Hillsborough Tragedy at 30: The British Media’s Week of Shame

That depends on what you assume! People assuming things led to Hillsborough, so it depends on what you assume! Right?

Albie Kinsella – Cracker – To Be a Somebody – October 1993

In Stick It Up Your Punter! – the seminal history of The Sun, the author calculates that the subsequent boycott cost the paper approx £15 million a month for the last 30 years. But Kelvin MacKenzie’s Sun wasn’t the only newspaper to speculate on the behaviour of Liverpool supporters in the wake of Hillsborough

The Week of Shame

The first reports on Sunday 16 April controversially featured graphic pictures of the supporters as they faced death. 

To quote the Liverpool Independent Panel it showed them:

 ‘distorted and lifeless, pressed against the perimeter fence while others lay motionless on the pitch.’

The Sun’s first take was entitled  ‘THEY DIED SO YOUNG’.

The shock value of tortured faces was accompanied by an enthusiastic  ’16 PAGE SUN DISASTER SPECIAL’, attacked as if it were a scandalous tabloid political affair.




The Daily Mirror also published graphic photographs of the victims in their Monday edition. However, after receiving 500 complaints, the paper went on the defensive. They argued that the photographs were justified and that readers:

were right to be upset. So were we’ and that ‘the country the football authorities, the Government, the general public will be shocked into taking action’.

The use of such photographs triggered an immediate backlash as factory workers at Plessey’s in Liverpool burning their copies of the Daily Mirror outside the factory gates at lunchtime.

The Daily Express also used dramatic photographs of the fans in the crush on the full page. They defended the picture – noting that other tabloids had also used it – and

It encapsulated the nightmare of Hillsborough, In a way that words could not’


Media reports in the days after began to place the behaviour of Liverpool fans at the centre of the story. 

On Monday 17 April the Sheffield Star depicted a ‘crazed surge’ of Liverpool fans, with a clear comparison to the events at Heysel just four years earlier.

The Star claimed fans who were ‘worse for drink’ and ‘without tickets’ had ‘raced to the stadium’.

The Yorkshire Post reported that ‘thousands of latecomers tried to force their way into the ground’ having set off a ‘fatal charge’. 

The Manchester Evening News lamented the fans who were ‘foolishly late getting to the game and furious at the prospect of missing the start, kicked and hammered on the steel gates’.

Contempt for the Liverpool fans was building in the media.

Comment pieces began to spring up. In the Evening Standard blamed the fans ‘violent enthusiasm for soccer’ who  ‘literally killed themselves and others to be at the game’.

On Merseyside, the Liverpool Daily Post ran with the narrative of how ‘uncontrolled fanaticism and mass hysteria … literally squeezed the life out of men, women and children’.

The comment piece darkly concluded that

 ‘Scouse killed Scouse for no better reason than 22 men were kicking a football’.

On TV, PC Paul 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’.

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’. 

Sensing the mood shifting,  MacKenzie famously took it to another level.

According to Stick It Up Your Punter, 

“MacKenzie then did an enormously uncharacteristic thing. He sat for fully half an hour thinking about the front page layout.”

He was in two minds; to go with the heading “You Scum” or “The Truth”

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.’

When the families complained about the story the Managing Editor, wrote to recently bereaved families, that the ‘substance’ of the claims were factually accurate.  

Rejecting their boycott, he claimed that

“If the price of a free press is a boycott of our newspaper, then it is a price we will have to pay.”


Overnight, copies of The Sun dropped from 524,000 to 320,000. Today the newspaper’s current circulation in the Merseyside region is estimated to be just 10,000.

It was not just The Sun who reported the story.

The Times, Britain’s paper of record, reported that the ‘Police Hit Back at the Fans’ and outline the same accusations outline in The Sun

Although not as vehement as MacKenzies, the paper strategically placed a photograph of an officer ‘confronting’ the Liverpool fans outside the ground.

The Express noted in their front page splash how ‘Officers saw sick spectacle of pilfering from the dying’

Inside the Editorial thundered that ‘The Fans are not blameless’:

The instinctive outpouring of sympathy for the families and friends of the dead and injured, for Liverpool Football Club and indeed for the whole city, so clearly devastated by the disaster, should not stop us questioning the behaviour of some of the supporters. 

Are they really that guiltless? Should they have nothing on their consciences? 

As television viewers will have seen, the fans ignored police appeals for calm and order. Some started to climb over walls and turnstiles.

Have we really become so wearily used to loutish lack of self-discipline that we can no longer recognise it for what It is?

And why were the late-comers late in the first place? Could it have any- thing to do with the terrace tradition of “tanking up” wilh drink before the kick-off? Police reports of attacks by drunken fans suggest it could.

Many fans turned up without tickets, in the confident expectation of bcini; able to trick or force their way into tho ground. They lent their weight to the crush, putting pressure not only on the police but also on their friends.

It is not for them, noisily and self- righteously, to lay the blame for the carnage at the feet of others, as though they themselves are completely blameless.

There will be many important lessons to be drawn from this tragedy. And by everybody.


As the week of shame cotinued, The Times reported an interview with a pub landlord who claimed Liverpool fans ‘drank us dry’ and did not leave the pub until 2:50pm.

The Express reported that

They downed more than: 2000 bottles of Newcatle Brown Ale. nearly l000 pints ot Lager and a corresponding amount of beer In a boozy lunchtlme session”

On the 20th – the Thursday – The Times led on the Home Secretary, Douglas Hurd’s call to stop ‘the counteraccusations’ on both sides of the debate. Alongside that however, was a story of how a ‘Picture of excessive drinking emerges’. In the article, the journalist uncovers that ‘thousands had been drinking before the game’.

Eye-witness reports claimed that supporters poured out of buses with super-market bags full of beer’. The journalist also made the link that ‘as alcohol could not be taken into the ground, the place for drinking the last of the beer was Leppings Lane’

It was left to the Daily Mirror to challenge the assumptions made in the Conservative supporting papers. On the Thursday 20th April, the Mirror questioned the police narrative strongly for the first time.

Under the heading ‘Where’s The Proof’, they accused the police of ‘attempting to fit up the fans’ citing no photographic or video evidence of the behaviour in ‘one of the most photographed incidents of all time’. By the Saturday, the Daily Express finally asked whether there had indeed been a cover up.

Yet the assumption had already fostered in the minds of those who were eager to make lazy assumptions of the Liverpool fans.

It is perhaps best exemplified by the autobiography of Brian Clough. Clough – lauded as a socialist and working class hero on the left – remained adamant that Liverpool fans had been to blame.

In 1995, he appeared on ITV to repeat the controversial allegations in his book:

“I will always remain convinced that those Liverpool fans who died were killed by Liverpool people.”

Clough told Clive Anderson how ‘I was there’ and ‘it’s not coincidental that it happened at their particular end’. Clough even admitted that the passage in his book had been watered down. 

Twelve years later, Clough admitted he was wrong. That was not before Boris Johnson, as editor of The Spectator magazine,  signed off an editorial that repeated the charge that the disaster was partly due to drunken Liverpool fans.

The extreme reaction to Mr Bigley’s murder is fed by the fact that he was a Liverpudlian. Liverpool is a handsome city with a tribal sense of community. A combination of economic misfortune — its docks were, fundamentally, on the wrong side of England when Britain entered what is now the European Union — and an excessive predilection for welfarism have created a peculiar, and deeply unattractive, psyche among many Liverpudlians.

They see themselves whenever possible as victims, and resent their victim status; yet at the same time they wallow in it. Part of this flawed psychological state is that they cannot accept that they might have made any contribution to their misfortunes, but seek rather to blame someone else for it, there by deepening their sense of shared tribal grievance against the rest of society.

The deaths of more than 50 Liverpool football supporters at Hillsborough in 1989 was undeniably a greater tragedy than the single death, however horrible, of Mr Bigley; but that is no excuse for Liverpool’s failure to acknowledge, even to this day, the part played in the disaster by drunken fans at the back of the crowd who mindlessly tried to fight their way into the ground that Saturday afternoon. The police became a convenient scapegoat, and the Sun newspaper a whipping-boy for daring, albeit in a tasteless fashion, to hint at the wider causes of the incident.

Despite such attacks, the Hillsborough Justice Campaign never gave up.

It took twenty-seven years but they finally got  justice 

The British Media picked on the wrong City thirty years ago and their solidarity in the face of such vitriol should be an inspiration to us all.



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