Hillsborough 1989: Crisis Communication Integrity Failures

Crisis Communication Integrity Failures – Julian Clarke

96 Souls RIP – The 1989 Hillsborough Football Double Tragedy:

“The greatest cover up in British legal history”

This case study based presentation prepared in early 2013 explores the communication failures in the wake of the tragic crisis of 96 soccer fans crushed to death when police opened gates to an already full part of a neutral stadium for a major FA Cup semifinal contested by double European Cup winners Nottingham Forest and one of the world’s most famous football/soccer clubs, Liverpool FC, owned since 2010 by Fenway Sports Group whose other interests include the Boston Red Sox.

Police public communication about the crisis not only failed to address the exigency of the moment and failed to acknowledge any responsibility for the emergency, rather focused on blaming the victims (fans) themselves for the human disaster. Collusion with parliamentarians resulted in almost immediate media headlines uncritically reflecting the “attack the accuser” spin of the police communication and initial global misreporting of the tragedy.

As a consequence of misrepresentation of particularly low professionalism and integrity, one high volume national daily newspaper has been boycotted in Liverpool since 1989 and the many institutional failings led to a 24 year and ongoing campaign for ‘Justice for the 96’.

Following the 20th anniversary of the tragedy, the pressure for the full facts to be revealed led to an independent panel headed by the Bishop of Liverpool gaining access to 450,000 documents. Its September 2012 findings completely exonerated the fans of responsibility, stating that

  • “the safety of the crowd admitted to the terrace was compromised at every level’,
  • “the fans were not the cause of the disaster”,
  • “the risks were known and the crush in 1989 was foreseeable” and
  • “the bereaved families met a series of obstacles in their search for justice.”

The superbly written and unambiguous report of the Hillsborough Independent Panel led to an acknowledgement by the Lord Chief Justice of a ‘profound, almost palpable belief that justice has not been done and that it cannot be done without and until the full truth is revealed’.

Unlike those most culpable for the tragedy, not for the first time then British prime minister David Cameron did not lack the courage to apologise in parliament for wrongdoing and cover-ups perpetrated by his predecessors in authority, referring to the findings as “deeply distressing” and saying “with the weight of the new evidence in the report it’s right for me today as prime minister to make a proper apology to the families of the 96… On behalf of the government, and indeed of our country, I am profoundly sorry that this double injustice has been left uncorrected for so long.”

This presentation highlights many Crisis Management failures and particularly addresses the low integrity associated with many instances of what Crisis Communication expert Benoit would refer to as Denial and Blame Shift as well as Counterattack, Silence and Provocation, five of the least ethical of the fifteen communication strategies outlined in the presentation which unfortunately could have been written with Hillsborough in mind.

Reprehensibly, those who had already suffered the entirely avoidable loss of their family members had to endure for almost a quarter of a century accusations that somehow it was the victims not the authorities who were responsible for the tragedy. The presentation  also indicates how perpetuation of the original and immediate false accusations, assisted by other institutions of State failing to acknowledge in their deliberations that the police may have been misrepresenting the facts, permitted one senior lawyer to refer to the Crisis Communication as the “greatest cover up in British legal history.”

The presentation was prepared with the wonderful co-operation of Andy Kelly and Brian Johnston at the Liverpool Echo newspaper and is available for download from:

ICRC 2013 CLARKE HILLSBOROUGH 1989

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