Chapter 12: Behind the headlines: the origins, promotion and reproduction of unsubstantiated allegations

Reporting the unfolding disaster

2.12.10 In his Interim Report LJ Taylor recorded that at approximately 3.15pm Graham Kelly, the FA's Chief Executive, and Graham Mackrell, the Sheffield Wednesday Football Club Secretary, spoke to C/Supt Duckenfield in the Police Control Box. They were told that there were deaths and the match would be abandoned; a 'gate had been forced and there had been an inrush of Liverpool supporters'.[1] Pointing to Gate C on a Control Box monitor he stated: 'That's the gate that's been forced: there's been an inrush'.

2.12.11 Soon after, Mr Kelly presented this as the police version of events on radio. At 3.40pm BBC's Alan Green reported live from Hillsborough that there were 'unconfirmed reports that a door was broken down at the end that was holding Liverpool supporters'.[2] 

2.12.12 At approximately 4.30pm Mr Green reported on information obtained from Mr Mackrell, who had spoken to 'the police officer in charge'. Mr Green stated that 'at ten to three there was a surge of fans at the Leppings Lane end of the ground ... the surge composed of about 500 Liverpool fans and the police say that a gate was forced and that led to a crush in the terracing area - well under capacity I'm told, there was still plenty of room inside that area'.[3] 

2.12.13 Later in the bulletin it was stated that the gates had been 'broken down' following the arrival of 'large numbers of ticketless fans'. 

2.12.14 By early evening the allegations had consolidated. BBC Radio 4 reported that it was 'clear' that many fans had no tickets and had entered through an exit gate: 'One report says the gate was kicked down another that it was opened by ground staff'.[4] 

2.12.15 Later in the evening, however, the SYP Chief Constable, Peter Wright, stated that the gate had been opened on the instruction of a police officer to relieve the crush outside the stadium caused by the late arrival of thousands of Liverpool fans, many without tickets.[5]

The immediate aftermath

2.12.16 The following morning's newspapers presented contrasting accounts. The theme of an aggressive, late-arriving crowd determined to gain entry persisted, with the Sunday Mirror, for example, reporting that between three and four thousand 'Liverpool fans pushed seemingly uncontrolled into Hillsborough'.[6]  

2.12.17 The Observer attributed the three to four thousand estimate to CC Wright, stating that their 'late arrival' had 'threatened danger to life'.[7] It also noted Mr Mackrell's comment that the disaster had been caused by a 'surge' as Liverpool fans arrived late.

2.12.18 On Monday 17 April while press coverage remained mixed, the assumed culpability of Liverpool fans was central to many reports. The Sheffield Star described a 'crazed surge' of Liverpool fans. It claimed that as a consequence 'up to 40 people died in the tunnel, the rest trampled underfoot'. Some fans were the 'worse for drink, others without tickets' had 'raced to the stadium'.[8] 

2.12.19 The Yorkshire Post reported that 'thousands of latecomers tried to force their way into the ground' having set off a 'fatal charge'.[9] The Manchester Evening News alleged that fans, 'foolishly late getting to the game and furious at the prospect of missing the start, kicked and hammered on the steel [exit] gates'.[10] 

2.12.20 Thus gates were opened and the 'Anfield Army charged onto the terrace behind the goal, many without tickets'. Late arrival, forced entry, ticketless fans, drunkenness and a 'charge' into the stadium were allegations common to most national and regional newspapers.

2.12.21 One of the earliest comment articles was written by the Evening Standard's Peter McKay who concluded that the 'catastrophe was caused first and foremost by violent enthusiasm for soccer, in this case the tribal passions of Liverpool supporters' who 'literally killed themselves and others to be at the game'.[11] 

2.12.22 As the focus on fans' behaviour consolidated, Jacques Georges, the UEFA President, stated:

One can talk of people's frenzy to enter the stadium come what may, whatever the risk to the lives of others ... One had the impression that they were beasts waiting to charge into the arena.[12]

2.12.23 An alternative view was put forward by Simon Barnes, writing in The Times. His comment article, 'Why the dead are the victims of contempt', was strongly critical of the state of football. 'Why make the football grounds pleasant? Cram them in, take as much money as you dare to charge, that's the way. Spend a million quid on a player, spend the legal minimum on ground safety and spend next to nothing on comfort'.[13]

2.12.24 On Tuesday 18 April, writing in the Liverpool Daily Post, John Williams noted that 'the gatecrashers wreaked their fatal havoc', their 'uncontrolled fanaticism and mass hysteria ... literally squeezed the life out of men, women and children'.[14] It was 'yobbism at its most base' as 'Scouse killed Scouse for no better reason than 22 men were kicking a ball'.

2.12.25 Other reports, primarily from fans' eye-witness accounts, challenged the dominant themes that directed responsibility towards Liverpool fans. These alternative accounts focused on the lack of crowd management in the approach to the stadium, the bottleneck at the turnstiles, the absence of stewarding once Gate C was opened and the failure to direct the incoming crowd once inside the stadium. They also denied that there was an exceptional level of drunkenness or that fans had rushed the turnstiles or the terrace.

2.12.26 PC Middup, Secretary of the South Yorkshire branch of the Police Federation, was unequivocal about where responsibility lay. He was reported as stating: 'I am sick of hearing how good the crowd were ... They were arriving tanked up on drink and the situation faced by the officers trying to control them was quite simply terrifying'.[15] The Sun carried allegations that ticketless fans had arrived and had caused the disaster 'either by forcing their way in or by blackmailing the police into opening the gates'.[16]

[1] The Rt Hon Lord Justice Taylor The Hillsborough Stadium Disaster, 15 April 1989, Interim Report. Cm 765, London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office, p17.
[2] 'Sport on Two', BBC Radio, 15 April 1989.
[3] 'Sport on Two', BBC Radio, 15 April 1989.
[4] 6pm News, BBC Radio 4, 15 April 1989.
[5] Special News Report, 9pm, Radio Merseyside, 15 April 1989.
[6] Sunday Mirror, 16 April 1989, PRE000000420001, p1.
[7] The Observer, 16 April 1989.
[8] Sheffield Star, 17 April 1989, PRE000000020001, p1.
[9] Yorkshire Post, 17 April 1989.
[10] Manchester Evening News, 17 April 1989.
[11] Evening Standard, 17 April 1989.
[12] Reported in Liverpool Echo, 17 April 1989.
[13] The Times, 17 April 1989, PRE000000480001, p16.
[14] Liverpool Daily Post, 18 April 1989.
[15] Reported in Daily Mail, 18 April 1989, PRE000000430001, p3.
[16] The Sun, 18 April 1989, PRE000000380001, p6.