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The Hillsborough Stadium disaster on Saturday April 15 1989 was and still is officially the worst sporting disaster in British sports history (http://www.bbc.co.uk/ liverpool/content/articles/2006/12/07/local_history_hillsborough_feature.shtml). The fact that 96 people died from this tragedy quite obviously led to wide-spread media coverage both in the UK and overseas (Wilkins, 1989). Ninety-four people died within 24 hours of the disaster, another one a week later and the 96th died in March 1993 (http://archive.thetelegraphandargus.co.uk/1999/4/15/164123.html).

At the time, the British media handled the event in different ways. Looking at the articles from various newspapers online, it appears that the majority were sympathetic due to the nature of the tragedy and the events the surrounding it. However some newspapers wrote controversial stories on the event, especially in the week following, but also at later dates after the event (Dudman, 2005). Even now, the media are still learning to treat the tragedy with kid gloves despite the fact that we are almost 20 years on.

This project will concentrate on how The Times and Sunday Times newspapers reported on and handled the Hillsborough disaster in the week following the events and also around 29th March 1991 when the accidental death verdict was announced, paying particular close attention on whether it is sympathetic or not to the supporters who were at the ground. I will also look at the “Hillsborough” TV movie made in 1996, which covers those two years, and see how it compares to the stories published in The Times and it is the chronology of this film that has helped me to choose the articles to summarise.

I am not writing this project as a case study to evaluate the causes of the Hillsborough disaster. This was done at the time in the document “The Hillsborough Stadium Disaster Inquiry” by The Rt Hon Lord Justice Taylor (1989) and it is in this document that one can find what is probably the most concise piece of literature ever written on the disaster.

Taylor (1989, page 9) says that “Only six minutes into the game, play was stopped when it was realised that spectators on the terraces behind the Liverpool goal had been severely crushed. In the result, 95 died and over 400 received hospital treatment.”

With no public internet at the time, the only updates were from television, radio and newspapers. Both BBC’s Grandstand and ITV’s results service gave extensive coverage to the disaster with both shows not having any closing music as a sign of respect, Grandstand simply placing their iconic BBC Sport logo to culminate. That night's Match of the Day also had no opening or closing music (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hNR7VYbT1RE).

The “evening pink” newspapers were popular at the time and it is expected that this Disaster would have been front page news all around the country. The “Football Echo” in Cardiff certainly did do this with the headline reading “CUP HORROR: 53 ARE DEAD – Tragedy as Liverpool, Forest fans spill onto pitch”. The article had no writer credited to it so it is likely that it came through their Press Association wires. This newspaper, which would have been on the streets of Cardiff by around 6pm on that Saturday evening, reported on the facts that they knew about at the time, namely the deaths, how fans helped to carry the victims from the field, and also reported on Liverpool manager Kenny Dalglish’s announcement asking everyone to co-operate with the police and first aid people and to help anyone that was injured.

However, even by this early stage, the controversy had started. “Liverpool had protested about the Hillsborough ticket allocation,” read the Football Echo, “They had fewer tickets than Forest, but their average gate is far higher.”

There were resemblances made to the Heysel Stadium disaster, caused by hooligans, less than four years before – a natural claim at the time as the reason for the events at Hillsborough wasn’t yet known.

The newspaper also claimed that there was “sporadic fighting among rival fans as hundreds of Liverpool supporters wandered aimlessly around the pitch, shocked and bewildered”, a claim that would be expanded on as this extraordinary week panned out. Taylor (1989, page 52) spoke about this claim saying that “To have had open fighting in a ground where some 90 spectators already lay dead would have been an unthinkable and obscene development”.

However he did follow that up by talking about the fans on the pitch saying that “Their conduct in abusing, assaulting and spitting at the police was disgraceful, the more so since earlier police failures had little to do with those officers now doing their best for the injured. However, although the abuse was widespread, the number of assaults and spittings was on the evidence comparatively small. In deploring them, one must recognise the uniquely horrifying experience which those responsible had just suffered and were still suffering.”

The article in the Football Echo coupled with Taylor’s report shows that there was fuel to the fire in regards to supporter misbehaviour at the ground. The reason that I have chosen to concentrate my research on The Times is twofold. First is to see how one of the quality newspaper reported on the disaster, whether they tried to lay blame or if they remained neutral and second, because The Times is owned by News International, the same as The Sun and it was that paper that on Wednesday 19th April 1989 printed the most controversial story ever regarding the Hillsborough disaster. The Sun’s front page headline was “The Truth” underneath which were the subheadings, “Some fans picked pockets of victims”, “Some fans urinated on the brave cops” and “Some fans beat up PC giving kiss of life” (Varley, 1999, p.51) The report also claimed that It took The Sun over 15 years to even attempt to apologise for printing these words (Kelso, 2004). Because a few papers printed similar stories and also commented on The Sun, it will be interesting to see how another of Murdoch’s stable deals with these issues. I have gathered data from The Times’ archives on Lexis Nexis Butterworths so only text will be analysed. Because of this, the page numbers from the newspapers are unknown and are not referenced.

The initial analysis shows that between April 15th 1989 and March 29th 1991 that 406 articles were written by The Times and Sunday Times, 75 of them in the first week. The Sunday Times dated 16th April 1989 devoted no less than 5,171 words to the disaster over six different articles. The lead article (2,040 words) gives a very concise chronological account of the disaster which looks to have researched well. This article gave the reader the bare facts of the disaster, the writer (unnamed on Lexis Nexis) looked to give no personal opinion but the article seems to be firmly on the side of the fans, many of whom were interviewed. “Catalogue of errors” was just one phrase used by the writer to describe events.

The other articles in The Sunday Times that day backed up the lead writer’s view that it was errors that caused the disaster. “This makes the game irrelevant”, “'Mayhem' after gate was opened”, “Liverpool counts its dead and plans memorial mass” and “Thatcher calls for immediate report” were the headlines of the other stories that day, all of which blame either the design of the ground or the policing and were sympathetic to the fans.

The final article that day was an opinion piece by Jason Tomas which started with the line “DISTURBING evidence emerged last night that the worst disaster in British football history stemmed from a series of blunders” where ticket allocation and policing were named as the main culprits. The article does report that some fans attacked a photographer and were abusive but Tomas says that “In the circumstances their tirade was understandable and forgivable.”

It’s not surprising to see that there were a lot of articles in Monday’s Times. Nineteen different viewpoints were in the publication totalling 12,027 words. The leading article (written by Peter Davenport, David Sapsted, Craig Seton and Philip Webster) said that “a complete breakdown in police co-ordination of the crowd” was being blamed for the disaster”

Minor comparisons to Heysel were continuing to be made but each reporter expressed that the cause of this disaster was not the same as the tragedy in Belgium four years previously. While lives were lost in both cases, the former was caused by hooliganism and in this case, all Times reporters accepted that it wasn’t. “This is something different,” wrote Simon Barnes. “There is no shame: this is shock and unalloyed grief.”

Every article on that day was on the side of the fans. The majority of the interviews were with fans with almost all of them criticising the authorities. Their events of the day are completely replicated in the “Hillsborough” film and watching this is very similar to seeing a live action version of these reports, such seems the accuracy. However this means that the balance of the publication completely sways towards one side. I would have expected to have seen at least one right of reply that day from someone from the police and the authorities from Hillsborough itself but there was none. There were just two comments from FA officials, one was regarding the future of that season’s FA Cup competition while one, from FA secretary Graham Kelly, is confined to David Miller’s opinion piece. Miller, like the rest of the writers, is firmly on the side of the fans saying “Kelly suggests the Leppings Lane end was 'under capacity', which self-evidently was untrue once the police opened the gates to admit even non-ticket holders. Furthermore, Kelly says Hillsborough is 'magnificently appointed', when it is no more than a patched-up old stadium.”

Tuesday’s newspaper contained little new information, simply updates on the events. The majority of the articles centred on safety and why the disaster could have happened. The names of the 94 dead were also published.

It is only natural that the police would eventually speak out in defence of their organisation but it was a shock to see it done in such an extreme way. The “Hillsborough” film portrays a policeman talking to a journalist in a pub saying “We’re getting sick of this brave Liverpool fans rubbish, I’ll tell the papers about these brave fans shall I? They pissed on the dead, they attacked my bobbies when they were trying to help the dying. Put that in the bloody newspapers. They went through the pockets of the dead and robbed them.” While this is obviously a dramatisation, the events would have certainly taken place in such a fashion and it is this that led to The Sun’s headlines as talked about above. These events would have certainly taken place on the Tuesday.

The Sun’s headline story on Wednesday April 19th was echoed in The Times but the difference looks to be that The Times reported on it with more decorum. Because The Sun chose to use the headline “The Truth” and spelled out its allegations in block letters, there was no doubt that where its stance was coming from. However, although The Times made the same allegations, it didn’t sensationalise it, nor did it come to its own conclusion, unlike its sister paper. The first paragraph in Tony Dawe’s article in The Times read “Drunkenness and hooliganism were major factors in the Hillsborough disaster, police said yesterday”. Immediately they are pushing the statement onto the police and reporting the facts that they were given. The report isn’t an opinion piece, unlike The Sun and carries onto say that “The officers claimed that drunkenness and hooliganism were strong factors in the tragedy. They told of supporters picking the pockets of the dead and urinating over officers tending crush victims.”

Chairman of the Hillsborough Support Group, Phil Hammond, commented in 2004 that “all the newspapers carried the same story”. The Guardian on Monday 14th February 2005, talks about this and mentions the Times’ article along with those that were in the Daily Star, Daily Express and Daily Telegraph (Dudman, 2005).

An article by David Cross, David Sapstead and Mark Souster in The Times on Wednesday also reports on the 95th person to die as a result of the tragedy.

In Thursday’s Times, there were more accusations that Liverpool fans had been drinking alcohol prior to the game. Again this was reported on as facts and writer Tony Dawe gave no personal opinions. Mark Souster and Ian Smith report on the complaints following the previous day’s The Sun with Peter Wright, Chief Constable of South Yorkshire ordering his men to make no further comments and Home Secretary Douglas Hurd “telling police and football supporters to stop their 'mess of accusations and counter-accusations' and leave the verdict to the judicial inquiry.” Robert Kilroy-Silk’s opinion piece in Friday’s newspaper is the only one of its kind that features the Hillsborough disaster since Monday. Kilroy-Silk speaks in defence of the Liverpool fans saying “I can only say that never, attending any match at Liverpool, have I felt the threat of violence or the menace of the mob as I have at other grounds.”

It took two years for the inquest to be heard. After an 80-day hearing, an accidental death verdict was announced. The Times devoted just three articles to the hearing on the day after the verdict was announced, March 29th 1991 with no lead-ups or follow-ups on any of the months surrounding. The articles were balanced and contained reaction from fans and police. These comments were echoed accurately in the Hillsborough film.

In conclusion, the media have still found the disaster hard to handle here and now in the 21st century. It appears that on more than a handful of occasions in this decade, someone has been forced to apologise for remarks that have offended. However on every occasion, no offence seemed to be intended. In October 2002, FHM magazine in Australia printed pictures from Hillsborough with crushed fans alongside captions saying “shoppers waited for the doors to open for the end-of-year sale” (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/2347091.stm).

Alexei Sayle had to apologise in August 2003 for saying “The sentimentality in Liverpool is compounded by both Heysel and Hillsborough, you know. Liverpool people are so sentimental anyway and even more so with this 'Oh, we're the greatest people and you'll never walk alone' and all this s****” http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/3151429.stm

The BBC had to apologise twice in 2007. First was in November when EastEnders character Minty said in the show that “Five years out of Europe because of Heysel, because they penned you lot in to stop you fighting on the pitch, and then what did we end up with? Hillsborough.” (http://www.bbc.co.uk/complaints/news/2007/11/14/ 50721.shtml) , while on The Politics Show a month later, Patrick Burns compared the disaster to the Heysel Stadium tragedy (http://blogs.pressgazette.co.uk/wire/1893).

Sissons (2006, p.13) says: “All journalists can make sure they balance their stories by explaining as many of the arguments involved as possible. And if you are accusing someone of something, they should be allowed to respond”. The Times didn’t strictly keep to this in the week following Hillsborough disaster. If they, or any other newspaper, had done so immediately, or if the police had organised a proper press conference on the Monday, then perhaps the sensationalised Sun story may not have occurred.

At an early stage, it appears that The Times learned to not annoy the fans, in other words, their audience or potential buyers. Sullivan (2002) says: “Trying to present many sides of an issue is the mark of an honest journalist; maintaining a distinction between news and opinion is the mark of an honest editor”. The Times kept that distinction throughout their reporting. The news and opinion columns were kept strictly separate. Their reports on the Hillsborough Disaster were naturally sympathetic to the fans but any bias was mainly subjective, they didn’t go for sensationalism like The Sun, and therefore didn’t risk losing their readership. The Sun did just that and lost readers in Liverpool as a result (http://www.bbc.co.uk/ liverpool/content/articles/2006/12/07/local_history_hillsborough_feature.shtml). The Times reported with professionalism throughout and although they, like The Sun, repeated the allegations against Liverpool fans made by a senior police officer, they are not historically remembered for doing so, which shows that they did this and all of their reporting in a correct and dignified fashion.

 

 

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