Some truths about the Sun and ‘The Truth’

The belated backlash over the lies about Hillsborough appears to be more about today’s attempt to regulate the press.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume
Columnist

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No sooner had the revelations about how the police framed Liverpool fans for the Hillsborough disaster been published last week than it seemed the discussion was being moved on to issues with which the British elite are more comfortable.

On one hand, it became another attack on football fans, with warnings from everybody from Sir Alex Ferguson to football pundits that crowds must now be made to stop singing offensive chants about Hillsborough, the Munich disaster or anything else that might upset other supporters. This high-handed attempt further to sanitise football demonstrated that, as argued on spiked last week, the anti-fan prejudices that were really behind Hillsborough in the first place have still not been challenged (see Hillsborough report: a victory for truth?, by Tim Black).

On the other hand, the discussion quickly focused on the role of the press, and particularly the tabloid Sun, in the Hillsborough cover-up. The notorious Sun front page from April 1989, headlined ‘The Truth’, which claimed that Liverpool fans at Hillsborough had not only caused the crush but picked victims’ pockets and attacked and urinated on police rescuers, was singled out by prime minister David Cameron in his apology in parliament and booed by MPs.

The demand to #ShutDownTheSun quickly became one of the most popular hashtags ‘trending’ on Twitter, encouraged by the likes of Manchester United star Rio Ferdinand. The apology from the paper’s current editor, and the grovelling one from Kelvin McKenzie, the editor at the time and the man who wrote that headline, only seemed to encourage the assault. So vituperative were the attacks that one might almost have assumed McKenzie had been found guilty of personally causing those 96 tragic deaths.

Let’s be clear, for the avoidance of any confusion here: there is nothing to be said in defence of the Sun’s reports of Hillsborough. Indeed, nobody except McKenzie had even tried to defend that notorious front page for some years. And it should not have taken anybody 23 years and an official report to see it for what it was.

A few days after Hillsborough, I wrote a response to the Sun story on the front page of the next step, the weekly paper of the Revolutionary Communist Party (deceased), dated 28 April 1989. Headlined ‘THE TRUTH’, just as McKenzie’s front page had been, it might have mimicked his hyperbolic style; but it highlighted three slightly different bullet points to his ones about fans allegedly robbing the dead and pissing on policemen. Our front page said:

‘Thatcher led the law and order drive which caged fans;

Police treated dying fans as a public order problem;

Press liars abused the dead to cover up the truth.’


Cover of the next step after
Hillsborough, 28 April 1989

Our frontpage story of April 1989 also made clear the source of the paper’s smears, reporting that ‘the Sun defiled the dead by printing police lies’.

The truth about ‘The Truth’ front page should have been clear to anybody with eyes to see all along. Indeed, even some Sun journalists at the time were aghast at how their editor had spun the story. So why has there been such a sudden outpouring of bile against the Sun 23 years later, as if its cover had only just been blown? Are we really meant to believe that, as McKenzie himself claimed last week, it has ‘taken more than two decades, 400,000 documents and a two-year inquiry to discover that it would have been far more accurate had I written the headline “The Lies” rather than “The Truth”’?

Of course not. In fact, the backlash against the Sun over the past week probably reveals more about the current arguments over press freedom and the tabloids around the Leveson Inquiry than about the events of 1989.

The recent furore has served to highlight several important themes of this debate which are dealt with in my book, There Is No Such Thing As a Free Press. These include:

The obsession with the press. The ease with which the focus of the Hillsborough debate last week shifted from ‘the biggest police cover-up in British history’ to one 23-year old article in a tabloid newspaper starkly illustrated the centrality of the media to public life today. With the declining authority of other institutions, the media has become the dominant player in our politics and culture, almost the last pillar standing of the British establishment. Any story involving the press becomes the big news, and if a story does not appear in the media, it effectively did not happen. This in turn has encouraged a dangerous streak of navel-gazing and narcissism in the media itself. That helps to explain why the phone-hacking scandal and the Leveson Inquiry have become so all-consuming. And why the story of the deaths of 96 people as a result of the state’s war on football fans could be reduced in some quarters to a tale of bad tabloid journalism.

The ‘I blame the meejah’ culture. From child obesity to climate change, the tendency today is to blame social problems on the malign influence of the media. Especially the mass media or popular press, and most particularly those owned by Rupert Murdoch. The sudden focus on the role of the Sun after Hillsborough is a case in point – and misses the big point about why that disaster occurred in the first place.

In fact, a closer look at the Sun’s original story reveals a different process at work. The paper, as everybody now concedes, did not dream up those slanders, but simply reprinted the lies fed to it about Liverpool fans by several senior police officers and at least one Tory MP. Little wonder – in the years before Hillsborough, the entire media was complicit in peddling the prejudices about football fans that came from the top of parliament and the state machine downwards. This illustrates how, despite all of its apparent power, the media remains essentially the carrier, not the cause, of problematic messages in politics and society. The press is certainly not innocent, but its role is more that of accessory after the fact than instigator of the crime. The old adage about not shooting the messenger remains generally good advice. Today, however, as the Hillsborough fallout shows, shooting the messenger has come to rival football as our national sport.

The crusade for the ‘ethical’ cleansing of the tabloid press. The renewed furore over Hillsborough has come at a good time for all of those celebrity and political cheerleaders of Lord Justice Leveson who are backing the crusade to purge the press. Their demand for more ethereal ethical journalism is a cover for pursuing their more earthbound agenda – what I have called the ‘ethical cleansing’ of the tabloid press that does not conform to their tastes. At a time when some have seemed to be getting cold feet about how far Leveson’s proposals might go, putting the Sun back in the dock over Hillsborough has given a timely boost to all of the cleansers, conformists and Murdochphobics. It has also brought out the censorious character of the ‘We believe in press freedom BUT…’ lobby, with the #ShutDownTheSun trend confirming that Twitter, the ‘free speech wing of the free speech party’, can often look more like the intolerant tolerance tendency.

The fear and loathing of the popular. The latest row over the Sun and Hillsborough has also confirmed that the attacks on the tabloid or ‘popular’ press are usually a thinly veiled expression on fear and loathing of the populace – the masses who consume the mass media. While the assault is aimed at the press barons such as Murdoch and those they employ, the underlying targets are those who these ‘puppet masters’ allegedly manipulate – the wooden-headed public, of course.

Thus prominent critics claimed that last week’s official revelations were important because, they implied, the idiot masses had all swallowed the Sun’s lies about Hillsborough for the past 23 years. That of course is nonsense, but it fits the script. As one journalist who was at Hillsborough put it in the Guardian, ‘[T]heir ignorance was their faith in the media and in the police. This has suffered a huge blow and the fact surely cannot go unnoticed by Lord Justice Leveson.’ So the Sun’s front page from 1989 becomes another argument for the more strict regulation of the tabloids today, in order to regulate the ‘ignorance’ of their allegedly gullible readers.

The truth question. The fact that Kelvin McKenzie chose to headline his lies ‘The Truth’ has served to focus attention on the current demand for the media to report only what is true and in the ‘public interest’. Yet the question remains, to quote Pontius Pilate, ‘What is truth?’. And who is to decide what is true and serves the public interest?

One revealing admission came from a former Sun journalist involved in their Hillsborough reports. He said that they ran the story only after it had been ‘stood up’ by four senior policemen. Even then, however, he was horrified by his editor’s headline, arguing with McKenzie that the police claims were only ‘a version of the truth’ and should be reported as such, which is what some other papers did. This hack’s admission was itself condemned by campaigners last week, who insisted that there are no ‘versions of the truth’ – rather, there are only ‘the truth and lies’. Really? And who is to decide which is which? Lord Justice Leveson? Hugh Grant and the Hacked Off campaign? In reality, we decide what we believe precisely after hearing and debating all of the different ‘versions of the truth’, just as a jury must weigh the conflicting evidence in court. In a free society, only the public has the right to decide what is in its interests – and it can only do so after all the evidence and arguments have been laid before it, with no ‘Buts…’. The fact that the Sun printed police lies in the past is no excuse for handing over judgement of what is deemed truth to some higher authority today.

Twenty-three years ago, Hillsborough was used as the pretext for framing football fans. It would be just as wrong to allow the disaster to be exploited today by those pursuing a showtrial of the tabloid press.

Mick Hume is spiked’s editor-at-large. His new book There is No Such Thing as a Free Press… And We Need One More Than Ever is published by Societas and is now available in print and Kindle editions. (Order this book from Amazon(UK).) Visit his website here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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