I’m not going to get in the detail of the Hillsborough disaster, which is nearing its 20th anniversary in April.
I was 11 at the time and don’t remember a lot about it, aside from finding the names of the roads and ends associated with the tragedy disturbingly memorable. Liverpool Guild of Students, of which I was a member, had a memorial on the wall as a tribute to a student lost on that day.
I do not and cannot really relate to the way Hillsborough affected Liverpool, so I have no right to intrude on, or share in, that grief. That emotion is obvious every day when another stack of Sun newspapers goes unsold in Liverpool.
I was playing cricket last year when I expressed surprise that someone had brought along a copy of the Sun, and subsequently spent some time explaining why to some Liverpool lads. They were as shocked by the story as I was by the fact that they didn’t already know.
All of which brings me onto the role of the Sun and more specifically, Kelvin Mackenzie. I’m not going to repeat what was published, but it can be easily found on a search engine.
The Sun attempted to win round Liverpool in a charm offensive in 2004 under the editorship of Rebekah Wade. It was largely in vain and people are free to make what they will of the motivations of the Sun and News International.
It would be remiss to pretend that the Sun printed the only questionable coverage too. The Daily Mirror and The Star were also at fault.
Mackenzie, editor of the Sun at the time and darling of Rupert Murdoch, did apologise in the early 90’s, but later rescinded his apology.
To this day Mackenzie maintains that everything The Sun printed was ‘the truth’ – a reference to the notorious lies printed in The Sun on 19 April 1989.
I’ve taken some quotes here from Hidden Agendas. There’s a PDF of the relevant chapter, A Cultural Chernobyl, here. It’s worth reading for anyone who doesn’t know the background.
‘THE TRUTH’ was the opposite. Like much in MacKenzie’s Sun, it was clearly intended to pander to prejudice. Other journalists on the Sun appeared to know this instinctively.
“As MacKenzie’s layout was seen by more and more people,” wrote Peter Chippendale and Chris Horrie in their history of the Sun, “a collective shudder ran through the office [but] MacKenzie’s dominance was so total there was nobody left in the organisation who could rein him in except Murdoch.
“[Everyone] seemed paralysed, ‘looking like rabbits in the headlights’, as one hack described them. The error staring them in the face was too glaring ? It obviously wasn’ta silly mistake; nor was it a simple oversight.
“Nobody really had any comment on it – they just took one look and went away shaking their heads in wonder at the enormity of it ? It was a ‘classic smear’.”
Pilger goes on to detail the aftermath:
In the days that followed the tragedy, Billy Butler, a popular Radio Merseyside disc jockey, became a voice for Liverpool’s grief and anger. “There were newsagents calling in,” he told me, “assuring people they would not stock the Sun.
“They were writing on their windows, ‘We do not have the Sun here’. There was a public burning of the Sun in Kirkby. Caller after caller said they were boycotting the paper, and the boycott is still going on today. It’s a marvellous way that ordinary people have to show their power, and this city used it.”
…sales of the Sun on Merseyside were falling fast, down by almost 40 per cent, a loss that would cost News International an estimated £10 million a year.
When the Press Council subsequently condemned the Sun’s lies, and the boycott intensified, Murdoch ordered MacKenzie to respond publicly. BBC Radio 4’s The World This Weekend was chosen as his platform. The ‘sarf London’ accent that was integral to MacKenzie’s persona as an ‘ordinary punter’ was now a contrite middle-class voice that fitted Radio 4.
‘It was my decision’, said MacKenzie, ‘and my decision alone to do that front page in that way, and I made a rather serious error.’
In 1996 MacKenzie was back on Radio 4, this time in a very different mood. “The Sun did not accuse anybody of anything,” he said aggressively. “We were the vehicle for others.”
MacKenzie has since made several statements indicating that he has nothing to regret about the Sun’s coverage. He’s since been employed on and off by the Sun and the BBC, resulting in this memorable protest in 2007:
Whether people continue to buy the Sun or is up to them, and I suspect News International and the current editorial team have largely given up on ever breaking back into the city, but I’m personally glad that Liverpool continues to shun it.
Not only should they continue to do so until MacKenzie offers a fulsome apology, they should to do so to send an important signal to news media that smear journalism against honest, decent people has repercussions.
But above all, it’s important to remember why.
• There’s an interview with Jimmy McGovern on Black+White which touches on Hillsborough and the resulting TV drama.