What can we learn about the Hillsborough disaster from contemporary media reporting of it? Mike Bayly finds out.

Like Jimmy McGovern’s Hillsborough dramatisation in 1996, the decision to debate the release of key cabinet files relating to the Hillsborough Disaster in the House of Commons later this month has sparked new interest in one of football’s most tragic legacies. For the families and friends of those who perished on that terrible day, it offers fresh hope of a long overdue transparency; for the general public, a chance to revisit and reevaluate on one of the most misrepresented days in sporting history. Given the breadth of information available in the public domain, it is disturbing how much ignorance still surrounds the tragedy. The myths and propaganda perpetuated at the time still shape much of contemporary public opinion, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. As AA Milne once said, “it is easier to believe a lie that one has heard a thousand times than to believe a fact that no one has heard before”

Some of the starkest and most powerful reminders of the day can be found on the internet, specifically video sharing sites such as YouTube. Although much can be conveyed by the written word, there is something particularly emotive – one might say even voyeuristic – about seeing footage of the events unfold. There are literally hundreds of clips available for public consumption, from BBC footage at the gound, to personal tributes and professionally made documentaries. Amongst this catalogue of human tragedy lies an unintentional by-product; a snapshot of our history, a montage of a time so close and raw for some, yet so distant as to be almost unrecognisable.

One compilation, Hillsborough disaster second day news reports, offers a unique insight into the zeitgeist of late 80s English football. Through spliced news footage, it documents the reaction to the Hillsborough disaster over the days that follow, from those involved directly through to the wider (global) football community. Moreover, it illustrates more clearly than any prose how the football landscape has changed yet retains the same institutional problems. Here, the sum is truly greater than its parts, made more authentic by the inadvertent nature of its production. As a piece of social commentary on the game, it is almost unsurpassed.

The video starts with the kind of media coverage that would set the tone of the disaster for the next two decades. The Spanish El Pais newspaper spells out that “94 dead are a reminder of mob behaviour”, a view that would not be restricted to Europe and its perpetual mistrust of English football fans. Juxtaposed against this, an American news story focuses on the spikes and barbed wire which penned supporters into cages, its reporter solemnly stating that “measures to keep fans apart have made British stadiums resemble prisoner of war camps”

The human story is very much in focus too. We learn the Hillsborough disaster appeal has collected over a million pounds in the first few days alone, with people all over the country doing their bit. The Prince and Princess of Wales are seen visiting fans in hospital, along with the Liverpool squad, of whom many are local lads or have ties to the area. John Barnes comes across composed and dignified in the face of unrelenting press questions during one of these visits, where it later transpires one fan opened his eyes for the first time after being spoken to by Kenny Dalglish. The same players would go on to attend a precession of funerals; John Aldridge would even read at one. Football is engulfed in folklore, mythology and idolisation, but for these few fleeting seconds you begin to realise the irrevocable bond the players and supporters of Liverpool Football Club must have experienced back then.

The voices of Sheffield people are heard too. Often maligned for being bitter about the slur Hillsborough bought upon their club and the city, the interviews and radio transcripts do them much credit. Ian Foster, a steward on the day, recalls how police were warned in no uncertain terms that opening the fateful gate (C) would be likely to cause death, an action that he and his colleagues were loathe to do. Freda Smith, a resident of Hillsborough for 40 years talks in audibly distressed but compassionate tones on a radio show of seeing grown men crying outside the ground (and although not referred to directly on the video, there were innumerable accounts of local residents offering their help to the bereaved and distressed)

Radio was to prove an interesting medium in the aftermath of the disaster. Then Sheffield Wednesday Chairman Bert McGee did the retrospectively brave – though by modern PR saturated standards one might say foolish – act of appearing on a phone in show to field questions from those involved on the day. McGee is shown asking one Liverpool fan “what football ground in the world carries 120 stretchers?” to which the eloquent supporter replies “what football ground in the world lets fans die before the emergency services get on the scene?” It is hard to imagine the modern Premier League Chairman ever being tasked with such an emotionally challenging role. God willing, it will be a hypothesis that is never tested, but one can’t help thinking that ‘spokespersons’ would be the order of the day if faced with such a daunting task.

Like McGee, the Liverpool Chairman John Smith features in the footage. Smith – English, middle aged, well spoken – represents a bygone era of club chairman lost to globalisation and the petro dollar, where the backbone of our leading football clubs had an almost colonial air.  Smith, in his clear World Service tones, is seen accusing the Football Association of insensitivity over their wish to clarify the club’s participation in the FA Cup only days after the disaster and with fans still lying stricken in hospital. Then FA secretary Graham Kelly, a man born to apologise for a faux pas, looks gaunt in his response. Interspersed in the events is a moment of light relief, as Gary Gillespie arrives for a club meeting in a red Ford Sierra, with what looks like his name tattooed on the side panel. A far cry from the modern day era of car parks brimming with Bentleys and DB7s, and a gentle reminder that it wasn’t so long ago even top players had parity with the man on the terrace.

Inevitably, though, the compilation focuses on the darker side of the post disaster reporting, with Irvine Patnick MP espousing the disgraceful and hurtful allegations of drunken supporters urinating on policeman as they tried to save dying fans. It is incredible that these stories – along with a general acceptance that violent ticketless fans were the catalyst for the problem – still perpetuate today, although at times it is easy to see why. Lord Justice Taylor, who features prominently in the second half of the video, states on record more than once that his primary concern, is to ensure such a disaster never happens again. The subsequent ‘Taylor Report’, now synonymous with safe all seater stadia, can be seen as vindication of these words. However, these were Taylor’s findings of the ‘final’ report, which all but engulfed the findings of his earlier ‘interim’ report, exonerating the Liverpool supporters and laying the blame for the disaster firmly at the feet of the South Yorkshire police. For many people, the Taylor Report was simply a recommendation on ground design which shaped the future of the game as we know today. The initial findings of the enquiry are an inconvenient almost airbrushed truth.

Fittingly, the video then moves on to the impact the disaster had on the national game, documenting the first shoots of a move towards Taylor’s stadium blueprint, and the solidarity shown by other clubs. Cameras flock to White Hart Lane as Tottenham Hotspur become one of the first clubs to pull down their perimeter fencing; Arsenal and QPR, clubs that have never had fences, vow to postpone their matches as a mark of respect. The latter is met with umbrage by Football League President Jack Dunnett: “we don’t think it’s appropriate; life must go on”. In a remarkable act of comradeship, Tony Ingham, a QPR director, confirms his club are happy to face the consequences of postponement, whatever they may be.

The Football Spectators Bill also gets its fair share of coverage, not least because Margaret Thatcher and Neil Kinnock are shown at loggerheads over the concept of compulsory ID cards. It is hard to substantiate from the footage if the Hillsborough disaster initially strengthens or weakens the case, although it is stated that the scheme would press ahead regardless, a notion that has Kinnock accusing Thatcher of “putting the safety of others before her own pride”, given the likelihood of ID cards increasing crowd congestion outside grounds and turnstiles. It is later revealed that any such implementation would need to take into consideration the preliminary findings of the Taylor Report before being moved forward. Like Michael Knighton’s ball juggling at Old Trafford, the ID scheme is now a distant ghoulish memory consigned to the dustbin of history.

The most intriguing aspect of this compilation however concerns the reporting on a transition to all seated stadia.  The BBC informs us that “the government’s wish to have fans seated at football grounds will threaten the financial survival of many clubs in the English league; all but a handful already lose thousands of pounds a year” What follows is an almost archaic breakdown of the income and expenditure of the Football League in the late 80s.  Income consists of: ticket sales – £85m; sponsorship – £25m; TV money – £11m; commercial & advertising – £10m; Pools money – £4m.  This figure of £135M is pocket money by today’s standards, though interestingly, £90M of this – around 66% – was still going out on wages. When combined with other expenses, the Football League was breaking even, meaning little or no money was available for ground redevelopment.

To cite a point, the cameras go to Division 3 Southend United, when an all too familiar story unfolds. Of their reported £700K a year income, £650K a year is being spent on ‘wages and costs’ which equates to 93% of turnover.  It is a timely reminder that football finances have been precarious at the best (or in this case the worst) of times, long before SKY and the Premier League rode into town with a fistful of dollars. Then United Chairman Vic Jobson talks about ambitious plans for a new £12m stadium (which may eventually come to fruition in 2015) though the closing shots of Roots Hall are more memorable for a curious camera angle making a young Hugh Pimm look about twelve feet tall.

At Anfield, the news that the world famous KOP will be replaced with seating garners mixed response, though a lucid Tommy Smith is in favour of the decision. The main reservation is the effect on price. As one journalist notes: “it costs £3.50 to stand on the KOP – it will be a least £5 to sit. Liverpool are conscious they should not price football beyond the pocket of the working man” Further comment is superfluous. The final shots of memorial in the local cathedral and at the ground to the background of ‘Abide With Me’ are at times devastating to watch, although they do convey the unity in an otherwise broken community, and the importance of faith at times of crisis. It also amplifies more than anything that unless you were part of that terrible day, or were connected to someone who was, you will never truly be able to grasp how these people must have felt, or indeed feel.

If the truth is to ever come out surrounding Hillsborough, and justice ever to be served by those who seek it, one suspects that the institutionalised myths surrounding the day will need to be removed for good. How this is achieved is a moot point. There is a wealth of information available to those who want it, but for many neutrals, the events of that day have already been established, regardless of what future enquiries and documentation reveal. Videos like this can help educate, but they also serve to remind us of both the failings of our key institutions, and our own prejudices. Perhaps the most poignant line to end on is one quoted in a report at the very start of this compilation,  which argues that “even in tragedy, Britain and perhaps Merseyside in particular is judged more on reputation than hard fact”.

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