Above the Fold: Hillsborough The trials begin

by Emily Northcott

1st February 2019

Almost exactly thirty years ago – longer than some of us Eulogites have even been alive – thousands of people attended a football match—and 96 never came back. The Hillsborough disaster in 1989 was undoubtedly the biggest sporting disaster in British history, but why is the press still talking about it?

The answer is that, in January, the trials of two men charged in relation to the disaster began. The first, David Duckenfield, match commander on the day of the 1989 FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest, was charged with 95 counts of manslaughter by gross negligence.

The second, Graham Mackrell, former safety officer of Sheffield Wednesday – the club that owns Hillsborough stadium – is charged with health and safety offences—none of which have been prosecuted in UK legal history.

Unsurprisingly, there is daily media coverage of the trial in the North West of England, but it has also captured the attention of the national media—who have a heavy daily presence at court.

What is interesting about the reporting on the trial is its balanced nature. All defendants have by law the right to a fair trial, and there are very strict reporting restrictions on all criminal trials in the UK. Only evidence and discussion presented in the presence of the jury can be reported on while a trial is ongoing.

There will likely be heavy analysis of the proceedings in full once they have concluded and the restrictions have been lifted—especially if one or both of the defendants is acquitted, as the investigation into the disaster has been publicly funded. But, for now, we should receive balanced and wholly factual reporting.

Of course, this hasn’t always been the case in the story of the Hillsborough disaster. Many people will immediately recall the notorious headlines by The Sun, which caused deep wounds in the community of Liverpool that last to this day. As we in the communications industry know well, words printed in the national press carry weight and shape opinion. In the case of Hillsborough, the families of those who died have faced a protracted fight to discover the truth of what happened that day—one which the longest inquest in British legal history sought to do.

In the 30 years since the disaster, the media has changed enormously—so the potential for breaching the Contempt of Court Act is much more prevalent than it was at the time of the disaster. This comes right down to comments on social media that suggest that any party is guilty or innocent.

While this is an almost impossible task to police, any and all mentions that are found will naturally be passed to the appropriate authorities to be reviewed. This brave new world where everyone is a publisher is fraught with danger for both the judicial system and the unwitting keyboard warriors who make a comment in passing without fully understanding the potential implications of their words.

That said, Twitter has become an increasingly popular method of reporting on such trials. The instant nature of the platform provides the public with real-time updates as to the happenings in court, in more detail that you would find in a one-minute segment on the evening news or a page in the following day’s newspaper.

Over the course of the next few months we can expect to see various detail on the trial published nationally depending on the witnesses testifying—or if any controversial evidence comes to light. However, what we cannot expect to see until the trial’s conclusion in May is any more in-depth analysis of these findings.

In any event, and whatever the outcome, all we can hope for is that these proceedings bring long overdue closure to those who lost loved ones at the ill-fated match, and all the people who have been affected by it over the past 30 years.