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.

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

  1. Reading the reply, it sounds like they recorded and still have all the video that was sent back from the ground, just only as a raw feed rather than the as-broadcast version as well. Even the five minute insert would have been sent back from the ground using that feed, so no material would seem to be missing.

  2. Yes perhaps, it’s not entirely clear from the letter, although my interpretation was that they had the ‘clean feed’ pictures but not the version that was transmitted, so it may or may not have the commentary and such on it.

    Other documents revealed by the panel show that Grandstand didn’t switch live to Hillsborough until after 3:20pm, and it’s not certain they stayed just on the live feed even after that. So the studio-based sections (fronted that day by Bob Wilson) have certainly been lost.

    My main reasons for flagging this up are that I was amazed only one copy was made and that it was quickly mislaid, and that it would be interesting to see the programme as it was transmitted from a historical perspective. I don’t think any significant evidence in terms of what happened on the day has been lost.

  3. It was retained by the inquest and didn’t see the light of day for another 24 years. It was broadcast on BBC Panorama this week. You can see it on BBC iPlayer.

  4. @Sam

    I’ve only just got around to watching the Panorama. The footage they reviewed was the feeds as they came in to BBC TV Centre from the ground, I don’t think they had the actual Grandstand programme as it was transmitted, which was on the tape which was mislaid.

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