Newspapers’ Post-Hillsborough Verdict Front Pages

hillsborough front pages

For four years I’ve driven back and forth across the M62 on an almost daily basis, passing the temporary yellow signs that point the way to Warrington and ongoing Hillsborough inquests. Although I’ve been in Liverpool almost 20 years it doesn’t seem as if there have been too many days when I’ve not been aware of it.

In the Liverpool Guild of Students a memorial to students who never returned; a friend who designed and built the Band of Life memorial sculpture; serialising John Pilger’s Hidden Agendas book, specifically the chapter detailing the genesis of the Sun’s notorious front page; the stickers across the city concerning a newspaper that has been largely absent from Liverpool for over 25 years.

I have written about Hillsborough on occasion. Back in 1998 the student newspaper I edited at Liverpool University questioned Norman Bettison’s appointment as Chief Constable of Merseyside Police and pondered his role in the Hillsborough cover-up. Interviewing Jimmy McGovern and covering council meetings where families of the victims spoke of their desire for justice. Reviewing a wonderful exhibition of the Liverpool Echo’s coverage a few years back. I hope today’s verdict gives the families and friend some of the answers and sense of closure they’ve been looking for.

One aspect of the story that has always fascinated me is the ongoing refusal of some of those involved in what is now recognised as a pitiful and self-serving cover-up to engage with the truth of the matter. Kelvin MacKenzie, as he did in 2012, again managed to sound mealy-mouthed today when questioned about his role in The Sun’s front page – and I wondered all day how The Sun would greet today’s news from Warrington on its front page.

The answer was that it didn’t. It may not quite have been intended as such, but it came across as one last insult, flung out from the capital a million miles away from Warrington, Sheffield and Liverpool.

National papers

In some ways it shouldn’t come as a surprise that The Sun and its stablemate The Times make no mention of Hillsborough on their front pages. They may have rationalised that it was best to keep a respectful distance, especially as a previous mea culpa from The Sun was received with scepticism.

But not to mention it all also risks looking like a deliberate slight. Perhaps they believed they were damned either way, but surely better to acknowledge a story with enormous ramifications for police forces, politics and journalism at the highest levels.

Of the rest it’s notable that The Independent – covers the Hillsborough verdict on its front page when it doesn’t even exist. The Metro skilfully pastiches The Sun’s notorious headline from 1989 and The Daily Mirror has a photo of the entrance to the tunnel that leads to the Leppings Lane pens. The sight of it still disturbs me and it makes for a powerful front page.

The i

The Mirror

The Guardian

The Independent

Metro

The Times

The Sun

Daily Star

Daily Express

Telegraph

The New Day

Financial Times

Socialist Worker

Morning Star

Local and regional papers

Virtually every local or regional front page that I could find refers to Hillsborough, even if it’s a strapline or above the masthead. The only one I couldn’t find was a tiny regional with a story about a dog.

Scottish Daily Mail

Scottish Express

Western Mail

Wigan Today

Liverpool Echo

Birmingham Mail

The National

Sheffield Star

Yorkshire Post

London Evening Standard

International papers

Prominent coverage of the Hillsborough verdict on the international version of the New York Times.

International New York Times

Other reactions

The Times’ Merseyside football writer appears bemused by something, around the same time that the next day’s front pages were circulated.

Tony Barrett

Is shorthand vital for journalism students?

Journalism courses that don’t make 100wpm a core skill are “Del Boy degrees” according to Jon Harris, managing director of Cavendish Press which claims to be “renowned for its ground breaking news”.

This got me thinking about shorthand, I’ve skill I’ve never learned. I can’t think of one instance where this has inconvenienced or troubled me, but I’m not blind to the benefits of it. Had I been a reporter on a local, regional or national then yes, I’m sure that would have been vital in getting the job 15 years ago, never mind doing it. But now? I don’t think so.

The claim that knowing shorthand is vital is self-perpetuating in an industry populated by reporters wanting to differentiate themselves professionally from bloggers and other media professionals; from students whose teachers have drummed into them how vital it is; from NCTJ headquarters and various sermons on the mount.

I offer the following not as an attempt to rebut the idea that shorthand is a useful skill, but to demonstrate that there are alternatives and workarounds. Personally I’d consider the ability to identify and correctly apply them every bit as important as knowing shorthand.

It’s a core skill

Shorthand probably is a core skill if you’re a court reporter. But it’s not if you’re a sub, if you’re a social media manager, a blogger, a photographer, a self-shooter, a podcaster, a multimedia editor, a marketer, a PR, a radio or television presenter, a data journalist, a coder, a cameraman, editor or copywriter.

Depending on what you study and where you work it’s no more a core skill than InDesign, Avid, Hootsuite, Google Analytics, Audioboom, Premiere, Twitter, Adwords, Facebook, proofing, page layout, mapping, WordPress, storytelling, Google Fusion, 360-degree video, Snapchat, drone journalism or virtual reality.

If you specialise these may all be core skills. If you don’t, they’re not.

Is it useful: Yes
Is is vital: No

Recording devices

Recording devices seem to be the bane of any journalist over the age of 35. You can almost hear the scorn over Twitter from these Pitman pitbulls if you mention using a digital recorder. Putting aside the antediluvian nature of these complaints, they’re about as valid as me pointing and laughing at a pencil. But what if you lost the pencil! Carry a pencil sharpener at all times do you! What if your notepad bursts into flames!

Using a recording device and knowing your way around tech is a question of workflow, just like any skill. If you know you’re going to be recording you’ll charge your phone and take a phone charger. If you’re using an online recorder you’ll have ensured that you have a signal – via WiFi or by using your phone as a hotspot. More likely you’ll simply use your phone or laptop’s hard drive. If you’re recording onto your phone you’ll know you have enough storage.

It’s easy, childishly easy, to record a phone call. You put your phone on speaker and place it next to your laptop. There’s all sort of free software you can download that will record sound. Or there are online voice recorders such as Vocaroo. Or you can make the call through Skype and record it on there. Or there are apps that can record your phone calls directly. It’s as easy as putting pen to paper.

When I’m recording interviews I’m thinking about what the person is saying to me. I’m actively having a conversation, a dialogue. You can’t do that if you’re frantically typing or transcribing. And if you work on trade magazines, write features and conduct interviews that are about a lot more than ‘he said; she said’ it’s preferable to sitting in front of them, looking at your pad and transcribing what they say.

Is it useful: Yes
Is is vital: No

In court

Journalists are not only allowed to tweet or live blog from court, they seem to be positively encouraged to do so these days – by employers and a judiciary keen to ensure that court activity remain reported. That removes the absolute requirement for shorthand, assuming you’re handy with a keyboard.

Either way it’s clear that shorthand is no longer vital for court reporting in its own right. Indeed, there remain very few places indeed where shorthand is the only method of reporting allowed. You can turn up to your next council meeting and film the whole damn thing.

How long ’til we can record in court? More to the point, how many do now? It’s permissible, should the court allow, and has been since 1981. Go look it up.

Is it useful: Yes
Is is vital: No

Employers insist on it

This I can’t dispute. Some employers will insists on 100wpm. But I dare say The Independent insisted on its production staff knowing Quark or InDesign 10 years ago. The industry is changing fast. And what is considered a core skill is changing fast.

What we’re seeing is a net reduction in the overall number of journalists working and a transfer away from regional/local/national newspapers to a more diffuse range of jobs: digital content creation; quasi-journalistic roles that include some PR and marketing; and hybrid positions pitched somewhere between content and advertising.

It’s for these reasons that even the NCTJ, hardly a radical voice in this debate, has watered down its requirements for journalists to achieve shorthand as part of its accredited courses.

I don’t think it’s likely that shorthand is seen as a vital skill in these ‘new media’ jobs across marketing and digital agency staff, SEO copywriters, brand managers and bloggers. And I doubt the majority of newspaper editors – in whatever form that takes in a decade’s time – will either.

Is it useful: Yes
Is is vital: No

Legals

“Ah, but what if someone accuses you of fabricating a quote? You’ll need your notepads then!” In what world is having some scribbled notes naturally superior to having an audio recording of a conversation? Journalists who record interviews don’t immediately delete voice recordings, in the same way that shorthand journos don’t throw all their old notepads on a massive bonfire. And convincingly doctoring shorthand transcriptions is far easier than convincingly doctoring a voice recording.

Is it useful: Yes
Is is vital: No

Transcribing

This is one of the more bemusing defences of shorthand in my view. “You can find what you’re looking for really easily!” is a common refrain, as if this isn’t also true of a digital recording. No-one uses tape-recording dictaphones any more (though I still have all my tiny tapes!), and scanning back and forth through a digital recording you’ve inevitably downloaded to your laptop is very easy indeed, so this argument has lost most of its potency.

Is it useful: Yes
Is is vital: No

Typing

Typing in a courtroom, at a council meeting or virtually anywhere else is legal and quite common now – and for quick-fingered journos it’s just as quick as shorthand.

I can type at 80wpm and can virtually touch-type. With a bit of effort I could certainly get to 100wpm. So I can probably type as quickly as most journalists can transcribe. Using Google Docs – as any good journalist should – means my stuff is instantly saved to a cloud so that I can access it anywhere, at any time, from any device. I also have an offline version stored, should an Act of God occur.

Is it useful: Yes
Is is vital: No

If it fails

Your battery will die, your app will glitch, you’ll drop your phone down the toilet or your laptop will be stolen. Journalists who insist that shorthand is a vital skill always seem to have an anecdote where a shorthandless journalist was defeated by the vagaries of technology. But these exceptions hardly prove a rule. And what happens if you lose your notebook? “I should not lose the notebook,” says the shorthander. I would reply that I should not lose the audio recording.

Is it useful: Yes
Is is vital: No

It demonstrates persistence, commitment and perseverance

This is true, but more true of any other demonstrable and difficult skill? If someone had spent hundreds of hours learning to play the piano, bowl off-breaks or how to left-foot brake, would that not also demonstrate the same skills. By the same metric, being able to demonstrate any similarly exacting skill in journalism does exactly the same thing.

Is it useful: Yes
Is is vital: No

When it’s noisy

This is another argument that I find amusing and bewildering, proffered by anyone who has learned shorthand as if it’s indisputable evidence of the superiority of scripture. Admittedly it’s not ideal to record a voice when you’re in a noisy pub, but when was the last time you tried doing shorthand when your hands were cold, when it’s windy or wet; when you’re interviewing in a car, on a train? And who wants to take a notepad to a pub anyway?

Is it useful: Yes
Is is vital: No


I do not dispute that learning shorthand – and being able to demonstrate it to 100wpm is a hugely valuable skill. Not least because some employers will still insist on it. But I don’t think it’s more valuable than a dozen other journalistic skills I could name. And I consider it to be easily replaced with a suite of other skills than are probably easier to learn in 2016.

So I understand the demand for it from some employers and some students – and it’s right that universities still teach it. But I sincerely believe that there should also be journalism courses that do not offer it. Many universities now offer non-acccredited journalism degrees – and there will be many more.

Railing against these developments in journalism teaching – which are driven by a market closing newspapers and sacking trad journalists left, right and centre – strikes me as Canutish and one-eyed. Technology has made lots of journalists redundant in the last 15 years; why would it not make journalism skills redundant too?

Will touch-typing be a vital skill when we have apps that can accurately transcribe for us? Is it vital to know your way around an expensive SLR, when your mobile will take just as good a picture? Will we need Photoshop when free apps can do much of the work for us? It’s a question of degree and circumstance. But I wouldn’t pretend that any of them are ‘core’ journalism skills. If I can still produce a good article with accurate quotes, a striking picture correctly outputted, does it matter how I did it?

I view shorthand with the same caution I view coding – particularly in relation to teaching journalism students. I have no doubt that both are incredibly useful skills in journalism and beyond. But are they worth the hundreds of hours required to learn them to a useful standard, especially if that time could be deployed learning something else? I’m doubtful, especially given that the single most persuasive argument that shorthanders rely on – that other forms of recording equipment were not traditionally allowed in courts – is no longer true.

Most of our lives are zero-sum games. If we devote a certain amount of time to X, we can’t devote it to Y. Just how much time is shorthand sucking up? And what else could be learned in that time? In a time-limited world I’d pose this question: what’s the ROI?


“In a time-limited world I’d pose this question: what’s the ROI?”

Whether deliberate or not, journalists who decry this response to what they see as a core skill adopt the position of gatekeepers to the realm of journalism: You’re not a real journalist; you can’t do journalism without it. To me it smacks of indignation: I had to do this bloody awful thing to get a job, so you should too. That many people working in journalism, in increasing numbers, cannot do shorthand seems to be considered as some sort of intentional effrontery to these journalists.

Maybe that’s partly down to an overwhelming desire to maintain standards – but I want to maintain standards too. To suggest that any journalist without shorthand is not a good journalist is as ridiculous as implying that anyone who can do shorthand must be a good journalist. I think it preferable to ensure my students are equipped for the kind of work I know journalists are expected to do nowadays.

Shorthand must be a great skill to have. I say that as someone who doesn’t possess it. But it’s a skill to use a recording device properly – who’s to say that one is superior to the other? And to maintain that shorthand is a vital skill for any journalist strikes me as a vaguely righteous position that brooks no argument; an article of faith more than an empirical truth.

We live in an age that offers a dozen ways to to do the same thing, to achieve the same required outcome. The ability to adapt, learn, think around problems and simply get things done is what’s important now. The method is not.