Is it time to forgive and forget Kelvin Mackenzie and the Sun over the lies they told about Hillsborough?

Our writer scooped the nation on the official report in the Hillsborough Stadium disaster. Here he reflects on the controversial coverage of that fateful day

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Hasn’t the time arrived to forgive and forget where The Sun and Hillsborough are concerned?

I thought so, because I’ve spent the last few years writing on football and sometimes knock around Liverpool Football Club, where I see The Sun’s decent, diligent football writers, going about the formidable task of covering the club in the place where none of the locals want their newspaper to be. It seemed to me – though I always felt it too delicate an issue to ask – that they stepped into the background of the weekly press conference fray a little, after Kenny Dalglish, the Liverpool manager on the day of the tragedy, returned to the job last year. If my suspicion was correct then such an act of quiet deference doesn’t fit with the naked hate which Merseyside still feels for the paper, whose version of ‘The Truth’ after the disaster which killed 96 people was that the club’s own supporters attacked rescue workers that day, pickpocketed the dead and urinated on police. All of which we now know to have been lies, disseminated by police officers in an act of self-preservation.

I thought we should forgive and forget where The Sun and Hillsborough are concerned, because the magisterial 398-page report of the Hillsborough Independent Panel – which really is the final word on the disaster – belongs to a kind of truth and reconciliation convention in which we draw a line and move on. I also thought so because Kelvin MacKenzie, the man who wrote The Sun’s headline – THE TRUTH - actually seemed to have a point when he said, as he has now written in The Spectator, that South Yorkshire Police officers propagated those lies and that The Sun were not the only one newspaper to spread them.

But the problem for any who seek to hide behind the Independent Panel, led so judiciously by Liverpool’s Bishop James Jones, is that no stone is left unturned by it. The Panel report allows us, for example, to dig back into the newspapers which spread the lies on the day The Sun and others spread them. It doesn’t take long for MacKenzie’s argument – “it wasn’t just me” to – crumble and fall apart.

All the newspapers were sold those same lies, on the day before they published them, by the main purveyor of Sheffield stories - the Whites news agency, whose reporters had in turn been fed the lines by Sheffield police officers. (That no national paper seemed to have journalists of its own, working the city in the aftermath to verify and get to officers, is another story.)

The Standard got the scoop

It was the London Evening Standard who actually got the Whites ‘scoop’ and ran it first – the day before MacKenzie. On the Standard front page of April 18, 1989, we see that old trick, beloved of the headline writers and newspapers lawyers – the quote mark - seeking to take the sting out of these extraordinary allegations by making them someone else’s. “Police attack ‘vile’ fans’, is the Standard’s headline, above an unbylined story. The Daily Express employed the same strategy the following morning: quote marks cover the allegations and the main headline is claim, not fact. ‘Police Accuse Drunken Fans.’ But the Daily Mail, whose northern operation was being run by the experienced Stephen White, did not touch the Whites story. They preferred – and splashed - the arrest of spy Adnan Khastioggi, the arms dealer who had Pamella Bordes working for him, and tucked Hillsborough away on page five, headlined on a story of victims suing for negligence. The Daily Mirror did include the Whites material, on page 2, but turned it on the reaction it unleashed. ‘Fury as officers claim fans robbed victims.’

MacKenzie’s The Sun would certainly have screamed out from the newsstands that day. He went for it - completely, utterly, no holds barred - presenting in jet black ink THE TRUTH and detailing every one of the Whites words as gospel. Beneath the banner, which was typed out by MacKenzie’s own hand, headlines listed – as fact - the litany of police accusations. “Some fans picked pockets of victims; some fans urinated on the brave cops; some fans beat up PC giving life kiss.” No inverted commas. Clink through to it, from page 344 of the Independent Panel report, if you really want to see the impact.

The story – and its treatment by MacKenzie – were a scandal and the Press Council of the day said as much, as did the families of the dead and injured, who wrote to MacKenzie in their dozens. The Sun's managing editor, William Newman, replied to them within days in a letter which was – as the Independent Panel reveals in typically unsparing detail - neither personalised, nor signed. “We are sorry that, possibly clouded by grief, many have not understood that it is The Sun’s duty as a newspaper to publish information, however hurtful and unpalatable it may be at the time.” Newman apologised for the article’s display. “For the substance we do not.” The letter reached many families, including Trevor and Jenny Hicks who had lost two daughters, as they made arrangements to bury their dead.

Not quite an apology

Recognition from MacKenzie that he may have made a “mistake” did follow years later, though not an apology, and he declared from the safety of an after-dinner speech in 2006 that he had been right all along. The evidence that some of his news executives shuddered at what MacKenzie was doing at his office computer that April night in ’89 arrived in the book by Peter Chippindale and Chris Horrie which charts the rise and fall of The Sun. The definite book on the tragedy ‘Hillsborough – The Truth’, by Prof Phil Scraton, who principally authored the Independent Panel report, takes us to the relevant section. Chippendale and Horrie suggest that MacKenzie “did an enormously uncharacteristic thing” that night - by sitting fully for half an hour planning his headline rather than acting on impulse. His first inclination “YOU SCUM” was rejected in favour of “THE TRUTH” and his colleagues were “paralysed,” Chippendale and Horrie relate. “The error staring [the staff] in the face was too glaring and too terminal to be possible…. The time he had spent deliberating had been solely about headlines. The details did not concern him.”

Perhaps this backstory explains why The Sun and News International recently provided such miserably thin information to the Panel about what questions the tabloid had asked Whites about the provenance and veracity of that initial, fateful story. When a file of documentation finally reached the Independent Panel, at the eleventh hour, it was virtually useless - containing little but letters of complaint from readers about the front page story. The Evening Standard’s own documentation, revealing some hard question of Whites after the enormity of what had been published dawned, shed some very important new light. Now we wait to discover if News International stand by their former editor’s decision to pass the blame elsewhere or will prove their contrition by distancing themselves from him. As of last night, there had been no response from Wapping to my inquiries on this issue. It would be nice to forgive and forget where The Sun and Hillsborough are concerned. But impossible.

Ian Herbert is a sportswriter for The Independent

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