Monthly Archives: September 2012

Guardian Article On Charles Brett

Charles Brett’s headstone in Harpurhey Cemetery.

I’ve had an article published on the Guardian site about Charles Brett, the first Manchester police officer to be killed on duty. He was shot dead on 18 September 1867, as a group of Fenians sprung two of their leaders from a police van on Hyde Road. By coincidence, it was exactly 145 years to the day before the recent murders of PCs Fiona Bone and Nicola Hughes in Mottram.

Although the three men hanged for his murder are well remembered as the ‘Manchester Martyrs’, Brett’s story is much less well-known, so I thought I’d tell it. My research included a visit to Harpurhey Cemetery in the pouring rain to find his headstone, and a look through some of the old Manchester Guardian reports of the time.

You can read the article at the Guardian Northerner here.

The Hillsborough Papers: South Yorkshire Police And “Some Liverpool Characteristic”

An extract from DI Alan King’s report. (image via Hillsborough Independent Panel archive)

The extent of South Yorkshire Police’s attempts to smear Liverpool supporters in the aftermath of Hillsborough is now much better understood, following the recent publication of the Hillsborough Independent Panel’s report into the disaster.

In an earlier blogpost I wrote about how the panel’s easily-searchable database of papers shows how elements within the police used the media to do this. I’ve now come across another fascinating and shocking document, which hints at how desperate the police were to blame fans for the tragedy.

Within two months of Hillsborough, DI Alan King of South Yorkshire Police had compiled a 204-page dossier described as a “Report, statements and documents showing behaviour of Liverpool fans before, during and after the Disaster.” In essence, it was an attempt to show that Liverpool supporters were in the habit of arriving late for matches, many of them without tickets, and that this had happened again at Hillsborough.

The most striking paragraph was 4.2, which discussed the behaviour of Everton fans before their semi-final with Norwich, which took place on the same day as Hillsborough. DI King noted: “…the Everton supporters behaviour at Villa Park shows a remarkable coincidence with the Liverpool supporters at Hillsborough which may indicate some Liverpool characteristic.” (my emphasis)

Even allowing for all the details within the Hillsborough archive, I thought this comment was particularly stunning.

King’s report was weak in terms of direct evidence. It began by offering a selection of accounts from other police forces of previous all-ticket away matches involving Liverpool, in which groups of ticketless fans had sometimes been admitted (after paying on the gate) in order to prevent crowd trouble.

King glossed over the 25 reports of ticket-related misbehaviour filed by officers at Hillsborough as “only the tip of the iceberg” and asserted that future reports by officers, still being processed, would “no doubt contain a lot of similar material”. There were also statements outlining what can only be described as pub gossip about what individual Liverpool fans were saying about their plans for getting into the game.

King also stated: “Given the opportunity to read and study the many civilian statements taken by the West Midlands Investigation Team, it may be that the evidence to hand could be enhanced further.” (my emphasis) It all offers another sobering insight into the mindset of senior figures within South Yorkshire Police in the weeks following the disaster.

The Hillsborough Papers: The Sun, “The Truth” And Other Newspaper Coverage

The Sun, 19 April 1989 (image via Hillsborough Independent Panel archive)

The Sun’s reporting on Hillsborough, and its infamous headline of “The Truth” published four days after the tragedy, is well-known. Its long-standing refusal to apologise for the false claims about the actions of some Liverpool fans during the disaster has led to a 23-year boycott of the paper in most of Merseyside.

But Kelvin MacKenzie’s Sun wasn’t the only newspaper to print the allegations. And this week’s release of documents by the Hillsborough Independent Panel gives us an opportunity to easily scrutinise how others reported them, and how those claims came to be in the public domain in the first place.

The allegations about drunken supporters attacking the police first surfaced in copy filed by Whites, a Sheffield news agency, on Tuesday 18 April. Among a series of un-named police officers, the copy quotes Paul Middup of the South Yorkshire Police Federation and, in a later version, local Conservative MP Irvine Patnick.

A version of the story was the front page lead of that evening’s Sheffield Star:

Sheffield Star, 18 April 1989 (image via Hillsborough Independent Panel archive)

It read: “It is becoming dear that as some fans turned lifesavers, a group of yobs in the crowd ignored fellow supporters and turned on emergency workers,” then went on to include many of the same quotes from the Whites story, including those from Paul Middup. Patnick’s intervention came too late for that day’s evening paper, but his name was everywhere the following day.

It was on the Wednesday that the story ‘went national’. But it wasn’t just The Sun that put the claims on its front page. Under the headline “Police Accuse Drunken Fans”, the Daily Express made Patnick’s comments from the later version of the Whites story the main focus of its lead article. Those comments also appeared at the end of The Sun’s “The Truth” piece. But it was another lurid claim being put about by Patnick that featured most prominently in The Sun, and caused most outrage.

The Sun claimed that Liverpool fans had “jeered” and made sexual taunts as police attended to the body of a woman killed in the crush. Another document released by the panel reveals that the source of this was almost certainly Patnick.

In a letter he sent on the Thursday to the Chief Constable of West Midlands Police, who would be gathering evidence for the later inquests, Patnick included his “rough notes” of his recollections of the day of the disaster which he had written on the Wednesday. He recounted meeting several police officers on the night of the tragedy, and how he was told the story of the dead woman, as well as claims about attacks on the police. It was these claims which he repeated extensively, despite them being little more than second-hand hearsay.

Irvine Patnick’s letter of 20 April 1989 (image via Hillsborough Independent Panel archive)

The same allegations regarding the dead woman, with Patnick’s name attached more prominently, appeared in the same day’s Sheffield Star. It was under the headline “Fans ‘made sex jibes at body'”. The Sheffield Star’s article wasn’t quite as unequivocal and graphic as The Sun’s, and indeed it included a brief quote at the end from Liverpool City Council leader Keva Coombes which looks remarkably apt in hindsight: “It is a horrible and evil story. It is a half-baked attempt to form the basis of a future cover-up.” Well, indeed.

Other newspapers, while mentioning the claims, significantly played them down. The Daily Mail gave them a few paragraphs at the bottom of an article about another aspect of the disaster. The Daily Mirror took a different angle, stating that there was a “furious” reaction in Liverpool to the claims, and quoting the Secretary of the Supporters’ Club. If Kelvin MacKenzie’s eventual apology this week is anything to go by, perhaps he finally wishes he’d done the same.

Daily Mirror, 19 April 1989 (image via Hillsborough Independent Panel archive)

Looking back on the whole sorry saga, I’d argue the hatred aimed at The Sun has as much to do with its presentation of the false allegations and its general attitude in the years afterwards, rather than its publication of the stories as such. Other papers printed the same or similar articles, even on the front page, but only The Sun insisted that it was “The Truth”.

Even the Sheffield Star, which carried the claims on two separate days, did so amid a huge amount of Hillsborough coverage which was largely very sympathetic to the victims. But despite the generally strong sources of the Police Federation and a local MP, it and other papers should have done far more to in particular challenge Patnick’s account of something he had only heard about second hand before reprinting it.

One last thing occurred to me glancing through The Sun from 19 April 1989. After “The Truth” and its articles on Hillsborough, a sign that the disaster hadn’t exactly changed the mood of the paper. Albeit on page 5 instead of page 3, it still carried a picture of a topless model.

(Click here for a blogpost about what the Hillsborough archive revealed about a lost BBC tape)

The Hillsborough Papers: The Strange Case Of The BBC’s Lost Tape

The Hillsborough Independent Panel website.

Much has already been said and written about the publication of the independent study of the Hillsborough Disaster, in which 96 Liverpool fans died. Most attention has understandably gone on the Hillsborough Independent Panel’s damning report, and its revelations about the inadequacy of the emergency services on the day, the later alteration of police statements, and much else besides.

But another of the panel’s great achievements is also available on its website. The panel members looked through more than 450,000 pages of documents in compiling its report, and they are all now there for the public to view. Not only that, they are easily searchable via this page. Presenting this data in such a transparent and accessible way is an excellent idea, and I fully agree with the panel’s statement that it’s “useful for researchers, journalists and developers, as well as… members of the public” to be able to consult the archive without, say, having to go to a records office to examine hard copies.

Even a relatively brief look at some of the documents throws up information both fascinating and horrifying about Hillsborough and its aftermath. Which brings me on to one interesting fact I’ve already discovered in the archive: the BBC lost its only tape of the live Grandstand broadcast of the disaster.

A bit of context first. Football was rarely shown live on TV even as recently as 1989, and the Hillsborough match, an FA Cup semi-final, was being recorded by the BBC for that night’s Match of the Day. But as the disaster began to unfold, the BBC cut into its regular Saturday afternoon Grandstand programme to show live footage of what was going on, with John Motson doing his best to explain events from his commentary position.

I was six at the time, and I vividly remember watching as the TV pictures showed people being hauled out of the crush onto the upper tier of the stand, and supporters using advertising boards as makeshift stretchers. I wondered what was in the archives about this broadcast, and putting in ‘BBC Grandstand’ brought up an exchange of letters between the BBC and West Midlands Police, dated later in 1989.

The West Midlands force was gathering evidence for the coroner’s (now discredited) inquests, and asked the BBC for a tape of Grandstand as it had been transmitted on that day. They particularly wanted it because the relatives of one of the victims said they had seen him in the crush on pictures shown live on TV, but officers hadn’t been able to pick him out on any of the footage they had.

The reply from BBC producer Jeff Goddard included what, at first glance, seems to be a startling revelation: “It is not the programme policy to record the programme on professional videotape though it does record a VHS cassette. That cassette has gone missing.”

Goddard went on to explain that Grandstand only had access to one feed of pictures from the stadium at a time, and that the police already had that in their possession. Grandstand stayed live on a general view throughout its coverage, with the exception of approximately five minutes at 4:10pm when it switched to a different BBC camera. So, we can conclude it was only really that five minutes that has been ‘lost’.

The fact that Grandstand mostly stayed on the general view and why can be backed up by the written statement submitted by Match of the Day presenter Des Lynam to the Taylor Inquiry. He was at the match, and soon went down to the side of the pitch when the tragedy started to become clear. Lynam began to provide live reports from his vantage point, but stated that they were done out of vision “to prevent some fans who were becoming aggressive from having a camera put on them.” People watching at home will have continued to see the general view of the ground while hearing Lynam’s reporting.

I don’t for a moment believe there’s a conspiracy here. TV tapes look much like each other, and all it takes for one to get lost is for someone to take it one day, put it in a drawer, then forget about it. It also seems that nothing of any real significance was lost when someone at the BBC mislaid that tape.

But you’d have thought that someone would have realised the importance of the programme and made a few copies. Given that millions of people must have been watching, it would be interesting to look again at how Grandstand initially presented what was happening, and what, if any, bearing that may have had on the general impressions that were formed of the disaster in the immediate aftermath. This is one part of the Hillsborough archive that leaves us with more questions than answers.

One aspect of the BBC’s coverage of that day that does survive is the final report of its lead radio commentator Peter Jones on Radio 2. It’s an extroardinary piece of broadcasting, and you can listen to it on YouTube by clicking below. Some said Jones never recovered, and he died less than a year later.