans'

Norman Bettison Image copyright PA
Image caption Sir Norman Bettison (right) has been giving evidence at the inquests in Warrington, Cheshire

A former police chief has said he was "wrong" to issue a statement saying fans' behaviour at Hillsborough "made the job of the police harder", the inquests have heard.

Sir Norman Bettison made the comments the day after a report into the disaster was published.

He told the jury he "regrets" making the comments "in the terms that I did, on the day that I did".

Ninety-six fans died following a crush at the 1989 FA Cup semi-final.

Sir Norman was chief constable of West Yorkshire Police when he made the comments, following the publication of the 2012 Hillsborough Independent Panel report.

He said he decided to publish the remarks after a "firestorm" of media attention.

The jury heard that he felt at the time he was "front and centre of the very serious allegations of cover-up".

Image copyright Hillsborough Inquests
Image caption Ninety-six fans died following crushing at the Leppings Lane end of Hillsborough stadium on 15 April 1989

Sir Norman was giving evidence for a second day at the new inquests into the disaster, sitting in Warrington, Cheshire.

He issued the press statement on 13 September 2012, saying: "[Lord Justice] 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."

Sitting at the court in front of rows of the bereaved Hillsborough families, Sir Norman told the jury: "The strategy that I had engaged in prior to the publication of the report was to make no comment whatsoever.

"And yet on the publication and the subsequent public meetings that took place, I had come front and centre of the very serious allegations of cover-up and putting the blame on the Liverpool fans for causing the deaths of 96 innocent people.

"I made a judgement that I needed to respond to that. The communication that I put out was hurried, it was ill-thought through and it was wrong at the time.

Image copyright Julia Quenzler
Image caption An artist's impression of Sir Norman Bettison giving evidence at the inquests

"What I was doing was a summary of my honestly held beliefs."

The court heard how Sir Norman, who also ran Merseyside Police between 1998 and 2004, issued a "clarifying" statement the day after his remarks.

Jonathan Hough QC, asking questions on behalf of the coroner, said: "Had there been any hostile press in the intervening time?"

The retired senior officer replied: "I'm fighting the temptation to smile. It had been a firestorm.

"There were camera crews and journalists camped outside my house for 48 hours."

In his second statement, he said he was "deeply sorry" and "the fans of Liverpool Football Club were in no way to blame for the disaster".

The statement added: "The police failed to control the situation which ultimately led to the tragic deaths of 96 entirely innocent people.

"I can be no plainer than that and I'm sorry if my earlier statement, intended to convey the same message, has caused further upset.

"My role was never to besmirch the fans. I did not do that."

Who were the 96 victims?

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BBC News: Profiles of all those who died

Earlier in the hearing, Sir Norman denied attending a meeting where a senior officer allegedly told colleagues they were going to place the blame for Hillsborough on "drunken, ticketless" Liverpool fans.

The jury has previously heard evidence that such a police briefing was held two days after the disaster.

Sir Norman, who was a chief inspector with South Yorkshire Police at the time of the disaster, said he could say with "absolute confidence" that he was not at the meeting at the force's headquarters in Sheffield.

In March, former inspector Clive Davis told the inquests in Warrington that Sir Norman had asked him to attend a briefing to be held by Ch Supt Terry Wain.

Mr Davis said: "His words [Mr Wain] were - and I can almost remember them verbatim - that 'we were going to put the blame for this disaster where it belongs - on the drunken, ticketless Liverpool fans'."

He said Mr Wain went on to say that officers should drive along the M62 to look for discarded cans of beer and should also speak to pub landlords and neighbours around Sheffield Wednesday's ground about the behaviour of Liverpool fans on the say of the disaster.

Sir Norman denied he was at the 17 April meeting.

He also denied that he suggested Mr Davis should attend the meeting because it would be "career-enhancing".

Sir Norman said: "I gave him no such encouragement."

The inquests are scheduled to resume next week.

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