Summary of Chapter 12: Behind the headlines: the origins, promotion and reproduction of unsubstantiated allegations
In the days after the disaster the media, particularly the press, published allegations and counter-allegations apportioning blame. This came to a head on 19 April when a number of newspapers, The Sun being the most prominent, reported serious allegations about the behaviour of Liverpool fans before and during the unfolding tragedy.
The documents disclosed to the Panel show that the origin of these serious allegations was a local Sheffield press agency informed by several SYP officers, an SYP Police Federation spokeperson and a local MP.
They also demonstrate how the SYP Police Federation, supported informally by the SYP Chief Constable, sought to develop and publicise a version of events that focused on several police officers' allegations of drunkenness, ticketlessness and violence among a large number of Liverpool fans. This extended beyond the media to Parliament.
Yet, from the mass of documents, television and CCTV coverage disclosed to the Panel there is no evidence to support these allegations other than a few isolated examples of aggressive or verbally abusive behaviour clearly reflecting frustration and desperation.
140. As the severity of the disaster was becoming apparent, SYP Match Commander, Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield, told a falsehood to senior officials that Liverpool fans had broken into the stadium and caused an inrush into the central pens thus causing the fatal crush. While later discredited, this unfounded allegation was broadcast internationally and was the first explanation of the cause of the disaster to enter the public domain.
141. Within days, further serious allegations emerged from unnamed sources, a Police Federation spokesperson and a local Conservative MP, Irvine Patnick. These were that Liverpool fans had conspired to arrive late, many were without tickets, were exceptionally drunk and aggressive and determined to force entry into the stadium.
142. On 19 April, four days after the disaster, The Sun newspaper published a front-page story under the banner headline, 'THE TRUTH', alleging that Liverpool fans had assaulted and urinated on police officers resuscitating the dying, stolen from the dead and verbally sexually abused an unconscious young woman. Although less prominently, and often with a lesser degree of certainty, other regional and national newspapers published similar allegations.
143. In a letter revealed to the Panel, within days of The Sun's article its Managing Editor wrote to people, including bereaved families, who had complained about the allegations. While regretting the presentation of the article, he refused to apologise for its 'substance', claiming it was factually accurate. Subsequently the coverage was condemned by the Press Council.
144. Given the broader press reporting of the allegations, the Panel sought to establish their origins. Documents disclosed to the Panel show that the allegations were filed by White's News Agency, a Sheffield-based company. They were based on meetings over three days between agency staff and several police officers, together with interviews with Irvine Patnick MP and the South Yorkshire Police Federation Secretary, Paul Middup.
145. From the documents, it is clear that Mr Patnick based his comments on a conversation with police officers on the evening of the disaster while the officers were in considerable distress. Mr Patnick submitted a detailed account of this meeting and his overall involvement that evening to the Taylor Inquiry.
146. Months after the disaster White's News Agency confirmed to the London Evening Standard that its filed stories originated from 'unsolicited' allegations made by 'high ranking' SYP officers to agency 'partners'. There were four separate police sources plus the interview with Mr Patnick. Together these sources were considered sufficient verification for the story to be considered factually accurate and it was distributed accordingly.
147. A document disclosed to the Panel shows that while the Taylor Inquiry was in session White's News Agency received copies of several SYP officers' sworn statements alleging drunken and violent behaviour by Liverpool fans. The agency forwarded the statements to Mr Patnick.
148. A further document records a meeting in Sheffield of Police Federation members on the morning of the publication of the controversial story in The Sun. The Police Federation Secretary, Mr Middup, confirmed that 'putting our side of the story over to the press and media' had been his priority. He told the meeting that the Chief Constable had stated that 'the truth could not come from him' but he had given the Police Federation a 'free hand' and his support.
149. At the meeting police officers repeated many of the allegations published in the media. The Chief Constable joined the meeting and advised that the SYP case had to be pulled together and given to the Inquiry. A 'defence' had to be prepared and a 'rock solid story' presented. He believed that the Force would be 'exonerated' by the Taylor Inquiry and considered that 'blame' should be directed towards 'drunken ticketless individuals'.
150. Lord Justice Taylor's Interim Report condemned the evidence and testimony of senior police officers and rejected as exaggerated the allegations made against Liverpool fans. He stated categorically that fans' behaviour played no part in the disaster. The South Yorkshire Police Federation held a meeting in Sheffield attended by its Parliamentary representative, Michael Shersby MP. Records of the meeting disclosed to the Panel show that the Police Federation considered the Interim Report was unfair and unbalanced. Mr Shersby was invited to assist in the development of a 'counter attack' to 'repudiate' Lord Justice Taylor's findings.
151. The meeting's afternoon session heard from unnamed police officers who repeated the allegations of exceptional levels of abuse, drunkenness and violence. The Interim Report was dismissed as a 'whitewash' and the meeting would provide the basis for promoting the police version of events through 'public channels'. The meeting's content, particularly the allegations, directly informed an article published subsequently in the Police Federation magazine. It was written by its editor who attended and contributed to the meetings.
152. In a press interview the South Yorkshire Chief Constable, Peter Wright, also criticised the findings of the Interim Report and expressed confidence that a 'different picture' would emerge at the inquests. His comments drew many complaints and were investigated by WMP. It was decided that no breach of discipline had occurred.
153. Consistent with Lord Justice Taylor's findings, the Panel found no evidence among the vast number of disclosed documents and many hours of video material to verify the serious allegations of exceptional levels of drunkenness, ticketlessness or violence among Liverpool fans. There was no evidence that fans had conspired to arrive late at the stadium and force entry and no evidence that they stole from the dead and dying. Documents show that fans became frustrated by the inadequate response to the unfolding tragedy. The vast majority of fans on the pitch assisted in rescuing and evacuating the injured and the dead.