By Lily Gordon Brown
15th April 1989. The day began as normal, as any away day would for Tony Evans. He travelled with friends to the neutral ground of Hillsborough to watch his team, Liverpool, face Nottingham Forest in the FA cup semi-final. They had played at the same venue against the same team at the same stage of the competition a year before, but something was to be very different about this day.
The first signs of commotion came as Tony, now a sports journalist and formerly the football editor at The Times, approached the turnstiles at the Leppings Lane end of the ground. There was an unusual back up of people in the area just outside the ground, though he was still able to make his way through the crowds. But if the initial overcrowding at the entry point was not a huge cause for concern, that changed when he entered the stadium itself. The two standing-only pens in the end allocated to Liverpool fans were teeming with people. To ease the congestion at the turnstiles – the congestion Tony had encountered upon entering the ground – chief superintendent David Duckenfield had ordered the exit gates at the end to be opened, meaning fans were directed through gate C and down the tunnel to the central pens. These pens quickly became dangerously over-crowded and it was there that the fatal crush happened.
Six minutes in, at 3.06pm, the game was brought to a halt. Tony, trained in CPR, left his seat and ran out to the back of the stand to see if his medical aptitude could be of any use. By the time he got there, people already lay dead. Tony recalled going up to a police officer and asking, ‘How many?’ All the officer could muster in response was a sob. As word spread of what was happening and fans continued to try and escape the crush, panic engulfed Hillsborough. Tony describes the car journey home as a ‘nightmare’, as the extent of the situation became apparent, with radio stations updating the nation on the death count every twenty minutes.
Then, paralysis. Three days of numbness spread across Merseyside. 96 deaths, nearly 800 injuries. Thousands of survivors left to deal with the trauma, families left to grieve.
That was until the Wednesday following the match when Kelvin Mackenzie, the editor of The Sun newspaper, published a story headlined, ‘The Truth’. The story accused the Liverpool fans – heroes who had tried to save their fellow supporters and had ripped down billboards as stretchers for victims – of urinating on the police, of pickpocketing the dead. Tony describes how the story stunned people out of their numbness, waking up to the realisation that the national press was pointing the finger at them, whilst the authorities absconded any responsibility.
The tragedy of Hillsborough was very public. The match was aired on television and, of course, had hundreds of thousands of witnesses. It is therefore very hard to fathom how such a story could have been accepted by so many. But it was. People did and still do believe the sensationalist, attention-grabbing account put forward by Mackenzie.
It was almost as if people wanted to believe the story. Such scapegoating was apparently better than blaming those – the authorities – who were supposed to protect citizens in such public spaces and respond to such tragedies. The Liverpool fans were an easy target and The Sun certainly made the most of this.
Asking Tony why people were easily manipulated by such falsehoods, he spoke of how Scousers had been demonized in British society for over a century, tracing back to the potato famine of the 1850s. That anti-Liverpudlian sentiment was further cemented during the Margaret Thatcher years, when the Militant tendency, a Trotskyist group within the Labour Party, took control of the Liverpool City Council and took the fight to the Conservative government. As a result, Liverpool was characterised as disobedient. The 1985 Heysel disaster only increased the negative stereotypes of Liverpool fans and their city.
Then came the boycott. Following the publication of the story, a group of mothers from the small town of Kirby decided ‘enough was enough’ and stopped purchasing the paper. The movement spread like wildfire across Merseyside and to this day, the readership across the Merseyside is down to less than 10,000 (it had been 500,000 pre-Hillsborough). The Liverpool Echo still refuses to refer to The Sun by its full name, instead adopting ‘The S*n’.
Tony speaks of how the movement has maintained its success and impact because of its tight focus. Rather than a boycott on all Rupert Murdoch-owned media, including The Times newspaper and Sky, it is focused on the one publication that ran with the fabrications. In his role as editor of The Times, Tony was able to amplify the campaign and offer an alternative voice in the mainstream media: something that would have not been possible if the boycott extended beyond the one publication.
Hillsborough survivors and bereaved families are still in search of justice. David Duckenfield still denies the gross negligence and manslaughter of the fans who died in the ground that day. His retrial has just come to a close and he has once again been acquitted. As it stands, nobody is legally guilty for the unlawful killing of 96 people. The victims and the bereaved may never find peace. Evans tweeted in light of the verdict: ‘The fight is far from over… once the criminal trials are over there will be a much fuller picture of events surrounding Hillsborough and its aftermath.’ What is not in doubt is that the tragedies of that day could and should have been prevented.
The Sun, meanwhile, does not appear to have learnt from the repercussions of their ‘The Truth’ headline. The paper is still predicated on demonising the most vulnerable in our society. Sensationalist, discriminatory headlines still appear in the paper most days. The paper could have chosen to be a cause for good, but as Tony simply put it, it continues to be ‘the enemy of the working class, the enemy of decency’.
Although it may have not taught a lesson to the editors at The Sun, we as a society can still learn a great deal from the boycott: how if a grassroots movement maintains directed and focused, the implications can be huge and a cause for good. The Liverpudlian boycott of the paper has been one of the greatest examples of people protest in British history. In light of the paper’s fiftieth anniversary, hashtag ‘dontbuythesun’ has begun trending on Twitter, demonstrating the sheer influence of a movement started in the small town of Kirby.