The lies are still too much to bear
Feature by Daily Post
Updated Thursday, 15th April 2004
Daily Post writer Mike Chapple, a lifelong Liverpool supporter who stood on the Leppings Lane terraces 15 years ago today and witnessed the Hillsborough disaster, recalls the infamous newspaper report that was to change the face of British journalism.For the bereaved of the Hillsborough disaster, suffering will never end. But the salt rubbed into the grievous wounds of relatives and survivors came not on April 15, but three days later.
Fifteen years on, the pain and anger remains undiminished.
The cause lies in two small words in huge banner headlines - The Truth.
Using alleged evidence of unnamed officers of the South Yorkshire police, The Sun excelled in its reputation for scandal by declaring that "drunken Liverpool fans attacked rescue workers as they tried to revive victims".
It said: "Police officers, firemen and ambulance crews were punched, kicked and urinated upon".
Bolstered by the inflammatory claims of Irvine Pannick, the then Tory MP for Sheffield Hallam who broadcast the allegations made to him by the South Yorkshire Police Federation, it also claimed that Liverpool fans openly urinated on police and the bodies of fellow fans and picked their pockets.
For those who witnessed police officers watching impassively as fans were crushed to death on the metal cages at the front of the Leppings Lane, the blatant lies were almost too much to bear. Especially so, since it was the initiative of many of the supporters themselves that saved the death toll from surpassing the final 96.
The so-called "truth" stank of a police force that had made fatal errors in basic ground control and crowd safety, and was desperately looking to find scapegoats via the front pages of Britain's best-selling daily tabloid and its flamboyant editor Kelvin Mac-Kenzie.
In their history of The Sun, Stick It Up Your Punter, Chris Horrie and Peter Chippendale interviewed staff who were in no doubt about what was unravelling at Fortress Wapping, hours before the big stitch-up.
They wrote: "As MacKenzie's lay-out was seen by 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 (The Sun's proprietor). They seemed paralysed, '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 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." No matter that Lord Justice Taylor's official inquiry into the disaster crushed the newspaper's fabricated story, citing the real cause of the disaster as overcrowding due to the failure of police control - the old adage there's no smoke without fire was there to taint the city of Liverpool once again.
Horrie, an acclaimed author and astute commentator on the nation's media, says the infamous story became a benchmark.
"The Sun's Hillsborough story was one of a string of whoppers they published around about that time, including the one about Elton John," said the 47-year-old, who was born in Trafford Park and is a Manchester United fan.
"It was a real journalism atrocity. It was a terrible story, one as a journalist to make you hang your head in shame."
Horrie remains singularly unimpressed with the MacKenzie style of reporting which he claims follows the old William Randolph Hearst school of journalism - first think up a story and second get on to the people to stand it up.
He remains unimpressed, too, by his general reputation as an innovator and motivator. Think-ing that its competitor, the Mirror, had its heartland in the North, MacKenzie believed he was safe to have a go at Liverpudlians - already widely regarded as whipping boys for much of the nation's ill by the right-wing press - using his Southern-based operation.
He was wrong. MacKenzie's supporters were taken aback by the scale of the reaction.
Copies were ceremoniously burned in Liverpool's streets - an almost unprecedented national event.
The Sun was boycotted not only by thousands of the city's readers but many Liverpool newsagents too - and remains so to this day.
John Flynn, proprietor of City News newsagents, in Old Hall Street, is one of them. The paper is not on display and is only taken on order for around 10 nearby businesses.
"I still won't take it and I know there are lots of others who feel the same," said John, 58, a Liverpool FC season ticket holder for more than 30 years, who was at Hillsborough on the fateful day.
"On the day that the paper came out my former business partner here, who was an Evertonian, simply picked up the whole pile of them and dumped them in the bin outside."
He added: "Recently we've been having a lot of the lads coming in here who have been working on the Beetham Tower. They come from places like Oldham and Bolton and when we've told them we don't stock The Sun, they immediately understand - we don't even have to tell them why."
This week, the paper's owner News International declined to comment to the Daily Post on the effect that the subsequent boycott had on The Sun's sales on Merseyside, reckoned to have cost them more than £100m in lost revenue.
The Sun's advertising director Ian Clarke, however, is on record as saying: "We know it was a mistake . . . but every year it (the boycott) becomes softer as a younger audience comes through."
MacKenzie himself also accepted the disaster coverage was a "fundamental mistake" but when he admitted this to the Commons National Heritage Committee in January, 1993, it hardly amounted to an apology.
"I regret Hillsborough," he said. "It was a fundamental mistake. The mistake was I believed what an MP said. It was a Tory MP. If he had not said it and the chief superintendent had not agreed with it, we would not have gone with it."
Despite attempts by the Daily Post to contact him, MacKenzie, who is now chief executive of the Wireless Group, was not available to be interviewed for this article.
Horrie recalls a tale in which The Sun's management called an emergency meeting to discuss the paper's appalling post-Hillsborough sales figures.
MacKenzie allegedly tried to bluff it out by suggesting that the paper was withdrawing its sales from Liverpool, because its people "didn't deserve it".
Horrie also believes that MacKenzie, in reality, has no regrets whatsoever about The Truth "while he still thinks that there's a grain of truth that Liverpool fans brought it upon themselves".
The real truth, however, was different - and it had a hand in changing the face of British reporting for the foreseeable future.
"The British tabloids are incredibly blanded out, compared to what they used to be," said Horrie. "They used
to be absolutely red in tooth and claw. They used to be absolutely out of control - day in, day out. Wildly exaggerated stories, unbelievable political bias - so biased it was actually funny - and really quite savage and nasty. They've had to stop all that - probably because their audience has changed.
"We're becoming a more middle-class country, so all this very down-market, very aggressive stuff no longer really works."
And Hillsborough and The Sun's "mistaken truth"?
Horrie replied tellingly: "That is commonly now thought of as the very biggest economic mistake in British journalistic history."
It could be argued then that a certain kind of justice, finally, has been delivered after all.