how not to write a headline for hillsborough

You need to watch this.

One of Britain’s most controversial newspaper editors is confronted with his past mistakes. The story behind this is tragic, of course, but here is a vastly amusing short video, as Channel 4 News turns up on Kelvin MacKenzie’s doorstep to demand some answers about his paper’s reporting of the Hillsborough disaster. And it shows up one of the constant dilemmas of journalism: writing a catchy headline versus telling the undistorted truth.

Kelvin Mackenzie doorstepped by Channel 4 News (opens in a new tab)

‘We just want to know what your message is to the people of Liverpool, why you wrote the headline that you did, and why, in writing that headline, you overruled your own senior journalists who said “Come on Kelvin, we’ve got to nuance this, we’ve got to be careful about this.” …You weren’t very careful, were you Kelvin?’

The former editor of The Sun seems to take offence at these questions, and tries to slam shut his car door against the irritating journalist. Seriously – watch that video.

Hillsborough: whose fault was it?

On 15 April 1989, one of the world’s worst football disasters occurred at Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield, England. 96 people died, mainly as a result of being crushed and suffocated, and 766 were injured. The Hillsborough disaster was all the more tragic because no one was sure exactly how it happened, or whose fault it was.

Four days later, The Sun newspaper thought it had a story about who was to blame, but wasn’t 100% sure about it. And what do you do, as a newspaper editor, when you have a story and you’re not totally convinced it’s true? If you’re Kelvin MacKenzie, you print the story with a massive headline saying THE TRUTH.

the 'truth'

The story The Sun published blamed the Liverpool supporters for what happened. But that wasn’t quite what had been written – and the headline was far from what the reporter was claiming. Channel 4 News described how that headline came into being:

Harry Arnold, that reporter, recalls just what happened when he saw Kelvin Mackenzie writing that headline: ‘I was about to leave the newsroom when I saw him drawing up the front page,’ he told the BBC, ‘When I saw the headline ‘The Truth’ I was aghast because that wasn’t what I’d written.’

He recalls a critical conversation which then took place with Kelvin MacKenzie:

HA: You can’t say that.

KM: Why not?

HA: Because we don’t know that it’s the truth.

KM: Oh don’t worry. I’m going to make it clear that this is what some people are saying.

And he left.

But that is not how things appeared in the paper, as the world knows. To date, Mr MacKenzie has never explained why he overruled the clear misgivings of many of his staff that day.

In Harry Arnold’s interview with the BBC, he told them:

And I walked away thinking, well I’m not happy with the situation.

But the fact is reporters don’t argue with an editor.

And in particular, you don’t argue with an editor like Kelvin MacKenzie.

Why MacKenzie’s ‘truth’ was a lie

In my day job writing copy for a human rights NGO, this is a dilemma I’ve often faced myself. You have a great story – but there are subtle complexities. Things are hardly ever as simple as they seem. You need to convey the complex truth, while also writing the story and the headline in such a way that it’s readable and engaging.

Does this story need to be told? Does the world need to hear what you’re reporting? Then you have to get the world to listen.

Headline writing is an art form by itself. The right headline is vital because you have to get people to pick up your paper – or click on your link – and if the headline’s boring, they’re less likely to do this, ergo your story does not get read, ergo you have wasted your time and your organisation’s money; and if you’re reporting on human rights abuses, you’re betraying the people whose story needs to be told.

So in a way, I can see why Kelvin MacKenzie wanted to go with a headline like that. That’s the kind of headline that makes people pick up your paper and pay good money to read what you’ve published. And that money of theirs is what puts food on your plate and buys clothes for your children. Plus, had the story been true, it would have been important to tell it. And we shouldn’t forget, as Channel 4 said, that The Sun ‘was reporting in good faith what several police sources had told to a reputable Sheffield news agency.’

But here’s the thing: you can never, ever, let your headline tell a lie. Particularly when your headline says THE TRUTH. Particularly when you’re really not sure that this is the truth. Particularly when your staff all disagree with the way this portrays the story.

As MacKenzie’s layout was seen by more and more people, a collective shudder ran through the office…

Stick It Up Your Punter: Rise and Fall of The Sun – Chris Horrie and Peter Chippindale (an account of life under Kelvin MacKenzie at The Sun)

He wants an apology. Hahahahahahahahahaha

The reason why this is all making the news is because we now know that no Liverpool fans were responsible for what happened that day in the overcrowded stadium. A few weeks ago, the Hillsborough Independent Panel concluded instead that there was a massive cover-up of the failings of the police.

Hundreds of witness statements had been amended to show the police in a better light, and hundreds which were unfavourable had simply been removed. The families of the victims have known for years that there was systematic dishonesty in the way events were reported, and now the world knows too.

So where does this leave a pissed-off newspaper editor who wrote an unwise headline about a dodgy story? You’ll be amused to learn that he’s demanded an apology from the police, because they lied to his sources, so he printed that headline, so people got annoyed with him. Note that he’s not asking them to apologise because they lied about a horrific disaster with many fatalities. No, he wants them to say sorry because he feels he has ‘suffered personal vilification for decades’ as a result of the lies.

Mm, interesting. 

A spokesman from South Yorkshire Police remarked:

It is well known that many media outlets ran similar stories at the time based on the same sources but chose to treat them differently…Mr MacKenzie was responsible for the particular headline he chose to run with.

You’ll be relieved to learn that MacKenzie isn’t getting his apology.


That quote above from South Yorkshire Police is the key to this whole thing. You get yourself a story, and you think about the best way to write it (main copy as well as headline) so it gets read. But you never, ever, let the need for the story to be read interfere with the story’s accuracy. 

In case you’re still wondering how to write a headline, The Poynter Institute has some excellent advice. And what’s the very first point?

1. Is the headline accurate?

Couldn’t have put it better myself.


Filed under how not to write

2 responses to “how not to write a headline for hillsborough

  1. Pingback: old fascist cats | a different daylight

  2. Pingback: newtown shootings: a small light in the darkness | a different daylight

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