On 26 April 2016, the people of Liverpool got the moment they had been fighting for nearly three decades, as the jury at an independent inquest found that fans of Liverpool Football Club were in no way to blame for the 1989 Hillsborough stadium disaster in which 96 died.
After two years in court, the inquest revealed that South Yorkshire Police had failed to responsibly manage the crowd of 54,000, as the then all-standing stadium in Sheffield filled up for an FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest, resulting in a crush in one end of the stadium. Among the dead were dozens of children and teenagers. The new inquest found that the police had then deliberately attempted to shift blame onto the fans, covering up their mistakes and claiming the deaths had been caused by drunken misbehaviour.
For 27 years the Hillsborough Justice Campaign, composed largely of families of the victims, rejected the official version of events, and “Justice for the 96” became a rallying cry for the whole city.
But one year on from the exonerating inquest verdict, a parallel campaign has only gathered momentum. Though rarely as centralised as the HJC, its message is simple: “Don’t Buy The Sun”.
On 19 April 1989, four days after the disaster, The Sun splashed its front page with the now infamous headline “The Truth”, under which it accused that Liverpool fans at the stadium had picked the pockets of the dead, beaten up a police officer attempting to resuscitate a victim, and even “urinated on the brave cops”. Later revealed to be part of a concerted smear campaign, this was taken as a deeply hurtful insult not just to the dead, but to the entire city of Liverpool, and a three-decade boycott against the UK’s highest-selling newspaper began.
The boycott became a unifying cause for the city. Most newsagents refused to continue selling The Sun, leaving only supermarket chains to display it on less visible shelves. Fans share videos on social media mischievously throwing copies they do find into the trash or covering them up with other papers. Footballers from Liverpool and their local rivals Everton are applauded for refusing to engage with its journalists, even long after they have moved on to other teams. Even its name is treated as a dirty word, with the Liverpool Echo newspaper and several campaign groups referring to it as “The S*n”, and locals calling it “the rag”.
In 2017, with the real truth now finally out in the open, the movement is more active than ever. Taxis roam Liverpool freshly wrapped in liveries declaring “The S*n – Not Welcome In Our City”. In February Liverpool Football Club revoked The Sun’s press credentials from all club facilities and activities, including home games at their Anfield stadium, effectively banning them.
One newsagent, who gave his name as Manoz, recently moved to Liverpool from London and set up shop, unaware of the history of the boycott. He decided to stop selling The Sun in February after receiving complaints from customers.
“We don’t want to hurt their feelings or anything,” he told Index. “I know it’s a long time ago but the people here are not forgetting about it. They were coming in and saying why, and that’s why we stopped it. It’s part of living in this city.”
Gary Gaze is the founder of the largest anti-Sun campaign group on Merseyside, Shun the S*n. An avid follower of Liverpool FC for most of his life, the 1989 FA Cup semi-final was the only away game he missed that season. Amidst the modern panic over so-called “fake news”, Gaze is certain that The Sun’s misleading Hillsborough coverage had long-term material effects, making the HJC’s task more difficult by turning public opinion against the victims.
“I’ve got an open mind, I know some people don’t like football or whatever, but it’s not all about football. It’s about people from Liverpool being tarred with a brush,” he told Index. “They were lies, and people have been affected by it for a long, long time.”
On asking newsagents to stop selling The Sun, Gaze, who was inspired to become an activist by the determination of the HJC’s fight for the truth, said: “We just have to educate people and let them know why people don’t read it, and I think people realise that if they continue to sell it, it’s going to affect their profits. People aren’t going to want to go into shops that sell it.”