April 19 is a day of infamy on Merseyside. On that date in 1989 The Sun newspaper produced a front page about the Hillsborough disaster which had occurred four days earlier. The headline was simple: ‘The Truth.’
There has been no greater perversion of words in British media history.
The phrase demonised a fanbase and a city. The fallout lingers on today. The toxicity of the allegations has not faded with the years.
The horror of events at the FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest reached into almost every neighbourhood on Merseyside. The shock was palpable. The number of fatalities would eventually reach 96 and more than 50,000 supporters witnessed the dreadful events at Sheffield Wednesday’s stadium. Countless people were walking the streets of Liverpool in a daze after enduring a brush with death in the Leppings Lane terrace pens. Hundreds more had tried to help the injured and dying while the majority of police in attendance stood by watching. You only had to look into faces on the streets to understand the widespread bewilderment and psychological damage.
And then, on Wednesday morning, the nation was told ‘The Truth’ about our experience. After what we had seen in Sheffield, many of us imagined we were now unshockable. How wrong we were.
The Sun, the most popular newspaper in Britain with a circulation that had edged over four million, featured eight stark letters in enormous white type on a black background: The Truth. The words should have been reassuring but they set the stage for the most egregious lies. The allegations were stunning: Liverpool fans stole from the dead; urinated on police who were trying to help victims; and beat up constables while they were attempting to perform the kiss of life.
There was more. Much, much more. Other newspapers had toned down versions of the story – falsehoods generated by senior South Yorkshire Police officers and a Conservative MP, Irvine Patnick – but The Sun went big without a qualm or question. Kelvin MacKenzie, the editor, considered a different headline. He mulled over and rejected ‘You Scum.’ The phrase he chose was much more insidious. Truth is an evocative word. It should not be used lightly. It invites the reader to believe. It says ‘we know what happened, you have to read this.’ It says ‘you must trust us.’
Across the country, too many people did. ‘The Truth’ had been established. The facts would not assert themselves for more than two decades until the Hillsborough Independent Panel’s exhaustive report in 2012.
The Sun published many of the founding lies of a cover-up that still shames Britain. Journalism has an obligation to hold authorities and government to account. MacKenzie not only disregarded that duty but created the environment where people in power could escape the consequences of their catastrophic failures, failures that led to 96 deaths and decades of misery for thousands of people.
Why does any of this matter? Because in the coronavirus emergency there are already signs that the government is attempting to wriggle out of responsibility for decisions that have exacerbated the crisis. Papers like The Sun and editors like MacKenzie chipped away at the public’s trust in journalism and have made scrutiny of the powerful more difficult and less believable. ‘The Truth’ was not merely an injustice inflicted on Liverpool and football fans. It was a betrayal of the nation and utterly shameful.
Elected representatives and public officials in a democracy need to be held to account. Hillsborough and MacKenzie’s headline underlined a culture of evasion and blamethrowing that exists in British life. That culture resurfaced in the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire. It cannot be allowed to continue when the Covid-19 nightmare eases. The only way anyone learns from disasters is by understanding the sequence of events and uncovering incidents and actions that some decisionmakers would rather keep hidden. Acceptance of culpability is a vital part of the process.
The story of The Sun on Merseyside is well known. A group of women from Kirkby stormed newsagents and burnt the edition. Across the region people were so appalled that they spontaneously stopped buying the paper. Shops refused to stock it. A boycott began organically and has continued ever since. Every new generation embraces and reinforces the unofficial proscription of The Sun. It is community activism at its best. The revulsion is as strong as ever. ‘Don’t buy The Sun’ has become the city’s catchphrase and part of Scouse folklore. It is as strong at Goodison as at Anfield. Everton have been huge advocates of justice for the families and survivors.
Unity on Merseyside tells only half the story. The seeds sown by MacKenzie produced bitter fruit down the years. You did not have to go far beyond the region to understand its impact.
On countless occasions over the decades, individuals have sidled up to those of us who were at Hillsborough and said something like, “Come on, you can tell me the truth, I used to go to games in the 1980s. I know what it was like. Your lot were drunk, knocked down the gates and that’s why it happened. Admit it.” They knew ‘The Truth’ and repeated the lies without shame. They believed MacKenzie.
Many of us did not hear the phrase ‘post-traumatic stress syndrome’ until well into the 2000s but it became clear in retrospect that we displayed many of the symptoms. Whenever one of MacKenzie’s Truthtellers expressed their point of view – usually with a conspiratorial faux bonhomie that said ‘we’re all football fans together, mate’ – the flashbacks and nightmares became sharper and more intense. Hillsborough deniers still quote The Sun to this day, despite the plethora of evidence that has emerged in the past decade.
At one point it was so bad that I developed a stock response. When questioned about stealing from the dead and the rest of the appalling allegations, I had a ready answer: “Would you do it?” No one ever answered in the affirmative. Then why, I would ask, would you think I would? Again, there was never an answer.
The snide tendency to blame victims – and even heroes - has not gone away. Firefighters did not let down the dead of Grenfell. Unsafe, flammable cladding put first responders in an untenable situation. The authorities knew of the danger but the men and women who had to enter the tower block in an attempt to save lives were not aware. The residents who listened to guidance from the fire brigade and burnt alive in their flats did not lack “common sense” as suggested by Jacob Rees-Mogg. They were doing what was asked of them. The Leader of the House of Commons would be better employed trying to find out why such tragic advice was offered and ensure it never happens again.
In the past few days Matt Hancock has suggested that medical staff have been misusing personal protective equipment (PPE), framing that as one of the reasons for the shortage of life-saving apparatus. Hospital staff, emergency workers and carers could not know how badly Covid-19 would hit their workplaces. Hancock, the health secretary, and the cabinet did have a sense of the coming storm. The time must come when this government is forced to explain why it did not act faster in ordering PPE and enacting measures to mitigate the spread of the virus.
It is bad enough to experience a tragedy. For innocent people to be burdened with the shame and blame for mass, avoidable deaths is despicable.
‘The Truth’ headline subverted language in the most appalling manner. It caused a huge amount of extra pain for the bereaved and the survivors.
The word must be reclaimed from MacKenzie, his ilk and the people who benefit from their lies. Truth should never be the ugly word it became this day in 1989.
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