Hillsborough: Responding to Roger Alton

April 4, 2017

by Martin Odoni

There are a few periodicals out there that, you would have thought, should know better by now than to make noise about the Hillsborough Disaster. The most obvious candidate is of course The Sun (so-called) ‘newspaper’, whose crude and wilful smear in its notorious ‘The Truth‘ article four days after the tragedy remains possibly the all-time nadir of British journalism. But The Sun is not alone in treating Hillsborough with crass, ignorant and insensitive cruelty.

The Spectator, one of the great outlets for jeering, British-upper-class snobbery dressed up as pseudo-intellectualism, plumbed similar depths as late as 2004. In the aftermath of the brutal murder of Ken Bigley, Simon Heffer – with apparent extra remarks added in by the ineffable then-editor, Boris ‘BoJob’ Johnson – wrote a characteristically down-the-nose, prejudiced and unresearched article attacking Liverpool supporters for supposedly causing the Disaster.

Heffer and/or Johnson stated, with a startling degree of crass ignorance and posh-tonal impatience,

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

The ignorance driving the assertions is most strongly flagged by, but by no means limited to, the description of “the deaths of more than 50.” While it is technically accurate to say that more than fifty people died in the Disaster, it downplays the proportion of the tragedy by half. One can be certain that if Heffer or Johnson were remotely as well-informed about Hillsborough as they were bluffing, they would instead have said either, “more than 90,” or, “almost 100”. As it stands, the reference to “more than 50” makes it sound like they are confusing hazy memories of the Valley Parade Fire of 1985.

In fairness to Johnson, he has publicly apologised several times for the article, although Heffer has remained noticeably tight-lipped. Even the publication of the Report Of The Hillsborough Independent Panel, which proved irrevocably that the version of events put forward in the article was completely false, has not drawn any noticeable words of contrition out of Heffer. The suspicion is that, because of his right wing prejudices, he feels that his words were still true ‘in the eyes of God’, so to speak, and that the bare physical facts have therefore got it wrong.

With that skeleton in the magazine’s insalubrious cupboard, it is unsurprising that, when The Spectator chooses to poke its upturned nose into Hillsborough-related matters, it is about as welcome as a tray of bacon sandwiches at a Bar Mitzvah. Therefore, it is one of the biggest wonders of the last week – and we are talking about a week in which Michael Fallon and Lord Howard threatened war against Spain, so the competition is fierce – that Roger Alton chose to write in The Spectator in defence of The Sun.

To be clear, Alton was certainly not defending The Sun’s coverage of the Disaster back in 1989. Instead he was criticising the decision of Liverpool Football Club back in February to ban the tabloid, and its reporters, from attending Anfield or the team’s training ground at Melwood, in much-delayed response to the journal’s Hillsborough coverage. Alton’s objection is a familiar-sounding one that many a journalist retreats into when he or his fellows get into trouble for writing irresponsibly.

Thanks to the timorousness of one of the world’s major football clubs, and the pusillanimity of the Premier League, a bitter little drama is being played out that could have savage implications for freedom of the press.

Ah, so we are back in ‘freedom-of-speech-means-freedom-to-lie-and-to-hatchet-someone’s-reputation-unduly-without-any-repercussions’ territory once again, are we? While acknowledging that The Sun’s coverage back in 1989 was outrageous, Alton argues that the ban is wrong, not least because it was,

coverage for which the paper and its editors have repeatedly apologised.

Now, this may come as a shock to Alton, but people all over the United Kingdom are well aware of the red-top’s apologies. The problem is not a lack of apologies, the problem is the lack of sincerity in them. As I argued a few years back, The Sun’s apologies can only be accepted under two conditions; –

Firstly, the apology has to take a form where the paper accepts full responsibility for what was published, rather than repeatedly apologising for supposedly ‘being misled’ by the police. That is not a real apology, it is a recital of the word sorry followed by a cynical blame-shift. Yes, the South Yorkshire Police Force undeniably lied and heavily distorted events in order to offload guilt onto the victims of its incompetence. But The Sun was happy to go along with the lies, because they suited the Thatcherite, right wing, anti-northern agenda of its owner and its then-editor. The Sun’s coverage was more malicious than gullible, and to date there has never been any acknowledgement of that from anyone connected with the paper.

Secondly, the apology has to be accompanied by a recognisable change of behaviour. In other words, if The Sun were ever to stop being a controversy-addicted, sexist, racist, voyeuristic, hard-right, stereotype-fuelling smear rag, well, maybe then people could accept that the baser instincts that led it to publish the notorious article were no longer being followed. But all the evidence points to the contrary. The Sun continues to smear and deride decent, honest people – just ask Jeremy Corbyn – it continues to vilify the most vulnerable people in the country, and it continues to be a yobbish, bombastic, jingoistic receptacle of xenophobia and racism, including against refugees. Nothing has changed in the way The Sun conducts itself, therefore the apologies will not be accepted.

Alton drifts onto some dangerously hyperbolic turf as he writes. He mentions,

[Liverpool’s] owner, John Henry, founder of the Boston-based Fenway Sports Group, was not involved. He is said to be ‘embarrassed’, as well he might be since Fenway also owns the Boston Globe, which makes hay whenever President Trump tries a similar stunt.

Irrespective of John Henry’s opinions, which are unlikely to be the best-informed in any event, this comparison is as intellectually-redundant as it is offensive and crass. To try and compare what Liverpool Football Club has decided to do to the behaviour of the current US President is to compare the common cold to malaria. Donald Trump‘s entirely fictitious cries of “FAKE NEWS!” whenever he gets criticised, no matter how fairly, and subsequent attempts to ban journalists who write unfavourably about him from his press conferences, are in a completely different realm from what Liverpool is doing. Liverpool has banned one newspaper for a measurably untrue, crude, vicious, and malignant hatchet job on its supporters, it is not blanket-banning any and all commentators on hearing the first whisper of criticism. Indeed, many would argue that Liverpool FC has been far, far too restrained in its treatment of The Sun. This ban, after all, took the better part of three whole decades after the crime to be imposed, and it applies to only one periodical. This is utterly different from Trump’s egomaniacal, knee-jerk refusal to speak to newpapers and TV channels by the news-stand-load whenever they say something he finds inconvenient.

Alton then drifts into off-colour remarks about the pressure group Total Eclipse Of The S*n, who are behind the advancing boycott, without ever getting to the nub of what he finds objectionable about it. He then makes a number of irrelevant points about the amount of money Liverpool FC receives from the ‘Murdoch media’, as though that gives the club a moral obligation to let The Sun onto its premises. (How like the right wing media to think that morality is measured in money, incidentally.) Alton also bemoans the failure of the FA Premier League to force Liverpool to back down, in the way that the National Football League in the USA forces its franchises to allow full access to the media. He does not pause to consider that, for one thing, the Premier League might agree with Liverpool’s decision, for another, the NFL does not enforce media access on principle but for financial advantage, or above all, that, as the clubs in the US are franchises in a more tightly-knit collective league structure, the NFL has more control over them than the FA or the Premier League can ever wield over their teams.

Alton then finishes on another moment of crass hyperbole by gently implying that Liverpool’s decision is comparable to Nazism, through a paraphrase of the famous Martin Niemoller quotation, when he writes,

[The smear campaign and cover-up seem] an ominous reason, now, 28 years later, to prevent one football reporter from doing his job. Who knows what could come next? First they come for the Sun…

Oh I see. So because The Sun has been banned from one football ground in the entire country, that means that a state police force now stands poised to crash through the front doors of all journalists connected with the tabloid, and march them off to concentration camps, before getting to work on all the other papers?

Is it even necessary to point out how ridiculous and over-the-top Alton’s analogies are? Given how quick the press can be to dish out stick, often for corrupt reasons, it can be astonishing how deep a journalist’s persecution complex can be, or how thin their skin can be. So The Sun has to steer clear of Anfield, therefore The Sun is now a victim? Oh, diddums! Say that to the survivors of Hillsborough. Liverpool FC’s decision does not mean that The Sun will no longer be allowed to keep publishing – not that I would waste any breath complaining about it if it did.

There is nothing illegal or immoral about a boycott of a newspaper, especially not one that has such a terrible history of hate-mongering as The Sun. For Alton to take the “What about the freedom of the press?” line here is contemptible. This is because one cannot defend The Sun while defending the freedom of the press. They are mutually exclusive positions. The Sun routinely abuses that freedom, and to an extent that would have been hard to imagine before the 1980’s; it constantly hurts the credibility of free press by making its definition inseparable from malicious lies. It degrades and devalues journalism, using it to spread hatred rather than the truth, and to advance the interests of the powerful, instead of to inform the powerless. One cannot defend any entity by defending those that mistreat and manipulate it. To defend the freedom of the press, one must condemn those who corrupt it; to do otherwise is as perverse and amoral as to try and defend the victims of child abuse by speaking up for its perpetrators. The Sun damages the freedom of the press, and it undermines the real purpose of having the press.

As for The Spectator, if it is any better than The Sun, it is only by (slight) virtue of its use of more sophisticated language. For Alton, Johnson, or Heffer, freedom-of-speech appears to mean no more than the right to reinforce their own prejudices, and the secondary right to draw others into the same lazy illusions. This is underlined by the aforementioned presumption and lack-of-research in 2004, and the whiny protests offered this week.

If ending such prejudices will require one day boycotting either The Sun or The Spectator to the point of bankruptcy, I would consider that a worthy price to pay.

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One Response to “Hillsborough: Responding to Roger Alton”

  1. Martin Odoni Says:

    I did get it, thank you, and I am not approving it. You are welcome to comment on these articles, but you need to keep your comments firmly related to what the articles are about. I am not going to approve comments that are merely there to plug something that is only tenuously relevant. I will be taking your comment down, and this reply to it, later today.


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