Whilst the life was being squeezed from supporters in pens 3 and 4, a lie was being born in the control room. A vicious, scandalous, despicable lie that haunted the families, survivors and people of Liverpool for 23 years.
On Wednesday 12th September 2012, following a report by The Hillsborough Independent Panel, Prime Minister David Cameron delivered the following apology to the families of the 96 Liverpool fans who died at the FA Cup Semi Final on April 15th 1989;
“Mr Speaker, with the weight of the new evidence in this report, it is right for me today as prime minister to make a proper apology to the families of the 96 for all they have suffered over the past 23 years. Indeed, the new evidence that we are presented with today makes clear that these families have suffered a double injustice. The injustice of the appalling events – the failure of the state to protect their loved ones and the indefensible wait to get to the truth. And the injustice of the denigration of the deceased – that they were somehow at fault for their own deaths.
On behalf of the government – and indeed our country – I am profoundly sorry for this double injustice that has been left uncorrected for so long.”
The long overdue apology had echoes of a previous statement Cameron had made to the house in June 2010 following the publication of the Saville Report into the Bloody Sunday murders of 14 innocent members of the public in Derry by the British Army;
“But what happened should never, ever have happened. The families of those who died should not have had to live with the pain and the hurt of that day and with a lifetime of loss.
Some members of our armed forces acted wrongly. The government is ultimately responsible for the conduct of the armed forces and for that, on behalf of the government, indeed, on behalf of our country, I am deeply sorry.”
The events at Hillsborough and Bloody Sunday have more in common than the tragic loss of lives. In both cases, the deaths of the innocent and the pain of their families and friends were compounded by establishment cover ups. In both cases the reputation of the families of the dead, the communities of the Bogside and the Creggan, along side that of the city of Liverpool and its football supporters were collateral damage in a media war waged by the government and the forces of law and order. In both cases, despite proof that members of the police forces and army lied, no one has been brought to justice for these crimes. Additionally, in both cases, the inquiries and the apologies from the Prime Minister would not have been forthcoming had it not been for the tireless campaigning by families and communities doggedly refusing to give up their fight for justice in the face of overwhelming odds.
The report from the Hillsborough Independent Panel concluded that Liverpool fans were not responsible for the disaster and, like the Taylor Report decades before, laid the blame for the deaths at the door of the South Yorkshire Police (SYP). The report goes on to state that the police and the Tory MP Irvine Patnick then passed inaccurate and untrue information to the press slandering the supporters and blaming them for the deaths - lies that some in the media were more than willing to repeat.
These revelations were nothing new to the families and other Hillsborough campaigners. They had known from moments after the terrible events in Sheffield that the authorities were hell bent on deflecting blame onto the supporters. What perhaps no-one knew until the panel reported their findings however was the scale of the cover up with scores of amended witness statements and other statements unfavourable to South Yorkshire Police being removed from evidence to previous enquiries. The panel also presented damning and distressing new evidence that up to 41 of the 96 deceased may have survived had there been an improved response from the emergency services.
How is it possible, that those charged with looking after the safety of football fans on a clear, blue-skied, spring afternoon could so catastrophically fail in their duties and then, unbelievably, shift the blame for their shortcomings onto the victims?
The answers lie in the politics behind the smears.
Almost 23 years to the day after the tragic events of April 15th 1989, Liverpool FC faced city rivals Everton in the FA Cup semi final of 2012. The match took place at the new Wembley Stadium. The difference between English football then and now is as marked as the difference between the old twin towered ramshackle ground and its £1 billion, 90,000 seater re-incarnation. Stadiums at the top end of English football are now amongst the best sporting arenas in the world. They are also amongst the safest. Even at the lowest levels of the sport, spectator safety is paramount. This was not always the case.
Liverpool and their supporters travelled to Sheffield on that beautiful spring day in 1989 to a venue that the football authorities believed was deserving of a showcase occasion such as the FA Cup semi final. In truth, the ground, the home of Sheffield Wednesday FC was in parts no better than a Victorian cattle pen. Incredibly, Hillsborough did not even hold a valid safety certificate. 24,000 fans of the Anfield club were expected to enter the stadium through just 23 rusty and in some cases faulty turnstiles. Despite the millions of pounds circulating through the national game in the decades following the war, spectator safety had not improved significantly even following disasters at Bradford in 1985, Ibrox in 1971 and other tragic events such as the death of 33 people in a crush at Bolton Wanderers in 1946. During the boom years of crowds in the 40’s and 50’s, very few football club owners invested the cash coming through the turnstiles into their grounds or facilities.
Football supporters in the 70’s and 80’s were held in contempt by the government, police and even the football authorities who looked on the majority of fans as hooligans and expected them to put up with sub standard and sometimes downright dangerous facilities. Poorly run clubs, falling attendances and crumbling stadiums were the norm. Violence on the terracings at home and abroad led the Thatcher government to attempt to force an ID scheme onto clubs through the Football Spectator Act 1989. In the end it was the report of Lord Justice Taylor into the events at Hillsborough that helped transform spectator safety.
Hillsborough had been used for FA Cup semi finals on five occasions during the 1980’s and concerns had been raised over its suitability after several of these matches. The Leppings Lane end of the ground was singled out as being particularly dangerous. After the 1981 semi final between Tottenham Hotspur and Wolverhampton Wanderers a large number of crushing injuries were reported. In his evidence to the Taylor enquiry on the 14th of August 1990, Assistant Chief Constable of the South Yorkshire Police Robert Goslin said that when he raised concerns with Bert McGee the then Chairman of Sheffield Wednesday. McGee reportedly said, “Bollocks…no one would have been killed.” Problems were also reported at the Leeds v Coventry semi final of 1987 and the Liverpool v Forest tie in 1988. The terracing at the Leppings Lane end had been divided into pens separated by steel fences. Access to the pitch was also blocked by a high steel perimeter fence. The safety certificate that had previously been issued to Sheffield Wednesday had not been updated to take account of these substantial changes to the terracing.
Liverpool FC were the most successful side both domestically and in Europe at the time and commanded a huge following. In order to make it easier to keep opposing fans apart the SYP insisted that the fans of the Anfield club be given the west and north ends of the stadium including the Leppings Lane terracing. Supporters groups expressed concerns that Liverpool FC should be given a smaller allocation than their opponents Nottingham Forest and pointed to problems at the same fixture and venue just one year previously.
Road works and an accident enroute to Yorkshire had led to a build up of traffic and a delay in Liverpool supporters getting to Sheffield. Due to the SYP segregation policy Liverpool fans entering the both the North stand and the west stand and terracings had to use the Leppings Lane turnstile block. This meant that large numbers of supporters arrived outside at the same time. The previous year policing outside the ground had seen controlled access to the turnstiles. In 1989, a lack of foresight by the match commander David Duckenfield, a man who had never before been in charge of a big match at Hillsborough, saw chaos outside the ground in the 20 minutes leading up to kick off. It is not unusual for there to be build up of supporters in the moments prior to the start of big football matches. Indeed, even now, at most games the majority of supporters do not enter the ground until quarter of an hour before the match begins. In circumstances where it is evident that there are delays in spectators accessing a stadium the match commander can request that the kick off is delayed. At Hillsborough no such request was made and the game kicked off as planned at 3pm. Subsequent investigations estimated that it would have taken until 3.40pm to get the number of supporters outside the ground through the turnstiles.
The handful of officers on duty outside the turnstiles had lost control of the crush in the minutes leading up to kick off. Meanwhile poor stewarding and policing inside Hillsborough ensured that supporters entering the Leppings Lane terracing were concentrated into the pens immediately behind the goal whilst the areas to the left and right remained comparatively empty. At 2.50pm both pens 3 and 4 behind the goals were full. At 2.52pm the order was given to open a large exit gate in an attempt to alleviate pressure outside the stadium. Prior to the opening of this Gate C it was imperative that police or stewards were deployed to block access to the already full central pens and direct supporters to the areas on either side. This was never done and the fate of the 96 and hundreds of others who were injured was sealed. During the following 5 minutes 2000 supporters streamed through the open gate. The central pens 3 and 4 could safely hold just over 1,600 people. It is estimated that up to 3,000 Liverpool fans were in both pens by the time the match referee Ray Lewis blew his whistle for the game to begin at 3pm.
The initial reaction by the police to the crushing was to treat supporters trying to climb the fences to escape as potential pitch invaders and to push them back into the sea of humanity surrounding them. Pleas to open the pitch-side gates fell on deaf ears.
The Liverpool goalkeeper Bruce Grobbelaar said later he could hear the fans behind his goal screaming to him;
"They're killing us, Bruce, they're killing us.”
He asked the police to open the gate.
“…I said to the policewoman - I thought it was a policeman - 'Get the effing gate open. Can't you see that they need it'? And there were screams coming at the time. I kicked the ball upfield, and I went back and said, 'Get the fucking gate open'. I turned back and the ball went out of play on the left, and that's when I shouted to the referee. The policeman came on to the field, and the game stopped."
At 3.06pm Ray Lewis, on the advice of a policeman, gathered the players and asked them to leave the field. Dozens were already dead on the terracing behind the Liverpool goal.
In contrast to claims made later in the press the response to the tragedy of the Liverpool fans was magnificent. Whilst large numbers of police and stewards continued to mistake the supporters climbing the barriers as potential troublemakers, the fans gave first aid and tried to resuscitate the dying and severely injured. Supporters in the stand above the terracing lifted scores to safety. Others ignored police warnings about vandalism and ripped up advertising hoardings in order to ferry the injured to the paltry first aid facilities provided within the stadium. Their efforts however were largely in vain. Only one ambulance made it onto the field. Over 40 others waited outside the stadium as police commanders erroneously told the crews that fans were fighting each other and it was too dangerous to access the pitch.
The driver of the solitary emergency vehicle was Tony Edwards. In a later interview he said;
“We weren't doing any good. You're used to having one casualty in the back, but there were too many bodies to deal with. We just didn't do a very good job that day. We left people on that pitch who were being worked on, and there were no professionals there to help them.
A few years later we attended an accident on the A1M. There are people alive today because of the treatment we gave them; we were just so good, as a team. But we were never given the chance at Hillsborough. There were 44 ambulances waiting outside the stadium - that means 80-odd staff could have been inside the ground. But they weren't allowed in. There was no fighting! The survivors were deciding who was the priority, who we should deal with. The police weren't. We weren't. Can you imagine a rail accident where all the ambulances wait on the embankment while the survivors bring the casualties up? I took away the wrong people.”
Just yards from the centre of the tragedy, senior police officers from the SYP sat in the control room of Hillsborough monitoring CCTV cameras and watched, seemingly frozen, as carnage unfolded in front of them. The inaction of senior officers was in direct contrast to the frantic efforts of ordinary Liverpool supporters and their attempts to save lives.
Whilst the life was being squeezed from supporters in pens 3 and 4, a lie was being born in the control room. A vicious, scandalous, despicable lie that haunted the families, survivors and people of Liverpool for 23 years.
Liverpool supporters deserved to be lauded for their actions that day. Instead, David Duckenfield and other senior officers in SYP immediately began a deliberate smear campaign against the innocent in order to protect their own reputations.
The decision by the police to open Gate C without closing off the central pens was a tragic, terrible mistake that led to the death of 96 and the injury of hundreds of others. What followed was no mistake. The decision by the police to pass the blame for their own shortcomings onto Liverpool supporters was a cold, calculated and conscious conspiracy.
When Graham Kelly, Chief Executive of the Football Association asked the match commander Duckenfield what had happened, he replied that Liverpool fans had forced open an exit gate and caused the crush.
As traumatised survivors searched for friends and relations police officers ignored pleas for information and instead asked questions about how much drink the supporters had taken prior to kick off. In the make-shift mortuary in the gymnasium at Hillsborough the grieving were asked about the alcohol consumption of their loved ones and we now know that SYP searched their intelligence database to try and find out if any of the dead had criminal convictions. Parents were denied the chance to hold or even touch their dead children as officers insisted that the bodies were property of the coroner of South Yorkshire.
The press and media began to be briefed that drunken, ticketless fans were the cause of the deaths. When Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher visited Hillsborough in the days that followed her press secretary Bernard Ingham reported to the media that a, “tanked up mob” were responsible.
The clamour to blame the supporters and to spread falsehoods and slander was about to reach its zenith just four days after the terrible events.
The families and friends of anyone killed in such tragic and public circumstances are forced to endure the unendurable. Coming to terms with such loss is not made any easier by platitudes or tributes no matter how warm and well meaning. Yet, for some, there can be some small comfort in the knowledge that there is support and sympathy with the suffering and grief being experienced. This was denied to the Hillsborough families by the slander of the police and a sensational report in Britain’s biggest selling tabloid newspaper. On Wednesday 19th April 1989, on a front page personally designed by Rupert Murdoch’s favourite editor Kelvin MacKenzie, The Sun published its now infamous headline, “The Truth”. The paper went onto make lurid claims that drunken, ticketless fans fought their was into the ground, urinated on the dead, stole from corpses, attacked members of the emergency services and assaulted dying female fans. There was no ambiguity in the reporting. Readers were to be left in no doubt, this WAS the truth.
Mackenzie, notorious for acting on impulse had originally planned to use the headline, “You Scum” before changing his mind at the last minute.
Peter Chippindale and Chris Horrie, authors of the book, “Stick it up your Punter – The Uncut Story of The Sun Newspaper” wrote about the moment the staff in the newsroom at Wapping saw what Mackenzie planned to publish;
“As MacKenzie's layout was seen by more and more people, 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't a 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.”
Later Mackenzie would whine that he and his paper were not alone in reporting this vile slander. He argued that The Sun was only repeating a story that had been circulated from Sheffield by the White’s News Agency who had been briefed by senior officers from SYP and the Tory MP Irvine Patnick. Whilst it is true many other papers carried the White’s story they did so by following normal journalistic practice of reporting the claims made by police as allegations rather than facts and used quotation marks in their headlines. The London Evening Standard ran the story the day before the Sun with the headline, ‘Police Attack “Vile Fans”’. The Daily Mirror reported, “Fury as Officers Claim Fans Robbed Victims” whilst the Daily Express led with, “Police Accuse Drunken Fans.” Only the Sun presented the claims as undisputable facts.
Regardless of, “the truth”, the damage was done. The Sun’s front page ensured that the mud being flung by the police stuck and Liverpool, the city, its football club and its grieving families were saddled with a reputation they did not deserve.
At the time of Hillsborough, the circulation of The Sun in Liverpool was estimated at around 55,000 copies per day. Following a sustained campaign ever since from the victims families and football supporters, the current circulation of the paper in the area is just 12,000.
The Taylor Report and Coroners Inquiry
The families placed their faith in the inquiry set up in the days immediately following the disaster and presided over by Lord Chief Justice Taylor. They hoped that the evidence presented would set the record straight and hold those responsible to account for their actions. The Hillsborough Independent Panel subsequently found that the evidence presented by South Yorkshire Police and the other emergency services was “systematically distorted.”
In total 164 witness statement were amended and 116 statements that were unfavourable to SYP were removed from evidence. CCTV tapes from the police control room went, “missing.” Evidence from key witnesses such as the only ambulance driver to make it onto the pitch was never heard.
Despite their deliberate evasion and distortion, Taylor still laid blame for the disaster squarely on the shoulders of South Yorkshire Police and not the supporters of Liverpool FC. He found that lack of proper police control and the decision to open Gate C without measures being taken to direct fans away from the central pens was the cause of the disaster. Taylor was scathing of SYP in his report stating;
“In all some 65 police officers gave oral evidence at the Inquiry. Sadly I must report that for the most part the quality of their evidence was in inverse proportion to their rank.It is a matter of regret that at the hearing, and in their submissions, the South Yorkshire Police were not prepared to concede they were in any respect at fault in what occurred. ... the police case was to blame the fans for being late and drunk, and to blame the Club for failing to monitor the pens. ... Such an unrealistic approach gives cause for anxiety as to whether lessons have been learnt. It would have been more seemly and encouraging for the future if responsibility had been faced.”
Documents uncovered by the Hillsborough Independent Panel revealed that Douglas Herd, the Conservative Home Secretary at the time prepared to welcome the, “broad thrust” of the Taylor Report. In a memo to civil servants he wrote that Peter Wright, Chief Constable of South Yorkshire Police would have to resign;
“The enormity of the disaster, and the extent to which the inquiry blames the police, demand this."
The memo went on:
"The defensive, and at times close to deceitful, behaviour by the senior officers in South Yorkshire sounds depressingly familiar. Too many senior policemen seem to lack the capacity or character to perceive and admit faults in their organisation."
Margaret Thatcher however sent a hand written note to Herd tellingly stating,
"What do we mean by 'welcoming the broad thrust of the report'? The broad thrust is devastating criticism of the police. Is that for us to welcome? Surely we welcome the thoroughness of the report and its recommendations - M.T."
Chief Constable Peter Wright never did resign and instead retired on a full pension 12 months later. Any hopes that the reports findings would lead to criminal convictions against those responsible soon faded. No formal proceedings were taken by the state so the families brought a private prosecution against Duckenfield and another senior officer Bernard Murray. During evidence at the trial Duckenfield admitted that he had lied in some statements whilst another senior officer, Norman Bettison was accused of manipulating evidence. Bernard Murray was acquitted on all charges and has subsequently died. The jury was unable to reach a verdict on Duckenfield. In yet another slap in the face to the people of Liverpool Norman Bettison was later appointed Chief Constable of Merseyside.
The hurt and frustration of the Hillsborough campaigners was further exacerbated by a sham of an inquest held by the Coroner Stephan Popper who, in returning a verdict of accidental death, refused to listen to any evidence that fans could have survived beyond 3.15pm. Despite sound evidence to refute this conclusion, Popper’s verdict let the emergency services off the hook for their failures that day.
How was it that Duckenfield and his senior officers believed that they could get away with a cover up of such a magnitude? Why did the country’s biggest selling daily newspaper not realise it had been conned and marshal its considerable resources to uncover the real truth? Why did the government of the day not demand to know the facts about the nation’s biggest ever sporting disaster and hold those responsible to account? Why, despite being presented with the findings of a report by one of her senior law officers that was scathing of the police did the Prime Minister not raise her voice in condemnation? Why was a whole city that was in mourning allowed to be slandered? The answers to these questions lie in the nature of Margaret Thatcher’s administration, the politicisation of the forces of law and order in 1980’s Britain and the visceral hatred that much of the right wing press held for a city that refused to give in to her government.
Even now, following the Independent Panel’s report, there are some commentators who are prepared to believe that the lies and deceit by the police were a one off blip, designed to save the skins of a few of the top brass. The truth however, is that by the spring of 1989, South Yorkshire Police were already well versed in the habit of manufacturing and manipulating evidence. The skills of deception and slander demonstrated at Hillsborough had been honed and practiced during the miners strike some 5 years previously.
The miners strike of 1984 was a defining moment in modern British history. Thatcher’s government was ideologically driven and determined to take on and defeat the powerful National Union of Mineworkers. The Tory’s knew that is they could break the NUM then they could take on the whole of the British trade union movement.
In order to defeat the NUM, Thatcher, an unashamed warrior on behalf of her class and the establishment knew that she had to rely on the support of the police. The South Yorkshire force in-particular would have a pivotal role in determining the outcome of the dispute. Almost from the moment she came to power in 1979 her government carefully and deliberately cultivated the support of police forces the length and breadth of Britain. A new, much more aggressive and politicised form of policing began to emerge. Institutionalised racism, casual brutality and harassment of the youth in Britain’s inner cities was the norm. Resistance to these tactics manifested itself in the form of riots in some of Britain’s major cities in the early 80’s including in London (Brixton), Birmingham (Handsworth) and Toxteth in Liverpool.
Speaking on the Today programme on the BBC in September 2012, former Labour Home Secretary Jack Straw said;
“The Thatcher government, because they needed the police to be a partisan force, particularly for the miners strike and other industrial troubles, created a culture of impunity in the police service. They really were immune from outside influences and they thought they could rule the roost and that is what we absolutely saw in south Yorkshire.”
In June 1984, the NUM led by Arthur Scargill organised a mass picket of the Orgreave coking plant in South Yorkshire. The plant was crucial in keeping steel production flowing throughout the strike. Scargill knew that if the miners could close the plant then it could have a major bearing on the outcome of the dispute. Thatcher was also aware of the importance of Orgreave and the ensured that the police were mobilised in huge numbers.
The reporting and public perception of what followed had remarkable resonance with what happened at Hillsborough less than five years later. During the afternoon of June 18th 1984, a sequence of events occurred that would be known as the Battle of Orgreave where miners and police clashed for several hours.
The influential BBC television news report showed scenes of the police fleeing from mobs of angry stone throwing miners before re-organising and chasing them off in order to restore order. Other media outlets showed injured officers being helped by their colleagues whilst Tory politicians and other right wing commentators berated the savagery of the miners in their attacks against the forces of law and order.
The print media in the main portrayed the miners as an out of control rampaging mob whilst the police were seen as being the innocent and injured party. Senior officers in South Yorkshire Police became adept at briefing the press with their account of events. Almost 100 arrests were made that day with the police claiming they had sufficient evidence to prosecute the violent pickets.
The reality was very different to the version that played out in the media. Police were accused by the pickets of pre-arranging the battle by leading them into a field in which they were surrounded on three sides before officers charged into the miners. Later the BBC admitted that they had shown important scenes in reverse. The police had first of all attacked miners who had responded with the stone throwing.
Ninety five pickets were charged with riot and unlawful assembly but no miner was ever prosecuted. The police case fell apart when it was discovered that witness statements had been amended.
Writing on the letters page of the Guardian in September 2012, Michael McColgan, a defence solicitor for some of the miners charged described what happened to the court cases;
“…in August 1985, that the prosecution at Sheffield crown court decided, after over 50 days of the prosecution case, to abandon the trial of 71 miners charged with riot and a further 24 charged with violent disorder over the demonstration at the Orgreave coking plant in June 1984. I was part of the defence team and the evidence we gathered for that trial showed clearly that the South Yorkshire police, then as at Hillsborough under the command of chief constable Peter Wright, had compiled a case built on dishonest and misleading foundations, including mass-production of officers' statements and lies about what officers had seen. Over £500,000 was paid in total to the wrongly arrested miners by way of compensation, but not a single police officer was disciplined, never mind charged with perjury. The parallels with Hillsborough were obvious, even down to the denigration of the miners by Wright, Margaret Thatcher and much of the media.”
On the same page, television producer Tony Wardle from Bristol wrote;
“Our (Vanson Wardle Productions) film The Battle for Orgreave for C4, detailed every false allegation against the defendants and provided documentary and independent eyewitness evidence to prove their falsity – evidence that would have been presented in court by the defence had the trial ever got that far. This damning evidence raised not a single official eyebrow. My own book (of the same name) went into even greater detail and still there was no response from government. Is there any wonder that, four years later when Hillsborough happened, this same police force used similar tactics to absolve itself of responsibility and portray the victims as the perpetrators?”
The leading lawyer Michael Mansfield QC represented some of the miners. Mansfield accused South Yorkshire Police of being “institutionally corrupt” and described the charges and subsequent prosecutions as "the biggest frame-up ever".
One example in particular shows just how far the police were prepared to go to frame miners at Orgreave. Those who hold British Justice and its upholders as beyond reproach would do well to recall what happened when one miner, Bryan Moreland faced charges that could have seen him go to jail for an extremely long time. A police statement against Moreland was signed by two officers on duty that day. Defence lawyers argued that one of the signatures was fabricated and requested an adjournment in order to subject the text to handwriting experts. When the court resumed its sitting just hours later the statement had miraculously disappeared. (Subsequently a copy was tested and the signature was found to have been forged.) Imagine for one moment how the Sun might have reported this incident had it taken place in a court in a foreign country or if it was found that a trade union representative had forged a statement presented to the judge?
Despite being caught out in a court of law, no action was ever taken against any officers or commanders in the South Yorkshire force. The implications were clear. The government and the judiciary were prepared to turn a blind eye when it came to police officers lying in the media or in court. The sense of impunity this engendered in the South Yorkshire Police Force helps to explain the breathtaking attempts to smear and blame Liverpool fans at Hillsborough and expect to get away with it.
The Sun - Wapping, Hillsborough and Hacking
The parallels with Hillsborough continue in the nature of the reporting of events at Orgreave. The Sun, its Thatcher supporting editor and owner never questioned the veracity of the line they were fed by the police because it suited their political agenda. Nor, once the evidence emerged in court to prove that the reporting was wrong did they feel the need to apologise or set the record straight. The Sun has never been interested in “the truth.”
The journalist Tanya Gold noted in a recent article on Kelvin MacKenzie;
“He (Mackenzie) presided over a culture of fury, malice and lies. It was not journalism, designed to enlighten. It was anti-journalism, designed to obscure, and he corrupted a generation of his own journalists and political discourse generally, as he created a newspaper in his own image…He ran stories about children being banned from singing Baa, Baa, Black Sheep. The rights groups and the left are still tainted by the ghost of this nonsense. He employed a psychiatrist to assess Tony Benn and printed the "results": Benn was apparently "insane".
Gold goes on to state;
“There was an entire culture of dishonesty at the Sun, known in the trade as "Let's fudge it". MacKenzie told Harry Arnold, his royal reporter, to get a Monday splash about the royals, no matter what. "Don't worry if it's not true," he says in Stick It Up Your Punter, "so long as there's not too much of a fuss about it afterwards." The wealthy sued, but it usually didn't matter; the papers had already been sold. And the obscure? They couldn't afford to sue.”
The importance of the miners strike as a battle for trade union and workers rights was underlined less than two years later. Murdoch learned lessons from observing the government and police during the year long dispute and suitably emboldened decided to take on the print unions whose members printed The Sun, The News of the World and The Times.
Murdoch knew that he could rely on friends in high places to support him in the dispute and an unholy trinity of the propaganda of his newspapers, the government and police joined together to defeat the print unions. Murdoch sacked the entire workforce, replaced them with non-unionised scab labour and from behind the fortified walls of his fortress at Wapping watched as the police brutally enforced Tory anti-trade union legislation on the streets surrounding the plant. Sacked print workers picketing Wapping were batoned by police on horse back in order to allow Murdoch’s papers to be delivered.
The following is a description of the picket line from the award winning journalist John Pilger’s book Hidden Agendas in the section dealing with the dispute at Wapping;
“The dimension of the unseen human tragedy was shocking. We had people who came with their families, their children; they wanted to take part in a peaceful demonstration. They wanted to say to Murdoch, "You've not only done this to me, you've done it to my wife and kids." But the Metropolitan Police clearly had other instructions. They were there to protect the newspapers, to see that Murdoch got the Sun out, and the rest of his publications. We called them "paper boys", and that was exactly what they were. To achieve this, they acted in a most brutal way - as the subsequent inquiries confirmed. I saw many people deliberately beaten up by the so-called riot police. The journalists who came along were shocked by what they saw. The police went for decent, straightforward trade unionists as if it was a civil war situation. One of our people was killed by one of Murdoch's lorries, and the lorry didn't even bother to stop. There were several nervous breakdowns. Marriages broke up. Strong men I knew, and I don't mean physically strong, but men with leadership, turned bitter. It broke them. People entitled to unemployment benefit didn't receive it. I'm not only talking just about the relatively well paid, but cleaners, canteen workers, who outnumbered the printers four to one - It was as if the British state had joined forces with Murdoch against us . . .'
The extent of the relationship between Murdoch, the government and the police is now firmly under the microscope with a number of inquiries into phone hacking and other illegal practices at News International.
That senior executives at News International thought they could order illegal activities to take place with impunity should come as no surprise to anybody who has even briefly studied the events at Orgreave, Wapping and Hillsborough.
Kelvin MacKenzie, Liverpool and the consequence of the smears
Supporters of Mackenzie and Murdoch may point to the fact that the day after, “The Truth” headline was printed in the Sun the Australian owner insisted that his editor appear on the BBC and offer an apology. However, speaking in Newcastle in 2006, Mackenzie reportedly said;
“All I did wrong there was tell the truth. There was a surge of Liverpool fans who had been drinking and that is what caused the disaster. The only thing different we did was put it under the headline "The Truth". I went on The World at One the next day and apologised. I only did that because Rupert Murdoch told me to. I wasn't sorry then and I'm not sorry now because we told the truth.”
A former colleague of Mackenzie at The Sun, Roy Greenslade, said;
“Kelvin is still unsure" whether he should apologise for his Hillsborough coverage. He remains, I suspect, as anti-Scouse as ever and cannot bring himself to say sorry to the city's people.”
MacKenzie’s loathing of Liverpool is rooted in the resistance mounted in that city to the policies of his beloved Thatcher Government. MacKenzie’s admiration for The Iron lady is legendary. He described her as Britain’s greatest post war leader and missed no opportunity to use his paper to promote her right wing agenda. 1980’s Liverpool in contrast was defined by qualities of community and working class solidarity in the face of a Tory onslaught that was systematically and deliberately decimating the industrial base of the city.
Through mass protests, trade union and community action and the socialist led city council fighting cuts to the city’s budget, Liverpool perhaps more than any other city in the UK resisted Thatcher and what her government stood for.
This fighting spirit and refusal to meekly roll over in face of the government’s offensive placed Liverpool firmly in the sights of the Tory Party and MacKenzie’s propaganda and spin machine. Even before Hillsborough, the city, its predominantly working class population and its elected representatives were regularly castigated in the pages of The Sun. The contempt in which some on the right in British politics still hold Liverpool was evident when in 2004 Boris Johnston, the then editor of the Spectator magazine co-wrote an editorial article about the murder of British hostage, the Liverpudlian Ken Bigley in which the city was described thus;
“Liverpool is a handsome city with a tribal sense of community. A combination of economic misfortune – its docks were, fundamentally, on the wrong side of England when Britain entered what is now the European Union – and an excessive predilection for welfarism have created a peculiar, and deeply unattractive, psyche among many Liverpudlians. They see themselves whenever possible as victims, and resent their victim status; yet at the same time they wallow in it. Part of this flawed psychological state is that they cannot accept that they might have made any contribution to their misfortunes, but seek rather to blame someone else for it, thereby deepening their sense of shared tribal grievance against the rest of society. The deaths of more than 50 Liverpool football supporters at Hillsborough in 1989 was undeniably a greater tragedy than the single death, however horrible, of Mr Bigley; but that is no excuse for Liverpool’s failure to acknowledge, even to this day, the part played in the disaster by drunken fans at the back of the crowd who mindlessly tried to fight their way into the ground that Saturday afternoon. The police became a convenient scapegoat, and the Sun newspaper a whipping-boy for daring, albeit in a tasteless fashion, to hint at the wider causes of the incident.”
So - according to the man tipped by many to be the next leader of the Conservative party, the loss of tens of thousands of jobs, the consequential poverty and finally the deaths of 96 supporters at Hillsborough were all the fault of whining Scousers?
Following the irrefutable evidence provided by the Hillsborough Independent Panel, Johnson belatedly apologised and Mackenzie tried to extricate himself from the hole he had dug with the truth headline and shamefacedly tried to present himself as an innocent and injured party – yet another victim of the police and their lies.
In a statement released in the days following the HIP report, MacKenzie, no doubt concerned about the effect the controversy may have on his lucrative media career said,
“Today I offer my profuse apologies to the people of Liverpool for that headline. I too was totally misled. Twenty three years ago I was handed a piece of copy from a reputable news agency in Sheffield in which a senior police officer and a senior local MP were making serious allegations against fans in the stadium. I had absolutely no reason to believe that these authority figures would lie and deceive over such a disaster. As the Prime Minister has made clear these allegations were wholly untrue and were part of a concerted plot by police officers to discredit the supporters thereby shifting the blame for the tragedy from themselves. It has taken more than two decades, 400,000 documents and a two-year inquiry to discover to my horror that it would have been far more accurate had I written the headline 'The Lies' rather than 'The Truth'. I published in good faith and I am sorry that it was so wrong.”
It is a quite incredible admission from the experienced, senior editor of the biggest selling newspaper in the land to state that he had no reason to believe authority figures would lie. He’d known that the same force had lied at Orgreave. Cub reporters at regional papers will be reminded by their editors on a daily basis to make sure that stories were, as they say in the industry, stood up. Good journalism requires corroboration, investigation and questioning of sources. The truth of course is that Mackenzie, Johnson et al always knew the Sun’s front page was a lie which gave them a convenient cover to launch their bigoted and politically motivated diatribes against Liverpool.
Whatever he hoped to achieve the Hillsborough campaigners saw MacKenzie’s belated apology for what it was. Trevor Hicks, chairman of the Hillsborough Family Support Group, who lost both of his daughters during the disaster said of Mackenzie that he was, "lowlife, clever lowlife, but lowlife".
In a further sickening twist to the story, MacKenzie has instructed his lawyers to seek an apology from South Yorkshire Police for lying to him. What a nauseating idea - that one of the people to emerge from the deliberate vilification of the dead with an apology from the police would be Kelvin MacKenzie.
The current editor of The Sun, Dominic Mohan said the paper was sorry by reading a statement from an autocue following the Independent Panel report. It is unlikely to stop the hatred and boycott of that newspaper on Merseyside. Evidence emerging from the various phone hacking and corruption investigations into the activities of News International look set to reveal that not only did the Sun slander the dead, but that the newspaper may have authorised burglaries at the homes of prominent Hillsborough campaigners. There seems no end to they depths this newspaper was prepared to sink in relation to its coverage of the terrible events of April 1989.
MacKenzie’s conversion to the truth has come too late. The damage that the headline caused had a much deeper effect for some than simply a slander in a newspaper to be dismissed as tomorrows chip wrappings. For those traumatised by what they had witnessed that day, the fact that they, as supporters, were being blamed for the deaths of their fellow fans added to the despair and feelings of survivors guilt that often follows events as catastrophic as Hillsborough. For the families and friends of the dead the grieving process, difficult enough under normal circumstances, was made even harder by the malicious reports. Whilst we know that 96 died as a direct result of the crush, an untold number have suffered every day since. There are stories of depressions, break downs and even suicides for those left to deal with the consequences and public perceptions of that fateful day.
One widow, whose husband, a Hillsborough survivor committed suicide in 2010, told the Guardian in September 2012;
“About two or three weeks before Ian died, there was all this stuff about Kelvin MacKenzie being on Newsnight, and Ian got really angry. I didn't realise just how much it bothered him.”
The true number of victims of Hillsborough goes far beyond the 96 who perished as a consequence of police incompetence in April 1989. Each passing year, the total of those who can no longer face their personal demons and chose to take their own lives increases. Those who contributed to the lies and slander of the Liverpool support that day and have perpetuated it ever since have blood on their hands.
Justice for The 96
On the 20th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster, Andy Burnham the Culture Secretary under the last Labour Government instigated further investigations into the events at Hillsborough in order to try and establish the full facts.
The Hillsborough Independent Panel was established, chaired by The Bishop of Liverpool and tasked with re-examining the evidence. The report published in September contained over 450,000 pages of damning evidence against the South Yorkshire Police, the Coroners office, the response of other emergency services, successive governments and sections of the press.
The HIP findings are the most significant breakthrough so far in the battle for justice for the events that happened in Sheffield. The fact that it has taken 23 years for the truth to emerge is a shameful indictment on successive governments who have prolonged the suffering of all those involved.
Whilst praise of course goes to the panel, some honourable journalists, hard working lawyers and local politicians the main credit has to go to the tenacity of the people of Liverpool, the city’s football supporters, (both red and blue) and in-particular the Hillsborough Families Support Group, The Hillsborough Justice Campaign and other campaigning organisations who refused to give up the fight.
A book byPhil Scraton,Hillsborough, The Truth and a documentary by television writer and Liverpudlian Jimmy McGovern had a huge effect in beginning to turn the tide of public perception after the poison spread by Murdoch’s papers. The boycott of the Sun and the high visibility of the campaign at football matches across the country helped ensure that the idea of Justice for the 96 was never out of the public eye.
Yet as significant and welcome as the report is the families and campaigners still have a long road ahead of them. The fact that the truth is beginning to emerge will not bring back lost loved ones. Drawn out legal processes, more shocking revelations and the knowledge that 41 victims could have survived if they had received proper and prompt medical attention mean that there are many more difficult and dark days to come.
Just days before the report of the panel was published I visited the Hillsborough Memorial next to the Shankley Gates at Liverpool’s Anfield Stadium. My team Hearts were playing in the Europa League and some of our supporters had added scarves and left floral tributes as a mark of respect.
It is clear that the memorial at the ground plays an important part in the healing process for those most affected by the tragedy. Yet the most lasting memorial to those who died has been the spirit of integrity, defiance, unity of purpose, love and solidarity that has long characterised Liverpool in its political battles over the years. This spirit has ensured that despite 23 years of obfuscation, lies, criminal conspiracies, cover ups and intransigence the families now, vindicated at long last have a chance of justice for the innocent victims of Hillsborough.
The reputation of the campaigners and the bereaved families stands in stark contrast to that of those who sought to denigrate them for their own personal and political ends.
RIP the 96
Jack Alfred Anderson, 62
Colin Mark Ashcroft, 19, student
James Gary Aspinall, 18
Kester Roger Marcus Ball, 16, student
Gerard Baron Snr, 67
Simon Bell, 17
Barry Sidney Bennett, 26
David John Benson, 22
David William Birtle, 22
Tony Bland, 22
Paul David Brady, 21
Andrew Mark Brookes, 26
Carl Brown, 18
Steven Brown, 25
Henry Thomas Burke, 47
Peter Andrew Burkett , 24
Paul William Carlile, 19
Raymond Thomas Chapman , 50
Gary Christopher Church, 19
Joseph Clark, 29
Paul Clark, 18
Gary Collins, 22
Stephen Paul Copoc, 20
Tracey Elizabeth Cox, 23
James Philip Delaney, 19
Christopher Barry Devonside, 18
Christopher Edwards, 29
Vincent Michael Fitzsimmons, 34
Steve Fox, 21
Jon-Paul Gilhooley, 10
Barry Glover, 27
Ian Thomas Glover, 20
Derrick George Godwin, 24
Roy Harry Hamilton, 34
Philip Hammond, 14
Eric Hankin, 33
Gary Harrison, 27
Stephen Francis Harrison, 31
Peter Andrew Harrison, 15
David Hawley, 39
James Robert Hennessy, 29
Paul Anthony Hewitson, 26
Carl Hewitt, 17
Nick Hewitt, 16
Sarah Louise Hicks, 19
Victoria Jane Hicks, 15
Gordon Rodney Horn, 20
Arthur Horrocks, 41
Thomas Howard, 39
Tommy Anthony Howard, 14
Eric George Hughes, 42
Alan Johnston, 29
Christine Anne Jones, 27
Gary Philip Jones, 18
Richard Jones, 25
Nicholas Peter Joynes, 27
Anthony Peter Kelly, 29
Michael Kelly, 38
Carl David Lewis, 18
David William Mather, 19
Brian Christopher Matthews, 38
Francis Joseph McAllister, 27
John McBrien, 18
Marian Hazel McCabe, 21
Joe McCarthy, 21
Peter McDonnell, 21
Alan McGlone, 28
Keith McGrath, 17
Paul Brian Murray, 14
Lee Nicol, 14
Stephen Francis O'Neill, 17
Jonathon Owens, 18
William Roy Pemberton, 23
Carl Rimmer, 21
Dave Rimmer, 38
Graham John Roberts, 24
Steven Joseph Robinson, 17
Henry Charles Rogers, 17
Andrew Sefton, 23
Inger Shah, 38
Paula Ann Smith, 26
Adam Edward Spearritt, 14
Philip John Steele, 15
David Leonard Thomas, 23
Pat Thompson, 35
Peter Reuben Thompson, 30
Stuart Thompson, 17
Peter Francis Tootle, 21
Christopher James Traynor, 26
Martin Kevin Traynor, 16
Kevin Tyrrell, 15
Colin Wafer, 19
Ian David Whelan, 19
Martin Kenneth Wild, 29
Kevin Daniel Williams, 15
Graham John Wright, 17
Other articles by Graeme McIver in The Point can be found here