Hillsborough Disaster: Conflicting News Sources

Within UK society, an ongoing narrative is competition between differential news organisations to shape public opinion and define the world locally, nationally and, increasingly so, internationally. Technology and the mass media are major vehicles advancing these battles, having been so from the lengthy era of the traditional printing press to use of newer platforms like social media. Sharing the plethora of platforms, rival news sources work to project their ideas and values. Though the playing field is far from level. Indeed, various factors affect the fortunes of sources, irrespective of their integrity, in defining the news agenda.

A particularly poignant and tragic case study demonstrating media-management struggles, clashing groups of news sources and contentious influence on news is the Hillsborough disaster, as a series of political, civil and media conflicts led to a paradigm of victim blaming, causing wholehearted endeavours for unequivocal truth and subsequent justice to continue over 25 years on from the event.
On 15th April 1989, 96 supporters of Liverpool Football Club lost their lives during a fatal crush at Hillsborough Stadium during the semi-final of the FA Cup. In the aftermath, an unsavoury narrative rumbled, whereby fans were blamed and negligent individuals and institutions were not held to account, an unacceptable state of affairs symptomatic of the inequalities in the industry of media-management, as well as the civic state of Britain at the time. Notable news sources relevant to the controversy include a particular leading national newspaper, some overall less influential local publications and a selection of questionable public service reports.

Powerful Sources and Hillsborough’s Dominant Frame
News sources are the variety of mass media organisations which uncover, publish and circulate news to the public. These range from superficial forms like hard newspaper copies to less transparent information forces like news agencies. Though similarly to how divergent political organisations project alternate ideologies and values, rival news sources often frame events and affairs contrastingly in order to push their preferential agenda. A major determining factor as to the influence of a source is the extent of its “power to speak publicly” (Franklin and Carlson, 2011), a liberty most readily available to larger publications, thus allowing them to “define the world”. In the case of Hillsborough, national newspaper The Sun set the most powerful and harmful agenda.

Purchased in 1969 by Rupert Murdoch’s News International (Cashfloat, 2016), the tabloid is notorious for audacious opinions, outrageous stories and fickle political allegiances; yet envied for its ability to assert definitive ‘truths’. In regard to Hillsborough, all aforementioned elements were present in forefront media accounts of the tragedy. Indeed, as a top national periodical, The Sun is optimally prominent in regard to the “mixture of voices that regularly appear” (Franklin and Carlson), meaning a wider scope to exert far greater influence on the news. In congruence with its might in the newsprint market, even recently remaining (as it was in the 1990s) the most circulated UK newspaper (Agility PR Solutions, 2017), parent company News Corp (formerly News International) boasts notable control of both the superficial and more covert levels of the citizenry information streams. The latter in the form of news agencies. Therefore, the result surrounding the disaster saw accounts of the event instantly led by an infamous article, published on 19th April 1989, headlined: “THE TRUTH”. In it read unfounded reports that drunken fans pickpocketed the dead, urinated on and assaulted police officers and, ultimately, were to blame for allegedly forcing their way into the stadium without tickets. Overt vilification of Liverpudlian people, not for the first time in the late 20th century (political context to be later explored), which would barricade justice for over a quarter of a century.

The Liverpool Echo: Fighting for its Community
Meanwhile, local publication the Liverpool Echo, though admittedly partial too, is and was an example of a more supplementary voice competing in the fierce media-management sphere. Quick to sympathise with its immediate community, the newspaper sought to defend Liverpool supporters amid “baseless accusations” (Bradbury, 2013) within nationwide reports. In paradox to The Sun’s copies the same day, it led with the headline: “SPEAKING UP FOR MERSEYSIDE”, proceeding to “challenge London papers and Sheffield police” to “PRODUCE EVIDENCE”. However, influence on the news at large from such a source is inherently compromised (geographically to name but one factor), epitomised by the Echo’s rather reactionary and backfooted tones of coverage. Its articles from the time, resurfaced by Bradbury, were published as mere responses. For example, mimicking of The Sun’s account with its own release entitled “THE REAL Truth”, mockingly channelling its ideological competitor’s structural delivery right down to its statement of the ‘facts’ in bullet point form. Finally, Bradbury’s penultimate archive (“THE PROOF”, 21st April 1989) depicts illustrations and subsequent explanations of evidence that the Reds’ fans were blameless. Alas, what is regretful about this is that the Echo’s desperate scramble for validation is ultimately indicative of major news sources’ defaulted pole position in public interest storytelling, regardless of the evidence they do or do not present.

A Lack of Interest in the Truth
Digital advancements in regard to the media have presented yet more challenges to the journalistic profession. Namely, the relentless need to produce material and the public’s growing reluctance to pay for news. However, as supported by the case study (occurring during a roaring period for the press), such pressures on reporters and journalists aren’t entirely new phenomena. Indeed, even when print media was arguably the leading player in the news industry, the most powerful sources still dominated society’s interpretations of stories. In light of this, it’s conceivable to suggest that many professionals in fact roll-over regarding media-management struggles, rather conforming to principal narratives supplied by elite sources. Gandy (1982), for example, alludes to utilisation of “information subsidies”, causing the more investigative virtues of journalism to be restrained by comfortable and often passive reliance on mainstream sources. An unhealthy passivity highlighted by Davies (2008) in specific connection to the deployment of “PR to serve some political or commercial interest”. Both journalists and citizens here are consequently affected. As such common practice, a dangerous product of the convention is effectively a sanctioning of consent for “news sources to shape the news agenda” (Berkowitz and Adams, 1990). Furthermore, broad circulation of such information, akin to Hillsborough’s press-led victim blaming paradigm, inevitably means that the people are bombarded with one-sided news testimonies, as the dominant sources are inherently “more readily accessible to the public” (Robinson). In addition, there’s also an increased likelihood that the empowered subsidies will trickle down into regional newsrooms. Examples of this relating to Hillsborough to be pinpointed later.

A Lack of Interest in the Truth: The Police and Government Agenda
The ideological standpoint of news sources and the effect of news events on particular organisations’ public image has much to do with how they may spin narratives. Thus, as previously identified, the political context of Britain at the time of the tragedy is extremely applicable to such actions. Moreover, it may be in the interest of an institution to frame an event for reasons born out of self-defence; for example, following occupational malpractice resulting in disastrous consequences. In scenarios of the like, organisations attempt to get “the media to ‘play along’, convincing them that a spin story is correct” (Maltese, 1994). In specific reference to Hillsborough, the latter state of affairs befits cover-up efforts and subsequent legal exoneration (until only recently) of inept public services, both on the scene and in the aftermath.

Following on, reaction to Hillsborough from high-profile sectors of the media ran parallel with rife social unrest and disconnects in society. To look, as a comparative instance, at a US-based political communications study, Walters, Walters and Gray (1996), paraphrased by Robinson, suggest that subjecting citizens to partial information subsidies and consequent media coverage help to “legitimise campaign messages”. The research examines public relations (PR) ploys (specifically strategic press releases) during the 1992 presidential election, though resonates regarding Hillsborough in that UK prime minister of the day Margaret Thatcher, “primary definers” (Hall et al., 1978) of crime (including various public service organisations and professions) and the mainstream media all had various agenda to sustain alignment with. To expand on Hall, the assertion within his work that “police, Home Office and courts form a near-monopoly as sources of crime news in the media” is extremely significant in that competent scrutiny of those in positions of power, a traditional role of the media (namely the “press”) as “the public sphere’s pre-eminent institution” (Habermas, 1962), is compromised. As a result, when major incidents like the disaster occur, already difficult and sensitive circumstances are liable to be exacerbated by miscarriages of justice, with society not systematically set up to effectively “hold the police to account” (Mawby, 2010). With Hillsborough, though “Lord Justice Peter Taylor’s interim report” depicts an early suggestion of negligence and subsequent responsibility on the part of “South Yorkshire Police” (The Week UK), the initial inquest (concluded 28th March 1991) ruled accidental death, clearing all institutions and persons of any criminality. Additionally, the evidential substance behind the aforementioned verdict exemplifies further corruption, born out of the primary definition monopoly. Indeed, Dr Stefan Popper’s (South Yorkshire coroner) report did not only disregard factors arising after 3:15pm (including emergency service reaction), but Popper has also been accused of allowing “police to deluge his inquest with stories of drunkenness and misbehaviour” (Conn, 2016) on the part of fans. Ultimately, with the inquest confirming a completion of the death toll by 3:15pm that day, coupled with dismissal of any police culpability, neither the emergency services, any law enforcement offices nor even the coroner’s actions would be brought to thorough questioning. Hence the paradigm of supporter blaming, which, following the aforementioned official judicial hearing, would be durably consolidated as a fact of legal record.

To finally explore directly the socio-political context surrounding the events in 1989, the role of The Sun must again be foregrounded. Contrast.org recalls a “historical media framework that already labelled Liverpool rebellious and anarchistic”, advanced dually by both prime minister Margaret Thatcher and Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock. The latter politician’s feud with the city was in connection to Militant group’s control of Liverpool City Council (vocalised by Kinnock’s fellow party member Derek Hatton). The group led its campaign in the spotlight of the media with the controversial and rather normless slogan “better to break the law than to break the poor”. In expansion, the council’s establishment of an illegal budget in 1985 unfortunately proved to be damaging PR for Liverpool as a whole. Militant also actively challenged the Conservative government’s poll tax policy in 1989 (November, though the same year as Hillsborough), notably setting up the All Britain Anti-Poll Tax Federation. Consequently, blame for the tragedy was laid at the door of matchday supporters, which no doubt corresponded as a suitable outcome for some of Parliament’s bigwigs. Whilst as a side note, the Toxteth riots of 1981 (which followed London’s Brixton riots the same year) was indicative of the social struggles between police and some citizens. In this isolated case, violent strains between Liverpool’s black community and Merseyside police, which visually infiltrated national news, thus painting the city (like in regard to Militant) in anarchic fashion. A significant response within the walls of Parliament was ministerial endorsements laid at Thatcher’s door to send Liverpool (and Merseyside’s “stony grounds”) into a state of “managed decline” (BBC, 2011). Meanwhile, lowly reputed Liverpudlians fell further victim to their predisposed media perception; one which The Sun, as emphasised prior, emphatically utilised in framing Hillsborough.

Other Nationwide Accounts
The immediate efforts of the Liverpool Echo to counter the harmful, unsympathetic and unproven nationwide event narratives proved relatively futile, as ‘elite’ sources swarmed both newsrooms and the print media. Indeed, considering the scholarly suggestion that “media organisations” have taken to “reducing their news gathering resources at local level” (Mawby), strained further by the same author’s assertion of strengthening police PR positions (“forces are committing greater resources to their communications functions”), the potential for any information circulator to succumb to truths out of coercion from broader society may be heightened. Regarding the police, PR activities which saw the media “drip fed” their “sound bites” (Contrast.org) reflects the matter. So much so that one notable employee of the Liverpool Daily Post, almost unbelievably, followed both national periodicals and other regional press in condemning fan behaviour; citizens of the newspaper’s own locality. Remarkably, Liverpool-based journalist John Williams urged readers to “blame the yobs”. The shocking attack on the “Scousers” however was none dissimilar to nor originating from unique sources to those influencing other regionals. Namely, the Sheffield Star, the Yorkshire Post and the Manchester Evening News. To boot, as far as discourse is concerned, reports in all three of their reports stand out for notably ‘military’ lexicon. Indeed, reference to fans as the “Anfield Army” (Manchester Evening News) embarking on a “fatal charge” (Sheffield Star) attires the Liverpool contingent in a fashion connoting a conflictual entity on a mission to violently descend upon a football match.

Contrastingly however, a critical discourse analysis’ compilation of survivors’ accounts has portrayed Scousers in a more philosophical light. Indeed, as a closing sentiment, Cocking and Drury’s (2014) work examines fascinatingly, drawing on a plethora of scholars, the linguistic phenomenon whereby a term (“panic”) can possess “widespread popular currency” (Quarantelli, 2001). Aware of the potential of the word “panic” to imply “uncontrolled emotion” and “selfish behaviour”, the researchers thoughtfully consider its “62”-time utterance by participants (survivors) to describe the raw scenes. Seeming admittance of actions amounting to panic in the interviews would often feed the narrative that fans (though, interestingly, arguably the police as well) neglected rationality and order. However, Cocking and Drury account for their participants who “provided evidence contradicting the notion that ‘mass panic’ occurred”; concluding with Quarantelli’s assertion that it may be beneficial for “the concept of panic within collective social behaviour” to “disappear as a technical term”. The bottom line being that many news sources lazily generalised Liverpudlians in the way that society avidly portrayed them, much like the power of language.

In final reflection, as supported by the case study, particular news sources certainly possess an advantage in regard to influence on news. Funding is obviously a major aid, as the sense of reliability (rightly or wrongly) that such sources develop (as a result of their backing) ultimately contributes to any degree of monopoly held. For example, direct financial support from News Corp, ensures a consistent stream of information for journalists of top periodicals. Moreover, public services like the UK’s numerous police forces have been shown to be able to resist scrutiny (be it for actions or queries surrounding official reports) for extended periods. Of course, with the mass media continuing to expand with concepts like citizen journalism (social media arguably at the forefront of this), more modest news sources, perhaps operating on a local level, provide relative competition for established organisations and institutions; whilst possibly even heightening any pre-existing scepticism of news via a phenomenon of ‘saturation’ and subsequent public distrust of a ‘dumbed down’ profession (journalism). However, Hillsborough still epitomises the durable suffering which can arise from wars upon the battlefield of media-management. Suffering which may eventually be at least partially cushioned, as justice slowly prevails.

Agility PR Solutions, 2017 Top U.K Newspapers by Circulation https://www.agilitypr.com/resources/top-media-outlets/top-10-uk-newspapers-by-circulation/

BBC, 2011 Thatcher urged ‘let Liverpool decline’ after 1981 riots https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-16361170

Berkowitz, D and Adams, D.B. 1990 Information Subsidy and Agenda-Building in Local Television News

Bradbury, S 2013 Hillsborough disaster: How the Liverpool ECHO reported the tragedy in 1989 https://www.liverpoolecho.co.uk/news/liverpool-news/hillsborough-disaster-how-liverpool-echo-3334610

Cashfloat, 2016 A History of The Sun Newspaper https://www.cashfloat.co.uk/blog/technology-innovation/sun-newspaper/

Cocking, C. and Drury, J 2014 Talking about Hillsborough: ‘Panic’ as Discourse in Survivors’ Accounts of the 1989 Football Stadium Disaster https://www.researchgate.net/publication/260532576_Talking_about_Hillsborough_’Panic’_as_Discourse_in_Survivors’_Accounts_of_the_1989_Football_Stadium_Disaster

Conn, D, The Guardian 2016 The other villain of the Hillsborough saga: legal system that left families in torment https://www.theguardian.com/football/2016/apr/29/hillsborough-inquest-legal-system-key-part-establishment-failed-families-years

Contrast.org Hillsborough FOOTBALL DISASTER http://www.contrast.org/hillsborough/history/media.shtm

Davies, N, The Guardian 2008 Our media have become mass producers of distortion https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2008/feb/04/comment.pressandpublishing

Franklin, B. and Carlson, M. 2011 Journalism, Sources and Credibility: New Perspectives

Gandy, O 1982 Beyond Agenda Setting: Information Subsidies and Public Policy

Habermas, J 1962 The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society

Hall et al. 1978 Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State, and Law and Order

Maltese, J 1994 Spin Control: The White House Office of Communications and the Management of Presidential News

Mawby, R. C. 2010 Police corporate communications, crime reporting and the shaping of policing news

Quarantelli, E. L. 2011 The Sociology of Panic

Robinson, K Information Subsidies and Social Media https://instituteforpr.org/wp-content/uploads/Robinson-research-paper.pdf

Walters, T.N. Walters, L.M. and Gray, R 1996 Agenda building in the 1992 presidential campaign

Week UK, The 2018 Hillsborough: timeline of the disaster’s aftermath

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