The Hillsborough Panel Report in the Media: Special Report

The Hillsborough Panel Report (12 September 2012) has finally told the truth about the Hillsborough football disaster in 1989. It has told us that 41 of the victims could have been saved had the ambulance services and police handled the disaster better. It has told us that South Yorkshire Police tried to cover up the decisions and mistakes that directly caused the disaster and it told us that they then conspired with a Tory MP and a Sheffield news agency to smear the victims and survivors, all of them Liverpool fans. Not that the families of the victims – the Hillsborough Family Support Group – or the fans of Liverpool FC (including myself) or the people of Liverpool needed to know what the truth was. Like the families of the Bloody Sunday dead, the HFSG campaigned to force the state to admit it publicly.

Even after 23 years, during which we have had three inquiries, all of them vindicating the victims and survivors, much of public opinion (beyond Merseyside) has been misinformed by the lies and smears disseminated by the South Yorkshire Police in the immediate aftermath of the disaster. But that could not have happened without the connivance of some sections of the British media, most notoriously the Sun newspaper. So how would the media respond to the findings of the Hillsborough Panel Report, particularly those concerning the conduct and failings of the police? Would they see them as isolated aberrations from the bad old days of the 1980s, aberrations that could never happen today? Or would they interpret them as part of a wider malaise in the relationship between the police and the public? These questions matter because the answers might determine the impact of media coverage on wider public opinion and belief about what happened at Hillsborough.

Extent of coverage

I looked at a small sample of TV news programmes on the day the Panel Report was published  – ITV at 6.30, Channel 4 News at 7, BBC News at 10 and BBC2 Newsnight at 10.30; and also a sample of English daily newspapers the next day, 13 September – the Daily Telegraph, Times, Guardian, Daily Mirror, Daily Mail, Daily Express and the Sun.

All four news programmes in the sample led with the Panel Report’s findings and gave it extensive time. The 30-minute bulletins on ITV and BBC1 gave it a third of their time, while the story dominated the agenda on the 50-minute programmes on Channel 4 and BBC2. Most of the newspapers led with the story on page 1 and gave it at least 3 pages of coverage, including editorial comment.  The Daily Mirror, which identified itself with the wider public campaign for justice, gave the report the most extensive coverage with 9 pages devoted to the report.  The Daily Express previewed its coverage on page 1 but its lead story was ‘Migrants blamed for surge in crime’.  But it is the treatment in the Daily Telegraph that really stands out. The paper only began its coverage on page 6 – with two relatively short items taking up just half the page – and did not think it important enough to give it editorial comment. Instead, the paper reserved the bulk of its coverage for its sports supplement.  Such marginal treatment is curious for a newspaper of the Telegraph’s standing, particularly given PM David Cameron’s major statement about the report in the Commons and his apology to the victims’ families and the survivors. After all, statements like these from the leader of the country usually succeed in setting the media agenda for the days that follow.  Perhaps the Telegraph, the voice of upper-middle class conservatism found the indictment of South Yorkshire police and ambulance services too much to stomach?

Reporting the truth about Hillborough

News headlines often provide instant clues as to how a newspaper or news programme is going to frame its coverage around a particular aspect or theme of a story. With respect to the Hillsborough Panel Report, the principal frame was very much ‘truth and justice’: the truth about what really happened on 15 April 1989 and the justice that needed to be done in light of that truth. This was most explicit on TV news and in the Mail, the Express and the Mirror.

News programmes on ITV, Channel Four and BBC1 were anchored live from the evening vigil held in Liverpool city centre; their headlines declared the truth about Hillsborough according to the Panel Report:

Presenter: I’m in Liverpool after the publication of the real truth and an apology 23 years after 96 fans died at Hillsborough. (ITV)

[SCENES AT THE VIGIL] Liverpool applauds the truth over Hillsborough. (Channel 4 News)

Years after the Hillsborough football tragedy, the truth finally emerges. (BBC News at 10)

BBC Newsnight at 10.30 adopted a different angle on the report, highlighting what it represented for the country: ‘Our golden summer of sport has been overshadowed by a day of national disgrace. The inquiry into the Hillsborough disaster is a devastating document’ (emphasis added).

Among the newspapers the next day, the Daily Mail devoted almost its full front page to a montage of photos of the 96 victims with the headline: ‘Finally the Hillsborough families know the truth: the police lied and lied. Now will they get justice?’  In white block capitals against black, the Mirror headline was ‘Hillsborough: After 23 years of lies and smears…The Truth’. At the centre of the page was a photo of a Liverpool FC shirt with the legend, ‘Justice 96’ and at the bottom, three bullet points: ‘41 lives could have been saved. Tory MP and Cops Led Cover-Up. 164 police statements doctored’. The Express carried a preview of the story at the top right of page 1: ‘Hillsborough: The shocking cover-up. At last the truth is revealed over the deaths of over 96 innocent fans’.

The elite newspapers were rather more understated in their presentation. The Guardian gave the top half of page 1 to the story with the headline, ‘Hillsborough: The Reckoning’, and the bullet points: ‘Police cover-up exposed. PM “profoundly sorry”’.  A column by sports writer, David Conn, which continued on page 2, reflected on ‘how the real story of what happened’ had ‘finally come to light’. In a similar vein, the Times’ page 1 headline declared that the Report was  ‘Vindication for Hillsborough families after 23-year struggle’. And, like the Guardian, highlighted with bullet points the police cover-up and the PM’s apology. It also gave space on the front page to a reflection by its football editor on the wider impact of the report in Liverpool: ‘City’s reputation restored but no sense of victory’.

And of course there was the Sun.  Twenty-three years after its infamous front page headline ‘The Truth’, it now declared ‘The Real Truth’ and bullet pointed the key findings of the Panel Report. It also previewed its editorial apology with a line that echoed the Prime Minister’s apology in the Commons: ‘The Sun – We are profoundly sorry for false reports’. This, along with a grovelling apology the day before from Kelvin McKenzie, the editor responsible for the original coverage, cut little ice with the Hillsborough Family Support Group, which banned the newspaper from its media conference held after the publication of the Panel report.

The Sun apologizes. “Too little, too late”, says Trevor Hicks, Hillsborough Family Support Group.

Coming to terms with police misconduct

McKenzie’s demand only two weeks later (26 September) that South Yorkshire Police apologize to him for feeding him disinformation in the wake of the disaster illustrated once again the fatal lack of judgement that led him to believe the lies in the first place. And while his old newspaper will continue to be boycotted on Merseyside for quite some time to come, its woeful reporting of the Hillsborough disaster pales in comparison with the conduct of senior officers of South Yorkshire Police. Although the Panel Report also indicted South Yorkshire Ambulance and Fire Services for similar failings and for amending incriminating states after the fact, the media’s principal focus was on this police constabulary as the chief culprit in the disaster.

Among the most shocking findings of the Panel Report, even for the families of the victims, was that 41 of the 96 people killed could have been saved if the police and ambulance services handled the unfolding disaster much better than they did; and that in order to cover-up their monumental failings the police went about altering the statements of the constables on duty at the stadium that day and launching a media smear campaign to put the blame on the victims. The cover-up was right at the top of the agenda for most of the news media I looked at.  The headlines on ITV news at 6.30 included  ‘A cover up by South Yorkshire Police and Liverpool fans wrongly blamed for the disaster’. Correspondent Lucy Manning began her report on the cover-up as follows:

Manning: Let’s be clear. Not only was it the fault of the South Yorkshire Police but they then went on to blame the fans, smeared those who had died here…and they were guilty of the most blatant cover-up. It was policing that was about control, not about safety. Not only did they send supporters into the pens to their death…. the panel is clear that there were strenuous attempts by the police to deflect the blame onto the fans: 146 police statements were changed, lines just crossed out by senior officers; others briefed the press fans were drunk. […] The police had little respect for the dead. They checked many of them on the police national computer for any criminal convictions.

At this point in the item, she put it to the current Chief Constable of South Yorkshire Police, David Crompton, that it amounted to ‘pretty disgraceful conduct by those in charge at the time’, to which he agreed.  Over on Channel 4 News, Alex Thomson talked about ‘a widespread cover-up by police and the ambulance service […] and a smear campaign that allowed the lie to prosper that, somehow, the fans themselves were to blame’. BBC News at 10 said that the Independent Panel had ‘delivered a devastating verdict on the police and on the emergency services. Evidence was manipulated, innocent victims were blamed’.

But it was Kirsty Wark on BBC Newsnight that took the most direct approach. In a live interview with David Crompton, she opened by taking off her specs for dramatic effect and asking him: ‘Which is the more venal? That there was a terrible police cover-up of their behaviour on the day? Or that they went around trying to smear innocent people and their families? I mean, presumably this is a shameful day for South Yorkshire Police?’  Crompton responded with his by now well-rehearsed line (from appearances on TV news programmes throughout the day) that it was a ‘very uncomfortable day’ for the force but that whatever discomfort it was feeling paled into insignificance when set beside the plight of the families for the past 23 years. Wark interrupted him at this point to bring the focus back on to the police:

Wark: Let’s just look at what we are dealing with here. We’re dealing with a lot of police officers who are still serving and in those 23 years, when these relatives have been doing so much to try to get to the truth, there was not one police whistleblower, not one police officer who came forward and said, ‘Look, this is a pack of lies. I behaved badly. My colleagues behaved badly.’ [STABBING AT THE AIR WITH HER SPECS TO EMPHASISE HER VEHEMENCE] That shows a pretty damning culture still within South Yorkshire police!

The newspapers also took the police cover-up seriously but the elite newspapers were much less direct, more guarded in language and approach than the popular press. The strongest expression of condemnation and concern from the Daily Telegraph, for example, came from its football correspondent, Henry Winter.  In a column on page 5 of the sports supplement, Winter called for new inquests and an investigation into the conduct of the police involved in the cover-up and smear campaign:

There can be no closure when personal heartache is compounded by the heartlessness of those in authority. The Hicks family had been brought up to trust the police, to assume as law-abiding citizens that the police were on their side. That trust was used and abused.

Compare this to the Mail’s focus on the ‘Disgraceful lies, slurs and cover-up’ of the police and its focus on the individuals identified in the Panel Report as most to blame: ‘Named, blamed and shamed’.  Or the Mirror’s editorial, ‘Damned lies, hard truths and justice for the 96’ which opened: ‘The truth of the Hillsborough Disaster is that the British Establishment covered up catastrophic failures by the emergency services, then launched a grotesque campaign of lies to blame the victims’. Summarizing the findings of the report, it concluded by calling for ‘an investigation into evidence that police officers committed perjury and perverted the course of justice…We’ve had the truth. Now for Justice.’ A short item in the Daily Express on the possibility of prosecutions against the police officers involved in the cover up was headed simply: ‘Put them on trial’.

It is rare to see such a concentrated, critical focus on the police in the media but then it would have been hard for them to ignore in the context of the Hillsborough Panel Report. What was relatively absent in the coverage was explanation and historical context.  In April this year, the Guardian’s football correspondent David Conn, one of the few journalists to keep the focus on the injustices of the Hillsborough disaster since it happened, compared the policing of fans that day by South Yorkshire Police with that of the miners in the ‘Battle of Orgreave’, seen by some as the most violent incident in a one-year strike (1984-85):

After Orgreave, South Yorkshire police claimed they had been attacked by striking miners, and prosecuted 95 people for riot and unlawful assembly, offences that carried potential life sentences. All were acquitted, after defence lawyers argued that police evidence was false, fabricated and that an officer’s signature on a statement was forged (Guardian, 12 April 2012; see article here).

The Guardian returned to the theme in its response to the Panel Report. Its editorial – ‘Hillsborough Report: Contempt and Cover-Up’ – considered the peculiarities of the original inquest with its 3.15pm cut-off and the verdicts of ‘accidental death’ and asked, ‘Why was it allowed to stand?’:

The answer is: with the connivance of several pillars of an establishment that was – at that time – gripped by something approaching the mentality of class war. Four years earlier, the South Yorkshire Police dabbled in something that was – in many local communities – regarded as literal class warfare, during the great miners’ strike. With Mrs Thatcher still in Downing Street, the divisive mood of that time lingered on. Football was a more working class game than it is today, and the Liverpool of the 80s – the city of Militant, and of Boys from the Blackstuff – was poor and leftish.

Yet however legitimate these historical parallels might be, there is a temptation to argue from there that the miners’ strike and Hillsborough happened during a decade of militant, polarised politics, left and right, and that the behaviour of the police then would never happen now. Indeed, the current Chief Constable of the South Yorkshire force tried that very line on BBC Newsnight when Kirsty Wark put to him the ‘pretty damning culture’ in his force:

Crompton: Well I would say that in 2012, South Yorkshire Police is a very different place than it was in 1989…

Wark: Well you wouldn’t know that from today, presumably, because you didn’t know until today how badly the police had behaved.

Crompton: And I would agree that no one coming forward over all of that time is a damning indictment and somebody should have done it.

Wark:  Yes and there are police officers today who are presumably in your force you want to go to and say, ‘How do you feel now after 23 years of keeping your mouth shut? Did you know about this?’  Did you as a Chief Constable know how much of a cover up there had been by individual police officers?

Crompton denied that he was previously aware of the level of cover-up and when asked if he was confident that this would not happen again, he replied that it was an ‘unusual and unique’ situation that would not be repeated. It seemed to be a prevalent view among the political classes as well, indicative perhaps of an anxiety to shore up public confidence in the police after such a damning public indictment. Alex Thomson put it to Steve Rotheram, Labour MP for Liverpool Walton that there might be ‘something in all this that goes beyond Liverpool?’

Thomson: We’ve had obviously the Hillsborough tragedy and inquiry. We’ve had the whole Bloody Sunday campaign and inquiry. We’ve had the Mull of Kintyre campaign. The same process – the disaster, the cover-up, the blaming of the participants, years in the wilderness of campaigning, then a proper legal inquiry and an apology. What’s wrong with Britain?

Rotheram replied that there was nothing wrong with Britain but that things were wrong in the past that allowed these tragedies to happen without proper investigation: this wouldn’t happen today.

Hillsborough and Bloody Sunday

Thomson’s reference to Bloody Sunday is interesting here because the media’s coverage of the Hillsborough Independent Panel Report bears some interesting historical comparison with how they responded to Bloody Sunday and successive inquiries into what happened  – Widgery in 1972 and Saville, from 1998 to 2010. As in the immediate aftermath of the Hillsborough disaster, the media generally believed the disinformation fed to them about the shootings on Bloody Sunday by authoritative sources, in this case the British Army. The victims had been smeared with lies such as that they were either armed with guns or nail bombs when shot, and therefore legitimate targets for the paratroopers, or that they were on an army wanted list as members of the Provisional IRA.  This became the official version of what happened that day and with the help of the media it was written into the public record by the Widgery Report just 11 weeks later (April 19, 1972). It was only after a successful public campaign by the families of the victims and a new public inquiry led by Lord Saville of Newdigate, that the truth about Bloody Sunday finally come to public light in Britain.

Yet unlike their generally positive response to the Hillsborough Panel Report, the media’s response to the Saville Report in 2010 was depressing to say the least. The overwhelming weight of evidence in the report proved, as Robert Fisk put it, ‘the guilty innocent and the innocent guilty’ (The Independent, 16 June 2010).  Yet, the British media, especially the newspapers, seemed reluctant to accept the verdict. And while in the wake of the Hillsborough Panel Report, many newspapers called for justice for the 96  – new inquests to overturn the verdicts of accidental death and possible prosecutions of those police officers who doctored statements and covered up the truth  – their response to the findings of the Saville Report was this:  the Bloody Sunday families have got what they wanted, the truth and an apology from the state so let’s just forget it now and move on. Of course, like the Hillsborough families, that was never the point of their campaign. They knew the truth all along – they simply wanted the state to admit to it.

Another interesting parallel was the different treatment by the media of those responsible for what happened on Bloody Sunday – the British Army – and at Hillsborough, the police. While most sections of the media went in quite aggressively to confront South Yorkshire Police about the cover-up and smear campaign against the victims, some even pushing for prosecutions, they seemed to content themselves with bland PR responses from the British Army about ‘learning lessons’ from the past and the changes the army had undergone in the forty years since Bloody Sunday. Only the Guardian accepted the logical conclusion of the evidence: the need to prosecute those responsible.

Closing Remarks

So what are we to make of the media’s response to the Hillsborough Panel Report? Apart from the Daily Telegraph’s contemptible relegation of the story to the sports section, it was generally fair and served the function of amplifying the findings to the widest possible audience. It was good to see the 96 and the survivors so publicly vindicated at long last. It was good to see exposed the failings of the police and emergency services. It was good to hear the truth about the police cover-up and the smear campaign against the victims and the survivors. And it was good to see the British media accept the findings of the Report without offering excuse or equivocation.

However, there was a subtext to the coverage that causes some unease and it is this: that Hillsborough happened at a particular moment in history – at a time when British society was polarized socially and politically and when the national game of football was in crisis – but that things have changed radically since then, so much so that a disaster like Hillsborough could never happen again. Perhaps not. But what most sections of the media appeared to forget or fail to understand was that the conduct of South Yorkshire Police was not an aberration of history. This was no ‘moment of madness’ for British policing but just one incident in a long continuum of incidents involving police misconduct, corruption, racism, the excessive use of force and other perversions of justice. Think the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four.  Think the miners’ strike. Think Hillsborough. Think The Tottenham Three and the Stephen Lawrence case. Think the paramilitary policing of student and anti-capitalist demonstrations. Think the killings of John Charles de Menezes, Mike Tomlinson and Mark Duggan. Now ask yourself, would it ever happen again? Watch this space.

  1. Whoever wrote this – well done.
    This kind of commentary and analysis is sorely lacking and we need more of it. By the way, I came across this after Googling ‘kirsty wark hillsborough’ as I was looking for the very quote you used above, and couldn’t find it via the BBC’s own archive.
    Great stuff. Thanks.

  2. John Barker says:

    Excellent article. I would, however, like to know the identity of the Tory MP.

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