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Dyson at Large: How local daily reported Hillsborough accurately within 24-hours

A local newspaper reader has brought this blog’s attention to the Sheffield Star’s accurate coverage of Hillsborough within a day of the disaster.

Isabella Stone, in a letter published by The Guardian on 27 April 2016, wrote: “I was living in Sheffield in 1989, and bought a copy of the The Star, Sheffield’s special edition on the tragedy, published the following day, Sunday 16 April [1989].

“Reading it again, in the context of the inquest verdicts, it is striking to note that the paper’s account of the disaster, written by local reporters in the hours following it, and based on eyewitness accounts, is virtually identical in its conclusions to that of the jury’s verdicts 27 years later.

“The front page explicitly states that ‘Liverpool fans were not to blame, but the victims’. It also describes the decision of Duckenfield (not named at that stage) to open the gate as ‘a moment of madness,’ which ‘backfired in a catastrophe which brought about the biggest soccer tragedy in the history of the British game’.

“Harry Livermore, the lawyer who represented the Heysel stadium defendants, and who was at the game in a different stand, is quoted as saying that the tragedy ‘was entirely due to the inefficiency of Sheffield Wednesday FC for their lack of proper organisation, and the inefficiency of the Sheffield police. It may be hard luck that they are held responsible – but this again is a tragedy that should never have happened’.”

Isabella added: “It was crystal clear from the very outset what had happened and who was to blame. This makes the subsequent lies and cover-up, and the extent to which they were believed, even more damning.”

This blog tracked Isabella down to where she now lives, in Matlock, and arranged to borrow her archive edition of The Star to look at the detail of how Hillsborough was reported.

And despite the distressing facts, the paper was a privilege to read because of the painstaking care taken by the local Sheffield journalists back in 1989.

First of all, Isabella was spot on with the descriptions and quotes she referenced, just snippets among columns and columns of detailed, multi-sourced reportage on exactly what happened.

The headlines on the inside pages reflect The Star’s clear ‘live’ explanation of the disaster – without an iota of the bias, distortion and downright lies that later followed, largely in the national media.

The main headline across pages two and three reads: ‘Furious fans attack fateful police decision to open gates of death’, with the stories underneath quoting five fans, an ambulance man, a steward and the retired Heysel-disaster lawyer, all of them eyewitnesses.

Pages four and five goes into more detail, with 70-odd paragraphs of quotes from several more fans who had watched the crowds build up before the gate was opened.

The headline and subheading again reflects what the reporters were told: ‘Delayed entry caused a fatal surge by fans’; and: ‘Police opened the gate – I said what have you done…’

The headline on page seven reads: ‘Supporters help with rescue amid the chaos and despair’, describing in just nine words the truth that The Sun notoriously twisted out of all recognition.

The Star’s 16-strong reporting team was discreetly listed in the back-end of the paper: Martin Ross, Peter Kay, Paul License, Robert Taylor, Andy Waple, Bob Westerdale, Graham Walker, Linsey McNeill, John Highfield, Nigel Morris, Mike Russell, Hugh Lawrence, John Spencer, Martin Dawes, Jan Turner and Mark Calvert.

There were a total of 62 black and white pictures in the 16-page broadsheet paper, and these were credited to the following photographers: Stuart Hastings, George Heppinstall, Brian Vaughan, George Tyrer, Mike Waistell, Dennis Lound and Steve Ellis.

They are all named here because they deserve credit for how they told this initial Hillsborough chapter so honourably 27 years ago.

Today, we often hear people talk about the democratic deficit faced because of the erosion of the regional press, and the Star’s example from 1989 should prompt the industry – and perhaps the state – to consider two very serious questions:

  1. Do our regional titles in 2016 still have the resource to gather such a wealth of factual detail from so many eyewitnesses, in so short a time?
  2. Or are they in danger of being too reliant on official spokespeople’s and unchecked social media’s versions of what happened – with all the consequent falsehoods and rumours that can result?

The recent and ruthless momentum of restructuring across the entire newspaper industry suggests pessimistic answers to the above questions, as can be seen in this analysis by just one esteemed observer late last month.

It should be mentioned that even the The Star received some criticism for its initially unquestioning reports of South Yorkshire Police’s untrue claims about fans’ behaviour that came in the weeks following Hillsborough.

But those incongruities were nothing like how The Sun and other national media shamed themselves for decades, while the Star later won plaudits for its long-term coverage of the Hillsborough legal battles and fans’ personal stories.

That aside, the Star’s ‘Sunday special edition’ of April 16 1989 sets a fine example of how contemporaneous news reporting can and should work in the public interest, given proper staffing.

12 comments

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  • June 1, 2016 at 9:16 am
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    First class stuff that swiftly made an absolute nonsense of what the public was expected to buy into over the official version of this tragedy.
    It is so right to point out if it could be done now, with what we’re expected to work with.
    It’s a genuinely frightening thought, isn’t it?

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  • June 1, 2016 at 9:28 am
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    The then production editor Dave Mastin and chief sub David Hand also deserve a special mention. Top team.

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  • June 1, 2016 at 10:25 am
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    A superb piece about a brilliant example of journalism and one that sparks some great nuggets of thought too.

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  • June 1, 2016 at 12:22 pm
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    Aye, good read, and I suppose they are impossible questions to answer posed by Steve. The way these events are covered has changed due to 24-hour news, internet, social media and the fact everyone has a camera and a video. In certain ways, the story would, I believe, be covered even better, but I very much doubt today’s journalists are as skilled wordsmiths as the talent of 89, from writer to through to chief sub and stone sub, if it came down to print alone. However, it doesn’t come down to print alone today

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  • June 1, 2016 at 12:52 pm
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    The Star’s staff is much reduced since those days but more recently they’ve put out two very commendable specials on Hillsborough.
    More a credit to the staff involved than the company’s commitment to quality, of course.

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  • June 1, 2016 at 3:36 pm
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    The same two teams had a semi there a year before..but of course,that had experienced police officers in charge…

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  • June 1, 2016 at 4:54 pm
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    Great coverage and a reminder of days gone forever. Was the editor in that day? It would be interesting to know if there was change of emphasis once South Yorkshire Police had time to exert a little pressure.

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  • June 1, 2016 at 5:09 pm
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    A perfect example of why we need good photographers with cameras and not reporters taking pictures with phones. Superb pictures, which must have been taken under upsetting and stressful conditions, used well in a hard hitting edition.

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  • June 1, 2016 at 5:31 pm
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    Lookahead, you’re clearly unfamiliar with events in Sheffield after April 1989, regarding the coverage of this.
    Coverage from the Star’s ace crime reporter clearly had the police rattled to the point where they sacked their head of PR, only to have the police authority re-instate her.

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  • June 2, 2016 at 7:06 am
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    Proper journalism. Does the heart good to see it.

    I was in charge of our Sports Edition on that fateful day. I was ordered by the editor to lead on the Hartlepool United match as the company was sponsoring the game. After a furious row on the phone (he was at the Hartlepool match) I ignored him and cleared the decks for Hillsborough coverage. Best decision I’ve ever made but an easy one. The following week I was rewarded for my efforts with a disciplinary memo.

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  • June 24, 2016 at 8:55 pm
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    I was acting news editor at The Star that day, going to the ground as the disaster began to unfold. I wrote the “Gates of Death” article in the special edition and contributed to others. It was a great team effort which continued over the subsequent days.
    From the outset it was clear that Duckenfield, who dispensed with tried and trusted measures to keep fans away from the pinch points in front of the turnstiles, took most of the blame for the disaster and it has been an immense frustration to me, and I’m sure my former colleagues, that it has taken so long for his culpability to be fully acknowledged.
    Ironically Steve’s piece was drawn to my attention today (June 24) just as the UK electorate has effectively sacked me from my role as a Head of Media at the European Parliament. And I thought getting out of papers was a good career move…

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