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

'The Truth'

2.12.27 Also on 18 April a more sinister story emerged. The Sheffield Star published allegations that Liverpool fans had attacked police officers and rescue workers and had stolen from the dead.[17]

2.12.28 The front page headline was 'Fans in Drunken Attacks on Police: Ticketless thugs staged crush to gain entry'. The police, it claimed, were 'piecing together' a 'sickening story' focusing on how 'yobs' had 'attacked an ambulance man, threatened firemen and punched and urinated on policemen as they gave the kiss of life to stricken victims'.[18] The report also quoted PC Middup. Along with Irvine Patnick, Conservative MP for Sheffield Hallam, PC Middup reiterated allegations of drunkenness on BBC News.[19]

2.12.29 Later in the evening of 18 April, Mr Patnick echoed the allegations made earlier in the day in the Sheffield Star: 'I was speaking to those officers [who] said they had been trying to save lives, that they'd been attacked by some of the fans, they'd been kicked and punched even when giving mouth-to mouth resuscitation and people were urinating on them from the balcony above where they were working'.[20]

2.12.30 The following morning most newspapers carried the story: 'Dead Fans Robbed by Drunk Fans';[21] 'They were drunk and violent and their actions were vile';[22] 'Police Accuse Drunken Fans: Police saw "sick spectacle of pilfering from the dying'' ';[23] 'Fury as police claim fans robbed victims';[24] 'Fans 'made sex jibes at body';[25] 'Police tell MP of attacks on them as they helped injured'.[26]

2.12.31 The greatest prominence given to the story was in The Sun whose editor, Kelvin MacKenzie, cleared the front page and under the banner headline 'THE TRUTH' published three bullet points: 'Some fans picked pockets of victims; Some fans urinated on the brave cops; Some fans beat up PC giving life kiss'.[27]

2.12.32 The Sun's coverage was unequivocal:

Drunken Liverpool fans viciously attacked rescue workers as they tried to revive victims of the Hillsborough soccer disaster, it was revealed last night.

Police officers, firemen and ambulance crew were punched, kicked and urinated upon by a hooligan element in the crowd.

Some thugs rifled the pockets of injured fans as they were stretched out unconscious on the pitch.

In one shameful episode a gang of Liverpool fans noticed that the blouse of a girl trampled to death had risen above her breasts. As a policeman struggled in vain to revive her, the mob jeered: 'Throw her up here and we will **** her' ...

One furious policeman who witnessed the disaster on Saturday stormed: 'To paint all the Liverpool fans lily-whites is wrong'.

As we struggled in appalling conditions to save lives, fans standing further up the terrace were openly urinating on us and the bodies of the dead.[28]

2.12.33 According to a 'high ranking police officer', the 'fans were just acting like animals. My men faced a double hell - the disaster and the fury of the fans who attacked us'.

The Sun's response

2.12.34 The Sun's publication was immediately condemned at many levels, particularly on Merseyside. Bereaved families and survivors wrote letters to the newspaper challenging the veracity of the story and its presentation as the definitive version of events. Within days the Managing Editor, William Newman, replied to bereaved families.[29] His letter was neither personalised nor signed.

2.12.35 Mr Newman stated that the newspaper had 'received many letters from Liverpool regarding our follow up story to the Hillsborough tragedy'. He continued:

We are sorry that, possibly clouded by grief, many have not understood that it is The Sun's duty as a newspaper to publish information, however hurtful and unpalatable it may be at the time.

On reflection, we accept the way in which the article was displayed could have given cause for offence. For that we apologise. For the substance we do not.

We cannot possibly apologise for facts and to do so would be an abdication of our responsibility to a wider public beyond the city of Liverpool. If the price of a free press is a boycott of our newspaper, then it is a price we will have to pay.

2.12.36 Mr Newman stated that 'not for the first time' The Sun had been 'singled out' and he referred to 'identical reports' in three other newspapers. Claiming the moral high ground he stated that 'only by revealing the full truth ... we can try to make sure that such a terrible tragedy never happens again' thus ensuring that '95 innocent men women and children will not have died in vain'.

2.12.37 He offered 'heartfelt sympathy' to the bereaved and the injured, noting that the Press Council was investigating newspaper coverage of Hillsborough and The Sun would 'accept and publish their findings'.

2.12.38 Mr Newman's letter arrived at the homes of the bereaved as funerals were being arranged. It defended the 'substance' of the published allegations as factual, patronised the judgement of the bereaved as 'clouded by grief' and presented the newspaper as a truth seeker with a public interest 'responsibility ... beyond the city of Liverpool'. There was no apology other than a dismissive comment that the presentation of the story could have caused offence.

2.12.39 On Tuesday 9 May 1989 The Sun published a brief commentary from its Ombudsman, Ken Donlan, under the heading 'Ombudsman raps The Sun'.[30] This followed what it claimed had been 'a major inquiry into the coverage of the Hillsborough disaster after complaints from readers'.

2.12.40 Mr Donlan had inquired into the 'circumstances of the reporting and presentation of the story', finding against its presentation. His report stated:

The Editor is on record as saying that the newspaper had a duty to publish the facts about supporters' misbehaviour, no matter how hurtful and unpalatable at the time.

This is accepted, but it must be pointed out that the report - similar material appeared in other papers - did not justify the headline The Truth. Allegations can never be projected as facts. It is for Lord Justice Taylor's inquiry to examine the evidence and decide what happened at Hillsborough.

It should not have been published in the form that it appeared.

2.12.41 Mr Donlan's report, while accepting the 'form' of the coverage and challenging the use of 'The Truth' banner headline, did not comment on the factual accuracy of the allegations, nor their origins. Mr Newman sent a photocopy of its Ombudsman's adjudication as published in the newspaper to the Press Council.[31]

[17] Sheffield Star, 18 April 1989, PRE000000030001, p7.
[18] The Evening Standard ran a similar story, headlined 'Police attack the "vile" fans', 18 April 1989, YAS000003090001, p97.
[19] BBC News, 9pm, 18 April 1989.
[20] News at Ten, ITN, 10pm, 18 April 1989.
[21] Daily Star, 19 April 1989.
[22] Daily Mail, 19 April 1989, PRE000000610001
[23] Daily Express, 19 April 1989, PRE000000560001, p1.
[24] Daily Mirror, 19 April 1989, PRE000000400001, p2.
[25] Sheffield Star, 19 April 1989, PRE000000010001, p3.
[26] Daily Telegraph, 19 April 1989.
[27] The Sun, 19 April 1989, PRE000000340001, pp1-2.
[28] The Sun, 19 April 1989, PRE000000340001, pp1-2.
[29]  Unsigned letter from William Newman, no addressee, no reference, dated 28 April 1989, NGN000000090001, p1.
[30] The Sun 'Ombudsman raps The Sun', 9 May 1989, p2.
[31]  Letter from William Newman, Managing Editor, The Sun, to Raymond Swingler, Assistant Director, The Press Council, 9 May 1989, NGN000000040001, p1.