On the 15th of April 1989, at Hillsborough stadium in Sheffield, one of the worst sporting disasters in history occurred, resulting in the deaths of 97 Liverpool fans and hundreds of non-fatal injuries. Families all across Merseyside, and some in Sheffield, found themselves missing their loved ones; survivors would be forced to grapple with some of the worst trauma and life-changing injuries imaginable. Fans watched their friends die, and an unknowable number of lives were forever changed. Everyone in Merseyside knows someone who was affected by the disaster – even while writing this article, I was made aware of three comrades whose relatives were there that fateful day, though thankfully, they survived.
In 2021, we know that these fans were unlawfully killed by the reckless actions of David Duckenfield, the police commander in charge at the FA Cup semi-final, when he ordered the opening of an exit gate, resulting in a sudden influx of fans. The police failed in their duty of care, and due to their gross negligence, fans as young as ten years old died. We know that those who died or were injured were utterly blameless.
In 1989, however, the public was fed a very different story; the media, the police and the government worked together to paint a picture of drunken, violent fans to blame for their own deaths. Rupert Murdoch’s The Sun Newspaper took the lead in creating this narrative, printing an infamous headline that read “The Truth”, declaring that a mob of drunken fans had actually attacked police and rescue workers and pickpocketed the dead. Never mind that the fans had actually been aiding the rescue workers and doing their best to save their fellow victims; Murdoch’s rag wanted to assign blame to the blameless and save the reputations of those responsible for an act of social mass murder, and so those who had been failed by the police were now turned into the villains of the story. Those coping with incredible trauma were vilified and grieving families were told their loved ones were at fault for their own deaths.
The Sun was far from the only newspaper to run these kinds of lies, but it was perhaps the most brazen and malicious. The lies have tarnished the reputation not just of the fans at the stadium that fateful day, but of an entire city and have encouraged disgusting anti-working class sentiment that is still used against the people and city of Liverpool to this day. There is no doubt that The Sun’s editor at the time, Kelvin Mackenzie, hoped that the explosive nature of the lies they printed would sell papers. What he may not have expected was the organised effort to fight back against the slander and smears his paper perpetrated. Rather than accepting the appalling treatment they received at the hands of the media and the government, the working people of Liverpool formed an organised movement to stand up and resist some of the most wealthy and powerful institutions in this country.
The seeds of what would eventually become a hugely successful anti-Sun campaign began in the town of Kirkby, just on the outskirts of Liverpool. Outraged by the remarks printed in the paper, women burned copies of it in the street. These were working class women, who had lost members of their community because of the actions of very powerful people, and who were now being slandered and demonised by one of the most widely read papers in the country. Some might have concluded that taking a stand would be pointless and tried to get on with their lives, but they didn’t. They started a tradition that persists in Liverpool today; fighting back even when it seems hopeless. The significance of their actions didn’t go unnoticed – images of their protest ended up seen widely around Liverpool, and added fuel to the already-burning fire. According to some figures, the Sun’s circulation in Liverpool dropped by around forty percent overnight. The people were angry at what had been printed about their community, and they refused to fund it. Out of this emerged a number of organisations that would act to maintain the boycott of the paper – initially targeting consumers and persuading them not to purchase it. This was a decent start, but wouldn’t do by itself; campaigners knew they needed to take stronger action if they wanted to see Murdoch’s rag out of Merseyside. Newsagents who hadn’t already stopped stocking the paper were encouraged to, and to this day, you cannot find a single reputable newsagent in Liverpool that would ever admit to stocking The Sun. Scousers who visit other cities can find themselves shocked seeing the logo of The Sun on newsagents, or stocked in supermarkets.
At the same time as campaigners targeted both supply and demand for the paper, Liverpool fans put enormous pressure on their club to break off any relations with The Sun. Three years to the day after the disaster, Liverpool FC’s manager, Graeme Souness, appeared on the front page of The Sun. Fans were outraged and made their feelings known immediately; Souness was forced into an apology. When the paper sponsored a Liverpool match, the Hillsborough Justice Campaign responded by successfully boycotting the next fixture. Fans and campaigners had learned an important lesson – the only way they could win would be to hit The Sun and those who worked with it in the pocket. At the same time, campaigners were relentlessly spreading their message, using posters, stickers and word-of-mouth to build on the earlier successes of their campaign. Workers got involved too – when The Sun tried to send a free copy of their paper to every household in the country, many posties within Liverpool staunchly refused to deliver it. They backed their fellow workers and fellow scousers. Campaigners never once let up, rested on their laurels, or allowed themselves to be too demoralised – even as the establishment continued to add insult upon insult to injury.
Over the years, Hillsborough and the events surrounding it have been discussed in court many times. Inquests and court cases have yielded some positives – the greatest of all being the vindication of the fans, and the admission that the 97 dead were unlawfully killed – but not once has anyone involved in the disaster seen even a day in jail. Meanwhile, despite a number of fake apologies, Kelvin Mackenzie has continuously made degrading remarks about Liverpool fans and insisted his earlier apologies were not genuine. Labour leader Keir Starmer, who in the 2020 leadership campaign spoke of the injustices perpetrated by The Sun and pledged not to give any interviews to them during the campaign, has not only allowed his own shadow cabinet members to write for the paper – he’s done it himself. Campaigners have learned the value of promises from on high. The only thing that has worked for Liverpool is a sense of working class solidarity and determination.
Nowadays, The Sun is banned both at Liverpool’s Anfield Stadium and Everton’s Goodison Park. Shops, homes and taxis across Merseyside proudly display posters that read “Don’t buy the S*n”. We can learn much from the tireless energy that this campaign has devoted to its cause. First and foremost, there is absolutely no substitute for solidarity. As communists, we cannot, will not, win anything without sticking together and supporting each other. Once we become divided, press barons and politicians will exploit our divisions and break our campaign. We can learn, too, the necessity of persistence and the utter pointlessness of compromise with our enemies. The Hillsborough Justice Campaign, the boycott, the families and the community never, ever gave in or gave up. There were many times when they could have, when many said they should have, but they held firmly onto their principles. They were not satisfied with the crocodile tears of Mr Mackenzie or grovelling apologies on The Sun’s front page. It is due to this incredible sense of determination that the dead have been vindicated and the truth, after a long and bitter fight, has been unearthed. We can’t afford to go into any campaign or battle without the utmost conviction and the determination that these brave campaigners displayed so excellently for so long. Nor can we afford to worry what is said about us. For years, scousers and their city had the most appalling smears directed at them. Had Hillsborough campaigners backed down in the face of this, it is unlikely that the verdict of unlawful killings would ever have been found. We know that our opponents, with all their money and power and influence, will slander us too – and they will have all the reach they need, thanks to a compliant gutter press.
We must not lose hope. Instead, we must use our hearts, and wear their hatred as a badge of honour. When we’re lied about, when we’re insulted and threatened, it means only one thing: the powers that be are scared. Increasingly the working class, as in Liverpool, is learning its own power, and people like Murdoch are becoming aware of it too. Let’s take a leaf from the tireless and fearless campaigners for justice, from the boycotters and the fans; let’s keep giving the elites cause to be worried.
Sam Fury, is a member of the YCL’s Merseyside branch