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Society, Politics & Law
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Protest Banners: Hillsborough

Updated Friday, 16th March 2018

Professor Steve Tombs discusses the use of protest banners in response to the Hillsborough Disaster. 


Professor Steve Tombs:

Hello, I’m Steve Tombs and I’m Professor of Criminology at The Open University. The two banners I focus on today relate to one aspect of the struggle for justice for the victims of the 1989 Hillsborough disaster - both banners were made as part of the campaign against the lies printed by The Sun newspaper about this tragedy.

This newspaper was very closely associated with the Conservative Government of the time and in particular, it’s Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. Four days after the disaster, on 19 April, 1989, underneath a banner headline ‘The Truth’, half of The Sun’s front page was given over to 3 bullet pointed claims: Some fans picked pockets of victims, Some fans urinated on the brave cops, Some fans beat up PC giving kiss of life. 'Don’t Buy The Sun' reads the first banner. Perhaps there’s a question as to whether we can call these mass produced, easily transportable and disposable sheets of red and white A3 paper banners at all. But they were definitely a significant part of a popular protest movement. Like other banners in history, they were made cheaply so that they could be numerous – fitting competition for a newspaper with mass circulation perhaps? And clearly, a great deal of thought has gone into them. At the top of the first is a reproduction of The Sun’s own masthead –this version dripping in blood. Below that we are reminded of The Truth we do know as opposed to that claimed by The Sun – that 96 people died at Hillsborough on 15 April 1989. This is stark, clear, no room for misunderstanding. What then follows is a call to action – political action, a boycott of a company’s product. Don’t Buy the Sun is the demand. Below that demand are three symbols of the Hillsborough Justice campaign, each based upon a flame indicating that the fight for justice burns strongly – the words ‘Justice for All’ feature, below which the banner reveals its source: The Hillsborough Justice Campaign, with a website address, urging people to find out more and get involved. Notice, too, the simple, stark colouring – red and white were not only the colours of The Sun but also of Liverpool Football Club. It’s also worth noting that when this banner was seen at derby games - when Liverpool played the other team in the city, Everton – there were occasionally versions of this banner in blue and white, Everton’s colours. The city united. This simple banner is a powerful piece of visual political communication, often carried by a large number of people at once – as the image indicates – and seen for many years during the campaign for Justice for the 96. The second banner was paraded outside the Coroners court in Warrington on the day that new inquest verdicts of unlawful killing of the Hillsborough victims were announced in April 2016. It was since seen at and around Liverpool football matches. This is a banner of vindication if not victory – while the message was still, across the middle, Don’t Buy the Sun (although The Sun has become The Scum), at the top of the banner the campaigners own truth is revealed - We Told You They Lied screams the main lettering. That ‘they’ had indeed lied now seemed a matter of law. Alongside the exhortation Don’t Buy the Scum is the badge of the South Yorkshire Police – the police force charged with safety and control at Hillsborough stadium on the day of the disaster but which has since been implicated in negligence on the day and attempts to systematically cover up The Truth of its actions as a force. And underneath ‘Don’t Buy the Scum’ you can see, again, red lettering spelling out Justice for the 96 – bookended by the Hillsborough Justice Campaign’s burning flame symbolism. In quality – material, time taken to produce, durability - this is clearly a very different kind of banner to the A3 poster style banner I discussed earlier. But both types of banners share similarities. Both rely on a stark, uncluttered format – not dissimilar to a newspaper front page or news-stand both use masthead style lettering which mimics that of The Sun newspaper itself, both adopt the newspaper’s colours – red on white – also those of Liverpool Football Club.

These features make both of these excellent forms of visual political communication – they are clear and simple in their meanings, content virtually unmissable and which resonates to anyone likely to be looking on at them– whether from inside the ground itself, in a city, town, train or motorway as they pass to and from the match, or indeed as part of TV audiences of tens if not hundreds of millions across the world who would see games involving Liverpool Football Club. They were both part of a long-running campaign which saw ordinary men and women take on the powerful – the police, the government, and what was at the time a mass circulation newspaper, The Sun. It was a campaign that was ultimately successful.

(End of Mini Lecture)


Hillsborough plus thirty years

In 2012, The Hillsborough independent panel, which had reviewed 450,000 documents disclosed to it, published its report into the disaster. Police failings and their campaign to blame supporters were further exposed. The Conservative home secretary, Theresa May, accepted the report and ordered a new criminal inquiry into the disaster.

Later that year, new inquests into the deaths of the 96 were announced, and these eventually began in March 2014 – going on to become by far the longest case ever heard by a jury in British legal history. In April 2016, the Inquest jury delivered its verdict. It concluded that the 96 people who died in the disaster were unlawfully killed, overturning the verdict of accidental death at the original inquest. It added that no behaviour on the part of Liverpool fans contributed to the dangerous situation at the Leppings Lane turnstiles. This completely exonerated the supporters who were blamed for causing the disaster in its immediate aftermath.

In September 2017, five men made their first appearance as defendants at Preston crown court, charged with criminal offences relating to the deaths of 96 people at the ground. These included Sir Norman Bettison, former chief constable of Merseyside and West Yorkshire police, who was an inspector in the South Yorkshire force at the time of the disaster, as well as a former chief superintendent of the South Yorkshire Police, his deputy, and the force’s solicitor.  The Crown Prosecution Service has also announced its intention to also charge David Duckenfield - the South Yorkshire police chief superintendent who was in command of policing at the football match - with gross negligence manslaughter. The CPS has applied to the high court to lift a stay on further criminal proceedings against Duckenfield, imposed in 1999 after he had faced a private prosecution brought by bereaved Hillsborough families. This means it is unlikely that any of the criminal cases will begin until well into 2018 at the earliest – almost 30 years after the disaster.

Interested in learning more?

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