“You killed your own fans”: The Sun and the misremembering of HillsboroughApril 19, 2009 at 9:07 pm | Posted in Media | 5 Comments
It’s a story which has been retold many times in the past week. On 1st December 2006 Kelvin MacKenzie, the former editor of The Sun and author of the biggest lie in that newspaper’s history, spoke before a business lunch in Tyneside and revisited his reporting of the Hillsborough tragedy.”I was not sorry then and I’m not sorry now,” MacKenzie said. “All I did wrong was [to] tell the truth”. Contrary to those facts which were established by the Taylor Report, what happened, MacKenzie claimed, was that “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 World at One the next day and apologised. I only did that because Rupert Murdoch told me to.”
In the days and weeks which followed, MacKenzie’s contortion of history ripped the scabs off old wounds and caused an outpouring of anger and hurt among Liverpudlians, supporters of Liverpool Football Club and – most unforgivably – the families of the ninety-six victims. Phil Hammond, then chairman of the Hillsborough Family Support Group and a fan who lost his 14-year old son in the tragedy, spoke for many in the city when he said “It has been proven that the story was a pack of lies yet here is all these years later peddling his lies on the after-dinner speaking circuit. Why doesn’t he come and tell the families this to their faces?”
The controversy rumbled on for weeks; fans wanted to know why the BBC still used him (and continues to use him) as a serious pundit, internet message boards seethed with contempt, and he was even challenged on it during an edition of Question Time. But the disgust on Merseyside was given its fullest expression a month later, during an FA Cup match between Liverpool and Arsenal. At the start of the game, the Kop end held up a mosiac bearing the words “THE TRUTH” and for six minutes (the length of that ill-fated game in Sheffield) chanted in one voice “Justice for the 96”. As a show of solidarity and defiance, I’d never seen anything quite like it.
As The Guardian found out this week, over two years after MacKenzie retracted his apology and exactly 20 years since the disaster, Liverpool’s strength of feeling against The Sun remains strong, passionate and unyielding. Yellow ‘don’t buy The Sun’ stickers are a common sight on matchdays, newbie fans are remonstrated with if they’re found reading it and any advertising carrying the paper’s logo is swiftly defaced. The banishment of the newspaper from the lives of Liverpool supporters is sustained, systematic and taught to anyone who passes through the Shankly Gates.
Attempting to understand why their paper’s name remains mud, some at The Sun have developed the theory that the anger is, in part, due to the fans’ belief that justice has never been served. A few weeks ago, managing editor Graham Dudman wrote: “Despite some members of the Hillsborough Family Support Group publicly accepting our apology, it made little difference on Merseyside where the community has to live with the knowledge that no police officer or ground official was ever convicted for the mistakes that led to the tragedy.”
I won’t deny that there’s a small element of truth to this; in most tragedies you’ll often find blame ascribed to one person, even when responsibility should be shared between others – Bin Laden for 9/11, Bush for Katrina, Gordon Brown for this recession. Since there hasn’t been a prosecution for the fatal errors that were made, much of the blame has been funnelled towards The Sun and its brash, unapologetic former editor. That said, it’s still an epic stretch of the imagination for the paper’s leadership to feel they’ve been made a scapegoat.
Feelings of hurt and betrayal can be sourced back to many different causes, but in my own opinion, the anger directed at that newspaper is rooted in something very different than simply misdirected rage. In the 80’s and 90’s, Liverpool fans became more dispersed than at any time in the club’s history. As the most successful club in England, they’d attracted millions of supporters outside of Merseyside, and because of the economic hardships the city endured during this time, a lot of Liverpudlians had to leave to find work elsewhere.
As a result, you had fans transplanted into areas where they’d encounter people without their specialist knowledge of the club’s history, and who’d bought into the stereotype of scousers as thuggish car thieves who would only get up in the morning to collect their giro. Outside of Merseyside, myths about Hillsborough are still commonplace and there are still those whose memory of that day is unerringly similar to the depiction in The Sun.
Of course, it’s easy enough to inform & correct some idiot in your workplace or pub or on an internet forum; it’s impossible when it’s a crowd of thousands. When you go to an away game and hear a loud minority of opposition fans singing “you killed your own fans, you killed your own fans”, it really hits you in the gut.
For those who were fortunate enough not to have lost friends or loved ones among the ninety-six, what hurts almost as much as the deaths themselves, almost as much as the lack of justice for the dead, is the misremembering of that tragedy; a misremembering which paints the victims as the aggressors and casts a callous question mark over the epitaph of “innocent casualty”.
As the biggest newspaper in the country, in an industry where fidelity to the truth is the only standard which matters, and in an age where smears were not easily debunked, Liverpool fans hold The Sun responsible for this mangling of history, and that will remain for as long as lies are told. If that sounds like a harsh verdict, if your reply to this explanation is simply “it’s time to move on”, just remember this: this whole mess could’ve been avoided. All they needed to do was tell The Truth.