Hillsborough: After A Year The Sun’s Apology Is Still Not Accepted – And Nor Should It Be
October 3, 2013
by Martin Odoni
The sun never sets on the British Empire, but it also never sells in one of the Empire’s former hubs. The Sun ‘newspaper’ – if you choose to flatter it with such a generous description – has been reviled in the city of Liverpool for nearly a quarter of a century, and it is very rare that you will ever find any Merseysider who is prepared to buy a copy of it. Rarer still to find a Merseysider who is prepared to admit to buying a copy of it.
Paradoxically, given the shameless right-wing bias of The Sun, for much of the 1980’s the paper sold very well in socialist Liverpool. The turning point came in the aftermath of the 1989 Hillsborough Disaster. Liverpool, being a very close-knit community, was in mourning for the loss of almost a hundred supporters of one of its football clubs in the worst tragedy in the history of British sport, when, on the 19th of April, the city was given its second horrific shock in less than a week. Inflammatory reports began circulating around the British media, claiming that attempts by officers of the South Yorkshire Police to rescue victims of the crowd crush at Hillsborough had been hampered by supposed hooligan behaviour amongst Liverpool fans. These rumours included wildly-exaggerated and out-of-context accusations of violence, enormously far-fetched insinuations of urinating on police officers, and even deeply implausible claims of theft from dead bodies*. By any standards, these accusations were shockingly cruel, insensitive and hurtful, and doubly so that they had been made while Merseyside was still trying to come to terms with the horror of the Disaster itself. Victim-blaming is a sadly common practise in British life, but to resort to it so soon after the trauma, and in such visceral, far-fetched terms was not just heartless, it could only have been an attack deliberately designed to hurt not just reputations, but innermost human feelings.
The rumours were published on the front page of The Sun. The issue for the 19th of April 1989 included a trumpeting banner headline, ‘The Truth’, written by the paper’s notorious Chief Editor of the time, Kelvin MacKenzie. Ethically speaking, it was possibly the lowest point in the history of British journalism. Whether the smears that were printed that day, originating with the South Yorkshire Police itself, swayed the wider public’s opinion on the Tragedy is not clear – those who blamed the victims seemed by and large to have already made up their minds before then – but the damage it did in the minds of many survivors was almost irreparable. Over and above the trauma of injuries, and the psychological scars of what they had witnessed happening to their fellow supporters on the Leppings Lane terrace, the survivors were now assaulted by instinctive feelings of guilt. Even though they knew they were not to blame for what had happened, the bombardment of sleazy insinuations still got under their skin, still coloured their self-perception in such a way that they still felt as though they were guilty ‘in principle’, so to speak.
Circulation of The Sun on Merseyside absolutely plummeted, reaching as low as six thousand copies per day at the deepest trough of its sales, having formerly sold as many as fifty-five thousand copies per day.
Now, it’s perfectly conceivable that Liverpool, as a city, could have held a more general grudge against the national media as a whole, and would still have been adopting a perfectly reasonable stance. For it was not just The Sun that was peddling these smears with an uncritical/non-analytical abandon. Most of the popular dailies were reporting them with a tone of “Typical-football-hooligans” disgust. Even The Daily Mirror, which these days routinely presents itself as the eternal journalistic champion of the Hillsborough victims, was quite happily announcing the rumours to the public while making no real attempt to emphasise that rumours were all they were, or that they had not yet subjected the allegations to any fact-checking. But nonetheless, the sheer gleeful fervour with which the ‘The Truth‘ headline had fronted The Sun that day was the worst, most excessive and irresponsible of the reports, largely written and planned around MacKenzie’s vitriolic desire to reinforce lazy stereotypes and turn the whole country against Merseyside. MacKenzie, under pressure from the newspaper’s owner Rupert Murdoch, apologised a few years later, but in 2006, having long since left The Sun, he retracted the apology, insisting that he had only offered it under duress and that the notorious article genuinely was ‘The Truth‘.
When the Hillsborough Independent Panel released their report a little over a year ago, they confirmed that the accusations against the Liverpool supporters had been a mixture of wild hyperbole, speculative insults, most of which made no sense, and baseless allegations. In response, MacKenzie re-issued his apology, but couched it in deeply unconvincing terms of him having been ‘suckered’ into writing the headline by the police. At the same time, Dominic Mohan, the current editor of The Sun, issued a video-apology on behalf of the newspaper. It wasn’t the first apology to come out of The Sun for its Hillsborough coverage, and I doubt it will be the last, as it desperately tries to win back its substantial former readership on Merseyside.
These were the words Mohan used; –
“Twenty-three years ago The Sun newspaper made a terrible mistake. We published an inaccurate and offensive story about the events at Hillsborough. We said it was the truth – it wasn’t. The Hillsborough Independent Panel has now established what really happened that day. It’s an appalling story and at the heart of it are the police’s attempts to smear Liverpool fans.
Now, there might have been a genuine case for accepting this apology, even while rejecting MacKenzie’s. After all, Mohan was not at The Sun in 1989, and nor indeed were the rest of the staff who are there today. The remorse expressed for what happened, combined with their lack of direct culpability for the smears, perhaps entitles the current generation at The Sun a second chance, you might argue. The emphasis on the police attempts to smear the fans, a little like with MacKenzie’s half-baked apology, still smacks of trying to offload the brunt of the blame, but still, it isn’t exactly a false emphasis. So maybe the Merseyside stance should be softened?
Well, how can I put this? No.
The reason I don’t think the apology should be accepted is rather retroactive. It works like this. The only way you can ever establish for certain whether an apology is sincere is to establish if the person apologising would again do what he/she is saying sorry for in similar circumstances. In the case of the present incumbents of The Sun, the answer is a resounding, “You bloody bet they would.” (That’s probably why the paper chose to employ them to begin with.)
My evidence of this? Well, you don’t have to look far for it. Indeed, we need only look as far as the very next week after the Independent Panel’s Report was released. Seriously, just eight days later, The Sun showed to the world that it hasn’t changed one bit. What I am referring to is sometimes called ‘Plebgate‘.
‘Plebgate’ is the joke vernacular name – in keeping with the tiresome post-Richard-Nixon tendency of the Western World to give practically any breaking scandal a nickname with the suffix ‘-gate‘ – for an acrimonious row that broke out between the then-Chief Whip of the Conservative Party, Andrew Mitchell, and the Metropolitan Police. On the evening of the 19th of September 2012, Mitchell was riding his bicycle away from his office in Downing Street, when one of the police officers guarding the entrance to the road instructed him to use the pedestrian gate instead of the main gate. According to the police version of events, Mitchell’s response was to swear at the officers and to call them ‘plebs’, a very unfortunate derogatory term for a Conservative MP to use, given the generally sour relationship that the Party usually has with the British underclass.
Guess which newspaper the story was published in the following morning? And guess which newspaper only ran the police’s version of the story, and made no attempt even to hear Mitchell’s side of the argument beforehand?
There was a mighty furore over the next few weeks, as the incident was held up by many as the latest example of the (sadly, very real) contempt in which the working class are held by the Tories. In late-October, Mitchell had to resign from the Cabinet because of the constant pressure he was under, even though he strenuously denied that he had used the ‘plebs’ pejorative. (He did admit to using foul language, mind.)
The snag was, in December it was discovered that evidence put forward to support the police version of events was – oh please don’t amaze me so! – unreliable. The key evidence against Mitchell was that one person, claiming to have been an eyewitness amongst a crowd of tourists stood outside the gate when the argument had broken out, had sent an e-mail backing up the police account. Unfortunately for the police, CCTV footage taken at the time of the argument showed that there was no crowd of tourists at the gate. It later emerged that the e-mail had been written by another police officer, one who was categorically not present **.
Now for what it’s worth, I have never much cared for Mitchell, and it wouldn’t surprise me one jot were I to learn that he genuinely does use the term ‘plebs’ to describe the working class behind closed doors***. But I can’t say one way or the other whether he really does, and either way, fabricating evidence in an attempt to pin the accusation on him is not only unethical, it is downright illegal. The stakes may have been far lower this time (indeed for the most part I found the story trivial and I soon got very bored with how much attention the media were paying to it), but there was a disturbingly familiar pattern to this whole sorry chapter. The police invented false witness statements, and The Sun newspaper just printed the allegations without running a critical eye over them first. What does that remind us of…?
Indeed, when the contrary evidence emerged to undermine the police version, The Sun put on a thoroughly predictable display of obnoxious stubbornness, insisting that it was going to stand by its story one hundred per cent. Does that not have a loud echo of MacKenzie’s insistence in 2006 that ‘The Truth‘ really was the truth…?
What makes this latest chapter of corrupt police/media collusion so hard to believe is not just that it resembles The Sun’s unskeptical enthusiasm for the police and their smearing anecdotes in 1989. It is also the fact that it all happened only one week after the newspaper had been castigated for exactly the same type of shenanigans, and had tried to make a formal apology for them.
In itself, ‘Plebgate’ was in some ways a pretty meaningless distraction; even if the accusations aimed at Mitchell had been true, it would only have told us that he was a Tory who behaves like any Tory will from time to time. Disgusting, sure, but not exactly ‘man bites dog’. But the scandal was important in one respect; it gave us all the evidence we need that, in the aftermath of the Hillsborough Independent Panel’s Report, Dominic Mohan’s apology was hollow and meaningless, because it didn’t lead on to any perceptible change in behaviour or attitude by The Sun. Within days, it was once again looking for a big headline with which it could smear somebody, and boost its sales through the manufactured posture of righteous outrage. It was still taking the police’s side of a controversy at face-value. And of course, it was still not prepared to make even the most basic attempt to check the facts and make sure that the story it had been peddled was true. Because this time only one person was the victim instead of hundreds may deodorise matters somewhat, but the principle is still the same, and the principle has still been violated in exactly the same way as in 1989. The principle is, on the one hand, that journalism requires fact-checking, and on the other hand, that journalists should set out with the express aim of telling the public what is actually going on, not with the express aim of smearing people in order to generate more sales.
The Sun just doesn’t do fact-checking, and it doesn’t really set out to tell the public what is actually going on. It doesn’t really do journalism therefore, and it shows no intention of changing that any time soon. It wants to carry on doing exactly the same sorts of deeds, and to maintain exactly the same type of attitude, that led to it becoming a key tool of the post-Hillsborough smear campaign to begin with.
So, while I don’t wish to be presumptuous and imagine that I can speak on behalf of all Merseyside – especially as I don’t live there – I am confident that I’m right when I say the following; –
Dominic Mohan – your apology is refused, and will remain so.
And I am confident that that refusal is also right.
* One of the vilest ironies of the South Yorkshire Police force’s blame-shifting was discovered recently, when it emerged that, not only is there no evidence that fans stole from the dead (and if they had, why were there no arrests…?), but in fact, the police themselves had been guilty of keeping money found among the dead and putting it into their own coffers. Now the sums involved were trifling, but then it is likely that any sums the fans might have stolen would have been trifling too (in the highly unlikely event that they did steal anything). This makes the false accusation not only deeply damaging and cruel, but also flagrant hypocrisy of a truly nauseating order.
** EDIT: 17/10/2013. The Sqwawkbox blog has raised significant doubts about Mitchell’s counter-evidence against the police’s position on the ‘Plebgate’ affair. While this would not in any way absolve The Sun of accusations of reckless smearing, it might absolve the police of such charges.
*** EDIT: 18/10/2013. And sure enough, it seems Mitchell does indeed use the term ‘plebs’ behind closed doors, as confirmed on the BBC recently by former Conservative front-bencher Michael Portillo.
More on the Hillsborough Disaster; –