In the UK, the Football Association (FA) runs an elimination competition called the FA Cup and in the 1988-1989 competition, Liverpool played Nottingham Forest in a semi-final at a neutral venue, Sheffield Wednesday’s Hillsborough ground on Saturday April 15th, 1989. The match was sold out, with over 53,000 fans of the two sides nearly filling the ground before the 3.00 pm kick-off. In many English grounds at the time there were large areas of standing accommodation, and at Hillsborough, these were divided into pens which were separated from each other and the playing field by strong wire mesh barriers about 3 metres high. However, there was no method for making sure that the fans were distributed evenly between these pens1.
Turnstiles into the pens were slow and many fans were still to enter as kick-off neared and a crush developed, so the police superintendent in charge ordered one of the main gates to be opened. This led to a crush in two of the pens and this was so severe that in one pen the barrier gave way causing people to fall on top of each other. The emergency services were slow to respond and 96 people died, while 400 people were injured. Subsequent inquests found that police errors in planning, defects at the stadium and delays in the emergency response all contributed to the disaster, and the behaviour of fans was not to blame1.
One of the UK newspapers owned by Murdoch is The Sun, and it is one of the worst of the UK tabloids. Four days after the disaster, on April 19, The Sun printed a front page story under the banner headline ‘THE TRUTH’, where it alleged that Liverpool fans had stolen from the bodies of the victims, urinated on “brave cops” and, in a particularly appalling piece of fantasy which in full, alleged that: “In one shameful episode, a gang of Liverpool fans noticed the blouse of a girl trampled to death in the crush had risen above her breasts. As a policeman struggled in vain to revive her they jeered: “Throw her up here and we will f*** her.” All of those allegations were shown to be false. Some at least of these lies were reputed to have come from the police, with the latter subsequently admitting their guilt, while others came from a Conservative MP2.
This disgraceful act by The Sun precipitated a boycott of the paper in Liverpool which has reputedly cost Murdoch’s News International £15 million ($A29 million) per month for the last 30 years. Sales of The Sun, the UK’s biggest selling newspaper dropped 200,000 per annum almost overnight. In the early days of the boycott, an editor of a football podcast remembers vivid images of women in Kirkby burning newspapers in the street. This was the first time newspapers had been publicly burned on British streets since the 1930s, in Jewish east London, when copies of The Daily Mail (a rag worse than The Sun) were burned in response to their front page endorsement of British fascist Oswald Mosley and his pro-Nazi Blackshirts3.
Like any Murdoch media outlet, The Sun only showed disdain for the people of Liverpool. Despite receiving complaints from families of the dead and from survivors of the disaster the managing editor William Newman replied with an unsigned letter which said in part: “If the price of a free press is a boycott of our newspaper, then it is a price we will have to pay.” This arrived at the complainants homes as some were making arrangements for funerals or planning to attend one or more. This only served to harden the boycott. Since then, The Sun has offered multiple apologies, but these always lacked sincerity, and were always rejected, not least because they never admitted they lied. In fact, it took until 2012 until The Sun gave the same prominence to its apology as it did to the original fabrication3.
How has the boycott worked? Both Liverpool and Everton football clubs have banned The Sun’s reporters from press conferences; large supermarket chain Tesco has stopped stocking the Sun due to a lack of demand; taxis around the city bear the words ‘Do not buy The Sun’ emblazoned on their sides. The boycott is 31 years old this year and does not seem to be fading, as there are still several groups intent on it continuing4,5,6.
While the behaviour of The Sun was reprehensible, that of Murdoch’s Australian media is arguably worse in that through their climate change denialism, that have helped to delay or prevent action to mitigate climate change, thereby dooming us to several degrees of warming and millions to death or displacement. The city of Liverpool has shown that a boycott of Murdoch media can be effective over the long term. We should heed Liverpool.