On 15th April 1989, a set of Liverpool of Liverpool Football Club fans went to a match at Hillsborough stadium in Sheffield. 96 of these supporters never made it home, after dying, crushed in an overpacked stand. Set out as one of the biggest tragedies of British football history, the event is also remembered for other reasons. The Sun newspaper, four days after the incident, published the memorable headline “The Truth”, which blamed supporters for the death of their compatriots in the stand. This, in addition to a 27 year-long trial, was the start of many years of trauma for the families of the victims, who did everything to get the justice they deserved. While the police and the justice system played a big role in blaming the fans, the role of the media was just as big when it came to stigmatising football fans and the city of Liverpool as a whole. We will be looking at how the media influenced public perception of both these communities as well as the numerous rules that were broken by the press in order to achieve this slanderous report.
First of all, we need to look at the context and put forward exactly what happened in order to explain the aftermath. The 1980s in the United Kingdom were marked by football hooliganism, Margaret Thatcher and Pink Floyd, amongst other things. A few years before Hillsborough’s disaster happened, British football had already had its tragic event in 1985 in the form of the Heysel disaster. In preparation for a European Cup final, Liverpool supporters breached the fence separating them from Juventus fans, provoking a wall to collapse, killing 39 fans in the process and injuring 600. The Italians had been fighting back for a few hours in the build-up to the game and many fans were found confronting the police. However, with mostly Italian supporters, the casualties were put on British hooligans’ fault, leading to the Football Association to ban British clubs from entering European competitions for five years. A first sign of the stigma towards English fans and particularly Liverpool fans. Four years later, as Liverpool prepared to face Nottingham Forest in a FA Cup semi-final, fans from Merseyside were entering the stadium and gradually realised the pen was going to be far too packed for their own safety. Queues were huge outside the turnstiles, and the pens were already packed inside. Poor planning and lack of realistic crowd expectations led to match officials believing they could fit 10,000 fans in those pens, when in reality it was closer to 2,000. Liverpool fans came in numbers, it was a big game, but they certainly expected to have more space to spread out. This poor planning started from the day they allocated far fewer seats to fans of the Reds compared to the Forest supporters, which made no sense when looking at the sizes of both clubs.
The police match commander, David Duckenfield, ordered for a side gate to be opened in order to let the flow of fans into the stadium, without guiding them to less packed pens in the stadium. Instead, everyone rushed for the already overcrowded pens 3 and 4. Crushed, gasping for air and distressed, thousands of fans were pushed towards the gates separating them from the other pens and the ones in front towards the pitch. Police ordered them to stay inside as many tried to escape for their own lives. None of the gates were opened to help fans breath. Eventually, police started helping fans get out, but the damage was already done. 94 people died on the day, 2 more at a later date, in addition to 766 injuries. Many argue that the scandal started with The Sun’s headline, but in reality, it started on the day. Mismanagement of the crowd led to man slaughter. Lack of ambulances to help the injured people meant many who could have been saved, were not (at least 41 if not more). More importantly, the Yorkshire police did everything to cover up the incident and the court case that followed only supported them in the cover up. Eventually, this led to the media not only believing what the police were telling them, but also attack the ‘easy target’ that were the families of the victims. That was the start of nearly three decades of national shaming of thousands of people, when in reality the police, the justice system and the government were to blame.
So, where did the media go wrong? While collective memory remembers “The Truth”, the famous front cover from The Sun on 19th April 1989, the first paper to put forward unwarranted slander towards the fans was actually the Daily Mirror. On 17th April, two days before The Sun, the cover of the Daily Mirror read: Never Again. While the back cover shows clearly two quotes from the fans, stating “I saw my daughters crushed to death” and “I blame the police for this tragedy”, the main issue with the paper is the picture that is used to cover both front and back page. There, in clear colour and print, is a large picture taken from the other side of the fence which kept the fans off the pitch. More importantly, we see numerous fans crushed on the barrier, some suffocating, some crying in despair and some more likely, dead. Current IPSO rules state that the journalists should not publish information, in this case a picture, that might upset the families. IPSO also states “Journalists must also use sensitivity when choosing the pictures or videos they will use to illustrate a story about the death of an individual. Particular care should be taken with the selection of photos of the recently deceased. In addition, editors and journalists should also consider what the photos show and the context of the individual’s death.” (IPSO, 2021) In this case, there seems to be little to no consideration to how the families might have felt when viewing these images. In reaction to the public outrage, an editor from the paper told the BBC that “I am very very sorry for the people who have complained to us and who have lost relatives, of course I am. Of course, I am very sorry, but the newspaper must present the horror as it is” (Hillsborough: the full story, 2019). They clearly did not try being in their shoes. There was no social media and internet was certainly not what it is today. Yet, fake news and lies spread like rapid fire throughout the country and its legacy can still be felt today.
This was largely due to the subsequent and now famous cover, “The Truth” published by The Sun. Under the large title read a few bullet points, which perfectly shows the aim and direction that was going to take the report inside the paper. “Some fans picked the pockets of victims” “some fans urinated on brave cops” “some fans beat up PC giving kiss of life”. These sub headlines add to all the lies and false accusations made towards the fans inside the papers, whether that be the Mirror or the Sun. With such a title, stating they have the truth, The Sun claim that these accusations are true and that the fans are to blame. Ticketless, drunk, rowdy and undisciplined, the supporters were blamed for everything that went wrong on that day. From the start, they were blamed; David Duckenfield told the FA communications director just after the start of the incident that the fans had broken into the stadium, while he had opened the gate and CCTV footage confirms that. Constable Peter Wright did not want to take the blame from the start but in his first press conference, he corrected the story that the fans were to blame. Yet, the cover up had already started. With Yorkshire police, the FA and numerous other entities responsible for the issues, the parties had to agree on a cover up. The police being The Sun’s main source of information, it was not surprising to see the fans being blamed.
Being blamed for an incident where you lost friends and family was not something the Liverpool supporters took well. The anger against both newspapers was so strong at the time that it still persists today. Both papers are still boycotted in Liverpool, including by newsagents, and held in shame in the area. At the time, there was a public burning of The Sun in Kirby, outskirts of Liverpool. Merseyside being a mostly Labour voting area, the feeling of oppression the system was very strong. The links between the owner of The Sun, Rupert Murdoch, and the conservative party, led by Margaret Thatcher, did not impress the Liverpudlians. One of the main sources of The Sun was Sheffield Hallam’s Conservative Party MP, Irvine Patnick, showing the strong relationship between the media and tory government. Being close to certain members of the Conservative Party meant Murdoch could not have his papers going against their judgment, which therefore strongly influenced the coverage of the incident. This certainly opened a little more the debate around ownership of the press and how free was it really in these types of circumstances. The owners of the paper, News international, did very few interviews after this front cover as they supposedly did not want to offend the families, but they did have to report the incidents based on what they were told. Not to report these matters would be to abdicate their responsibility to a wider public and the city of Liverpool they stated. Just as important as the lies being told in the papers, the way they spread across the country and the world was real problem for the families of the victims and the city of Liverpool. Even if there were corrections or apologies after complaints, the damage was done. Everyone believed that in the lies they had been told about football fans, that they were hooligans, violent, drunk and entered the stadium without a ticket. Everyone believed that Hillsborough, was the fault of all these fans who just lived and breathed for a sport. The reality was very far from that.
Another issue that faced the families of the victims was harassment from the press. This was particularly the case in the months after the incident, but it continued for many decades and the pressure from the media increased every time there was a development in the court case. It is one thing asking for a reaction, but the constant pressure from journalists who would show up at their door to ask for scoops and interviews was unbearable. The feeling of these families towards the press was very strong, especially against the Murdoch empire. However, the journalists would not back down. Liverpool Daily Post printed a centre spread on the subject at the time, putting forward underhand techniques used by the reporters who were looking for a sensational story to sell in next days paper. The paper’s editor back then, Jonathan Griffiths, said that the reporters from the Murdoch group impersonated the local Liverpool reporters in order to get access to the families. They said they were from the Daily Post or the Echo, also pretended to be social workers or fellow football fans, just looking to get quotes from the families however the means may be. This not only outraged the families, but also local Labour MP for Liverpool Broadgreen, Terry Fields. He said the time has come for the government to take action to restrain certain activities of the press (Hillsborough: the full story, 2019). Generally, many felt that the media was too powerful and that they do not realise the impact of their words when it comes to not only public persecution and opinion, but also the impact on the families of the victims. It is not a surprise to see that papers with sensational headlines or controversial opinions will sell more, and that is still very much the case today. Therefore, the unbiased reports and commentary were quite rare.
For many years, the press had been criticising football fans, setting them aside and openly putting them as a scapegoat for many problems in the country. The restrictions and ways of handling supporters at the time by the government and football institutions meant that supporters were treated like animals, put into pens like cattle. However, Hillsborough definitely made things worse. While hooliganism certainly have a role in the negative image in the press, there certainly is an argument for Hillsborough attendees to despair at the media coverage of the event and the court case that followed. Lord Justice Taylor’s first take on the case when he was asked to conduct the inquest was that the main reason for the tragedy was police mismanagement and the failure of police control. However, until 2016 and the end of the court case, there was no ‘justice for the 96’, name of the campaign started by families in order to get the name of the victims cleared of the responsibility for the tragedy.
Throughout the court case, the media discovered more about “The Real Truth” as put by The Sun on 13th September 2012. That year, the case had been reopened for further examination and 23 years after the incident, the media was finally publishing the reality of what had actually happened on the day and public opinion gradually changed. As mentioned above, Irvin Patnick was one of the main sources of information. The Sun’s editor, Kelvin Mackenzie said that year that the original cover was a fundamental mistake but more importantly, he had made the mistake of believing the MP for information. The MP had done the tour of Hillsborough with Prime Minister Thatcher the day after in 1989 and had told her and the media about the allegedly drunk and violent fans at the game. The story line carried on for decades and the supporters at the time never really got back their dignity or fully cleared of the negative public perception which was based on lies. As much as David Cameron tried clearing their name by calling out the unjust and untrue narrative that sought to blame the fans, their image was tarnished forever. As put by the fanzine When Saturday Comes, “The police see us as a mass entity, fuelled by drink and a single-minded resolve to wreak havoc by destroying property and attacking one another with murderous intent” (BBC, 2012). The perception of fans, from police to non-football fans, in the UK and abroad, was tarnished and it was in big part due to the media coverage that followed Hillsborough.
Throughout the coverage of Hillsborough, from day one to the end of the court case in 2016, the media played a large role in the way the public views the situation. While Duckenfield was never judged guilty of slaughter, and the fans were legally cleared of responsibility for the incident, ultimately the media won in condemning alleged hooliganism. Based on lies, the reports from The Sun or the Daily Mirror were clear libel towards the fans who suffered of this image for decades. The information collection process can also be pointed at, with inside sources having a political agenda against fans but also the whole issue of harassment of victims. British media ruling has greatly evolved since, with more and more rules being put in place to protect the privacy of individuals, whether they be involved in a case such as Hillsborough or a celebrity. There have been some significant steps in the right direction and there is a general hope that the coverage of Hillsborough would be significantly different if it had happened today.