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Issue #1732      May 25, 2016


A pack of lies

Earlier this month saw the culmination of the Hillsborough inquest into the deaths at the Hillsborough football ground on April 15, 1989. On that date 54,000 people attended the FA Cup final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest. In a crush of spectators coming into the ground 96 men, women and children died. At the inquest police blamed supporters who they said had arrived late and were drunk and without tickets, a cover up by police and a shift of the blame to the victims.

BRITAIN: The verdict of the Hillsborough inquest was unequivocal, the answers to 14 questions posed to the jury clear. Yet they could, perhaps should, have been asked a 15th question: “Was there any error or omission by the media which caused or contributed to the perception that Liverpool fans were to blame?”

The answer would almost certainly have been another “Yes” and yet there has been little comment from the media, particularly the press, about its own unquestioning repetition of the police lies. The Sun newspaper is rightly vilified but there has been no collective apology for its collective use of lazy stereotypes; no apology for its collective failure to unearth the story by digging for the truth.

As early as 3:13 pm on the day of the game in 1989 John Motson, who was commentating for Match of the Day, was able to tell his producer he had “a line.” According to Motson’s information a gate had been broken and people without tickets had rushed into the ground.

It was just 21 minutes after police Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield had given the order to open gate C and seven minutes after the game had been stopped. Yet with the dead and dying in plain sight, Duckenfield, the man in charge of policing the game and whose decision had led to their deaths, told the first of the lies that would dog Liverpool fans for the next 27 years.

At 3:40 pm Alan Green, there to commentate on the game for the BBC’s Sport told his listeners there were “unconfirmed reports that a door was broken down at the end that was holding Liverpool supporters.”

At 4:15 pm Green firmed the story up with information from Graham Mackrell, the secretary of the Sheffield Wednesday club, who’d spoken to the officer in charge. “There was a surge of … about 500 Liverpool fans and police say a gate was forced and that led to a crush in the terracing area.”

At most disasters the media arrives in the aftermath. At Hillsborough it was there from the start. They caught the horror as it unfolded and although they were, albeit unwittingly in the chaos, the first to disseminate the police’s lies they also initially gave a voice to fans and others, who painted a very different picture.

Glynn Phillips, a GP based in East Kilbride in Scotland, was interviewed by Green after escaping the terrace and going onto the pitch to help.

The Liverpool supporter said: “Police allowed the fans to fill the middle terracing section to the point they were crammed in like sardines and yet the two outside portions of the terracing were left virtually empty. I stood and watched police allowing this to happen. It got to a point where they lost control completely.”

Presciently Phillips added: “Unfortunately Liverpool fans are probably going to get stuck with this again.”

By 4:50 pm even Football League secretary Graham Kelly was casting doubt on Duckenfield’s lies and hinting at police failings. In an interview with Gerald Sinstadt on the Grandstand program, he said there were two versions of events: the first that a gate had been forced, the second that a gate had been opened by police. “Whatever it was,” Kelly added, “there was a lack of proper control at that end of the ground.”

He continued: “I’ve not heard anybody suggest there was aggravation; that there was fighting; that there was trouble of that nature. If people were allowed to go in without having their tickets checked, they were allowed in by someone in authority.”

Journalist Peter Marshall, who had started the day as a Liverpool fan at the semi-final, ended it reporting on the tragedy on the BBC’s 10 o’clock News. Marshall spoke of how he and other fans at the Leppings Lane end of the ground were angered by the lack of policing which led to the crush outside, which in turn meant the police had to open the gate.

Dr John Ashton, who had been in the crowd with his sons, went on BBC Breakfast Time the following day and said that “the whole thing from start to finish had incompetence running through it – the organisational arrangements. I think it’s time we started to ask questions about accountability.”

Fans impeccable

On the same program Sir Harry Livermore, a Liverpool-based lawyer, told how fans had behaved “impeccably” while police organisation was totally lacking. Time and time again eye witnesses talked of the Liverpool fans’ exemplary behaviour both in the build-up to the tragedy and as it unfolded.

Time and time again they contrasted this with the lack of organisation from police and basic equipment to deal with an emergency of any kind. The fans were repeatedly at pains to point out they had tickets. However these testimonies would quickly be forgotten.

The first police press conference was not held until 7 pm on the evening of the disaster and, perhaps because of the eye-witness accounts already broadcast, South Yorkshire Chief Constable Peter Wright acknowledged that the gate was opened under police orders.

Yet he was in no mood to take responsibility, instead blaming “the late arrival of large numbers of fans” for the order being made. The lie that the gate was broken down was replaced by a more subtle variation: that ticketless fans arrived en masse at the last minute in a deliberate attempt to force police to open it.

The message was the same though: the Liverpool fans were to blame and the following morning the papers reflected that. The Sunday Mirror, for example, told how the gate “was opened to stampeding Liverpool fans” who numbered up to 4,000 and were “seemingly uncontrolled.”

The Sunday papers shifted an extra 500,000 copies between them on the back of coverage of the tragedy and, spurred on by this, the dailies also devoted page after page to the disaster. They had a little more time to reflect on what tone and which pictures to use. It was a difficult editorial decision as there was no way of telling whether the people in the photos had survived. The Daily Mirror ran a graphic photo of fans crushed against the fencing covering both the front and back pages in a “wraparound” with the headline: “NEVER AGAIN.”

Other papers used similar photos and they and the Press Council were inundated with complaints. However, it was the Mirror that bore the brunt of the criticism. The paper had recently installed colour presses that made the photos’ content all the more shocking.

In Liverpool their use was seen as insensitive, offensive and motivated by profit. Copies of the paper were burnt in the street and its editor Richard Stott was called upon by local radio to answer for his decision. Asked if he’d have used a similar picture of his own children, Stott replied he wouldn’t have been in a position to make the decision but he would have agreed with the editorial reasons behind it.

However the focus of anger soon turned from the papers’ pictures to the words that accompanied them. It’s indicative of the confusion created by the police’s allegations that in the same issue The Independent could talk of how “a mob of thousands, many without tickets, thought it was alright to try and push into the ground” and also run a piece headlined: “Key to deaths lies in policing,” which clearly identified the lack of organisation in and outside the ground.

Brian Reade, who was at Hillsborough and worked for the Liverpool Daily Post at the time, wrote a piece headlined: “DEAD BECAUSE THEY DON’T COUNT.”

Reade’s piece argued that “society had been happy to live with the myth that every football fan is a potential criminal. Well, nearly 100 people have just paid the price for this woeful misconception.”

His feelings were echoed by Simon Barnes in a piece for The Times that lamented the fact the dead were “the victims of contempt.” These voices struggled to be heard and soon they were more or less drowned out completely.

On the Tuesday after the disaster, the Daily Mail quoted PC Paul Middup, secretary of the South Yorkshire branch of the Police Federation, saying: “I am sick of hearing how good the crowd were … They were arriving tanked up on drink and the situation faced by officers trying to control them was quite simply terrifying.”

The narrative was also being bolstered by comment. The Sun asked: “Is it fair to make police the scapegoats?” before blaming “thousands of fans, many without tickets” who tried to get in just before kick-off. Astonishingly even a columnist in the Liverpool Daily Post, John Williams, pointed the finger of blame at ticketless fans “crushing to death their fellow Scousers,” adding that “uncontrolled fanaticism and mass hysteria” had “literally squeezed the life out of men, women and children.”

Darker tone

However, across the Pennines, the narrative was taking a much darker tone in a story which emerged from Sheffield-based Whites News Agency and was first printed in the day’s final edition of the Sheffield Star. Under the headline “FANS IN DRUNKEN ATTACKS ON POLICE,” the story claimed that “yobs … attacked an ambulance man, threatened firemen and punched and urinated on policemen as they gave the kiss of life to stricken victims.”

The allegations were repeated on the ITV’s evening news bulletin in an interview with then-MP for Sheffield Hallam Irvine Patnick, a Tory. The BBC also ran a lengthy piece focused on the allegations of drunkenness.

The following day the press gave full vent to the story. The now-defunct Today splashed on it, as did The Times, The Telegraph and the Daily Express, which reported on the “sick spectacle of the pilfering from the dead.”

The Daily Mail quoted police as saying: “Vile fans fought us as we tried to help dying,” while the Daily Star claimed: “DEAD FANS ROBBED BY DRUNK THUGS” with the caveat: “WHAT COPS SAY ABOUT HILLSBORO.”

The Sun went in the hardest. There was no qualification on their front page. As far as they were concerned the story was simply “THE TRUTH” – the headline accompanied by subheads which said: “Some fans picked pockets of victims. Some fans urinated on the brave cops. Some fans beat up PC giving kiss of life.” The page was designed by editor Kelvin McKenzie, who had initially considered the headline: “YOU SCUM,” but the one he chose still caused huge outrage on Merseyside.

Radio Merseyside was again inundated with angry callers and the Sun was repeatedly invited to state its case. However McKenzie declined the invitations. People across Merseyside reacted by ripping up, spitting on or burning copies of the paper. Pubs banned it and some newsagents slashed orders of the paper by as much as 80 percent. Sales of the Daily Star were also hit but their volte face the next day: “LIES: Cops made up tale of lootings” spared them from significant long-term damage.

Liverpool manager Kenny Dalglish later wrote in his autobiography that McKenzie rang him and asked what he could do to stem the damage. “You know that big headline ‘The Truth’,” Dalglish replied. “All you have to do is print ‘We Lied’ in the same size then you might be alright.”

“I can’t do that,” replied McKenzie. “Well, I can’t help you then,” said Dalglish before putting the phone down. To this day, the Sun has never recovered its circulation on Merseyside.

Over the years that infamous front page has been repeatedly held up not just as an example of the worst excesses of Hillsborough coverage but also of tabloid journalism more generally. Yet, it is rarely acknowledged that the rest of the media coverage was little better and had been building to that point over the previous three days. While the Sun’s treatment of the story was utterly inexcusable, like its now-defunct sister paper the News of the World during the phone-hacking scandal, it was working at the extreme edge of an already extreme “anything goes” professional culture lacking any effective mechanism of check and balance.

Morning Star

Next article – A red line in Merthyr’s dirty opencast coal mine

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