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In media terms, tragedy is the best kind of bad news. But for the press and television, Hillsborough was in a class of its own. It was surely the first time that disaster has occurred when newspapers and TV have all their facilities present and manned.
The papers have an established routine in these circumstances. Get pictures, get survivors, play guess the cause and pull out a few quotes from dignitaries. However, a football tragedy is rather different, with, uniquely, the victims being perceived as part of the problem. No-one blames airline passengers for plane crashes.
The imagery and phraseology of a disaster give one a disturbing feeling that an attempt was being made to glamorise the whole thing. In the tabloids, each story has its distinctive slogan and graphic, like cheap film adverts. It was ‘Gates of Hell’for the Sun and ‘Cage of Death’for Today. The Star picked ‘Cup of Tears’as the motif for its coverage, and there were references everywhere throughout the week to ‘The Tunnel Of Death’. These all sound like cheap paperback titles because that is the tone that they are seeking.
Disaster as entertainment (which is all the tabloids claim to be) has to be packaged in a way that sanitizes the horror by dramatising it. We are bombarded with such an enormous amount of information, with pictures and stories both heroic and tragic, that it is very difficult to take in.
The way in which the story is told places it alongside soaps and mini series with a dramatic, barely believable plot and rapidly developing story line. Media treatment
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degrades the human tragedy by telling the story on an epic scale and by using real disaster as just another tool in the ratings wars.
The first problem for the press was to distinguish between the good guys and the bad guys. The media are accustomed to blaming supporters so most were unable to resist at least a sideswipe straight away. By Tuesday, a few were really having a go. The People went for the headline Bodies Spiked As Crazed Mob Flee. The story beneath was a simple tale of how people tried to get out but couldn’t. Who exacdy the crazed mob were wasn’t made clear.
So, most papers were perfectly willing to swallow stories of misdemeanour by supporters. The blame was put on “hundreds o f non ticket holders... crushing hundreds under foot. ” (Sunday Mirror), or in the Sunday Times “ticketless Liverpool fans poured into the Hillsborough stadium through an open gate. ” The Sunday Telegraph found Dennis Howell willing to assert that there were “obviously large crowds milling about outside the gates without tickets. ”
The evidence for this all appears to have been fans let into the ground who still had their full tickets. While one may assume that some got in this way it’s all a bit flimsy as hard evidence on which to apportion such a significant degree of blame. But, as with everything that is involved in the treatment of fans, prejudice (not necessarily malicious) reshapes the truth.
The problem that pressmen everywhere had to wrestle with was that the TV pictures spoiled any attempt to blacken the fans. After clumsily failing to smear supporters who got on to the pitch, the Sun were forced into what, for them, amounts to a grovelling apology under the headline Fan’s Film Clears Fans. Their only attempt to retire gracefully was a letter from a reader which read rather similarly to a Sun editorial. The reader, Mrs Clementson of Portsmouth is either not on the phone (there are no Clementsons listed in Portsmouth) or she doesn’t exist. Make your own mind up.
Peter McKay in the London Evening Standard had decided to have a go as early as Monday. “The police often make wrong decisions. Soccer management is frequently greedy and uncaring. But fans are the biggest danger to other fans and we had better not lose sight o f that. ” And why does he believe fans have to share the blame? “They accept a crowd penning system that would be controversial i f used for cattle because it is the price they pay for behaving badly. ”
So, we should be more active in resisting things that are wrong? Don’t be silly. McKay wouldn’t want us to resist the sort of commonsense solution that he and so many of his colleagues have come up with. “Perhaps the best solution o f all would be to cancel the 1990 home soccer season. The time
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could be used to upgrade dodgy grounds and establish just which entrance scheme for fans will work. Soccer managements would howl... ” But they should be ignored, or arrested for impertinence like so many fans who have complained about anything at a football match.
A big disaster gives every two bit columnist (and two bit is a generous description of Peter McKay) a chance to fill their columns with attempts at either sympathetic words of comfort and concern or ignorant bigotry.
•Some fans picked pockets of victims •Some fans urinated on the brave cops • Some fans beat up PC giving kiss of life Dl GRIEVES FOR LEE, AGED 14: Pages 2 and 3