Football had been plagued by hooliganism for years in many countries but particularly in the United Kingdom. Football hooliganism in the UK often involves pitch invasions and the throwing of a variety of missiles - in response most stadiums placed high chainlink fences between the seats and terraces and the pitch (terraces were cheaper standing areas without seats).
The stadium was divided into two parts in order to keep the opposing fans apart: the Liverpool supporters being assigned to the Leppings Lane End. Kick off was scheduled for 3.00pm and many of the Liverpool supporters were late arriving. By 2.45pm there was a considerable buildup of fans outside the turnstiles at the Leppings Lane End, all eager to enter the stadium before the match started. With a crowd of 5000 fans (est) trying to get through the turnstiles the police decided to open a second set of gates which did not have turnstiles. The resulting inpouring of hundreds (possibly thousands) of fans at the rear of the terraces caused a crush at the front where people were pressed against the fencing. For some time the problem was not noticed and it was not until 3:06pm that the referee stopped the game. By this time a small door in the fencing had been opened and by this route many escaped the crush - others climbed over the fencing.
The pitch quickly started to fill with people sweating and gasping for breath and with the bodies of the dead. The police and ambulance services were overwhelmed by the scale of the disaster and fans helped as best they could, many attempting CPR and some tearing down advertising hoardings to act as makeshift stretchers.
The crush ultimately took the lives of 96 people.
Graphic footage of the disaster was available because the match was being broadcast and this along with the number of fatalities made an extreme impact on the general population.
A permanent tribute to those who lost their lives can be found alongside the Shankly Gates at Anfield. A further tribute was set up in 1999 at Hillsborough.
The Taylor Inquiry
Following the disaster, Lord Justice Taylor was appointed to conduct an inquiry into the tragedy. Taylor's inquiry sat for thirty one days and published two reports, one interim report that laid out the events of the day and immediate conclusions and one final report that made general recommendations on football ground safety. As a result of the inquiry, fences in front of fans were removed and stadia were converted to become all-seated.
There was considerable debate over some aspects of the disaster; in particular, attention was focused on the decision to open the secondary gates. It was suggested that it would have been better to delay the start of the game as had often been done at other venues and matches. The police claimed that they were concerned that the crush outside the stadium was getting out of control and accusations were made that some Liverpool fans did not have tickets and were trying to force the turnstiles. Other accusations of misbehaviour were made in relation to the crowd, however, no substantial evidence was presented to this effect.
The Sun newspaper
On the Tuesday following the disaster, Kelvin MacKenzie, then editor of The Sun, a British tabloid newspaper owned by Rupert Murdoch, used the front page headline 'THE TRUTH', with three sub-headlines: 'Some fans picked pockets of victims'; 'Some fans urinated on the brave cops'; 'Some fans beat up PC giving kiss of life'.
The story accompanying these headlines claimed that 'drunken Liverpool fans viciously attacked rescue workers as they tried to revive victims' and 'police officers, firemen and ambulance crew were punched, kicked and urinated upon'. A quote, attributed to an unnamed policeman, claimed that a dead girl had been abused and that Liverpool fans 'were openly urinating on us and the bodies of the dead'.
- 'As MacKenzie's layout was seen by more and more people, a collective shudder ran through the office [but] MacKenzie's dominance was so total there was nobody left in the organisation who could rein him in except Murdoch. [Everyone] seemed paralysed, "looking like rabbits in the headlights", as one hack described them. The error staring them in the face was too glaring. It obviously wasn't a silly mistake; nor was it a simple oversight. Nobody really had any comment on it—they just took one look and went away shaking their heads in wonder at the enormity of it. It was a "classic smear".'
Lord Justice Taylor's official inquiry into the disaster disparaged The Sun's story and was unequivocal as to the disaster's cause:
- 'The real cause of the Hillsborough disaster [was] overcrowding, the main reason for the disaster was the failure of police control.'
Following The Sun's report, the newspaper was boycotted by most newsagents in Liverpool, with many refusing to stock the tabloid and large numbers of readers cancelling orders and even refusing to buy from shops which did stock the newspaper.
MacKenzie explained his reporting in 1993. Talking to a House of Commons National Heritage Select Committee he said "I regret Hillsborough. It was a fundamental mistake. The mistake was I believed what an MP said. It was a Tory MP. If he had not said it and the chief superintendent had not agreed with it, we would not have gone with it." This explanation was not accepted by families of Hillsborough victims. Even fifteen years after the Hillsborough disaster, the circulation of The Sun in Liverpool is still reckoned to be only 12,000 copies a day where previously it was around 200,000.
The Sun itself issued an apology "without reservation" in a full page opinion piece on Wednesday 7th July 2004, saying it had that "committed the most terrible mistake in its history." The Sun was responding to the intense criticism of Wayne Rooney, a Liverpool-born football star who then still played in the city (for Everton), who had sold his life story to the newspaper. Rooney's actions had incensed Liverpool dwellers still angry at The Sun. The Sun's apology was somewhat bullish, saying that the "campaign of hate" against Rooney was organised in part by the Liverpool Daily Post & Echo, owned by Trinity Mirror, who also own the Daily Mirror, arch-rivals of The Sun. Thus the apology actually served to anger some Liverpudlians further. The Liverpool Echo itself did not accept the apology, calling it "shabby" and "an attempt, once again, to exploit the Hillsborough dead."
"Hillsborough" - television drama
In 1997, the ITV television network in the United Kingdom screened a ninety-minute one-off drama-documentary recounting the events of the disaster, written by the acclaimed Liverpudlian scriptwriter Jimmy McGovern, who had previously been responsible for hard-hitting television productions such as Cracker.
Produced for the network by Granada Television and titled simply Hillsborough, the drama starred Christopher Eccleston as Trevor Hicks, whose story formed the focus of the script. It drew much praise for its sensitive handling of the subject matter, which was heavily critical of the actions of the South Yorkshire Police.