Hillsborough disaster: The man who hid the truth

Disaster: Former South Yorkshire Police Chief Constable Peter Wright.
Disaster: Former South Yorkshire Police Chief Constable Peter Wright.
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PETER Wright, OBE, CBE: Chief constable - and the man who hid the truth, writes assistant editor Bob Westerdale.

That’s the epitaph history will now place on the memory of the commander in charge of South Yorkshire Police during the Hillsborough Disaster. Until yesterday, he was deemed guilty, merely, of misplaced loyalty to colleagues.

That, and failing to oversee a contingency plan for the ill-fated semi-final.

Those flaws, it now turns out, were not all Peter Wright had on his conscience. He went to his grave - a year ago this Monday - knowing he’d presided over an organisation that concealed and manipulated the truth.

By removing details of ‘negative comments’ from statements, a gloss was painted over police attitudes of the day. It’s taken 23 years to scrape that gloss off and find out what lurked below. How much of that glaze was personally ordered by Wright, who died aged 82, we will never know.

But undoubtedly it was in his name that a conspiracy was launched to change the records which have framed the way we’ve thought about the tragedy for nearly a quarter of a century. Commanders like David Duckenfield and Roger Marshall - of whom there is no suggestion of collusion - went on to bear the brunt of world spotlight despite this secret modification of reality. So who was to benefit from it?

As The Star crime reporter at the time, I perceived Wright as an autocrat. He ruled with the military swagger of a man who had served in the Royal Navy in his formative years. In 1989 he presided over a police culture where soccer fans were considered almost subhuman.

Present-day chief constable David Crompton insists that culture could never happen again. Crompton said yesterday: “I don’t think the standards employed then in any way correspond to the standards of openness and transparency that any of us would expect these days.”

But when disaster struck at Sheffield Wednesday’s stadium, the world was a very different place.

Wright was three months shy of his 60th birthday and set in his ways. He determined to plot a course clear of the gathering storm of criticism. For himself and his officers.

It is likely he thought he could lean on friends in high places to help him, too.

You don’t become President of the Association of Chief Police Officers without having a profile.

From my observations at the time, Wright gave the impression that he considered his position as chief constable was almost beyond scrutiny. And now, maybe, above the law.

On his first, press conference after the disaster, an enraged Wright thought questions from prying journalists like me represented nothing less than sheer impertinence.

That briefing, in his HQ, was dramatically cut short when one of his officers suddenly screamed: “No more questions” - as the world’s press demanded an insight into the death of so many people.

Wright stormed out the conference room, saying: “My officers will be vindicated.”

Maybe, even then, a plan was forming in his mind.

A plan that ultimately ended in 164 statements being “significantly amended.”