Friday, April 10, 2009

The Sun won't shine on Hillsborough

20 years ago today, 96 Liverpool fans were killed at Sheffield Wednesday's Hillsborough ground in an FA Cup semi final against Nottingham Forest. It was a disaster, the worst footballing tragedy the English game has known, one that resonates still today, and particularly on its 20th anniversary. Everyone knows what happened, and everyone is united in sadness and respect - Liverpool, Manchester United and Everton supporters alike, players, managers, fans and families.

Everyone except Kelvin MacKenzie.

The editor of the Sun newspaper at the time, MacKenzie's editorial on the Wednesday (19th April 1989) after the disaster was so badly misjudged as to be unheard of. The Sun's front page alleged that the Liverpool fans stole from and abused their own supporters, urinated and attacked the emergency services. It was simply unbelievable that a leading newspaper could support such claims. What was simply catastrophic is that it could parade the allegations - on the front page, remember - as 'The Truth'.

According to a book on the history of the Sun, MacKenzie was alone in his conviction behind the newspaper's stance on the tragedy, and as editor, no-one stood in his way. No one else at the paper, it seemed, thought that that day's edition of the paper was a mistake, or misjudgement, or confusion. To everyone but MacKenzie, that Wednesday's paper was little more than outright, and deliberately accusing, lies.

MacKenzie originally apologised for the error personally in 1993, excusing his actions on the grounds of believing what a Conservative MP had said, which had been supported - apparently - by the Chief Superintendent, who later admitted to lying in statements immediately following the disaster.

The Sun, in 2004, the 15th anniversary of the disaster, took the opportunity to apologise unreservedly for that terrible error, and labelled it - quite rightly - the worst mistake in the paper's history. It goes without saying that you would be hard-pressed to find another, by any paper, on that sort of level. But the fact remains that MacKenzie's editorial was a lone choice, based on statements by unnamed sources and hearsay, with literally hundreds of counter statements from supporters who were at the game, on the pitch, in the stands, at the time.

Despite not having a leg to stand on, MacKenzie then shot himself in both feet. In 2007 he stated he was forced to apologise by Rupert Murdoch in 1993, against his will. An infamous quote attributed to MacKenzie is, "I was not sorry then and I'm not sorry now." His only concession to this day, by all accounts, is that he does now 'not know' if everything that he stood behind in that paper's shocking coverage was true. In other words, still MacKenzie has no reason not to believe in what he printed.

MacKenzie, however, does not deserve to be forever tied to the disaster as it lives on in the memory of football fans. Nor does the Sun newspaper. Despite their hollow apology of 2004, obviously the paper has gone through many changes in 20 years and even being the rag that it is, is not capable of making the same mistake again. MacKenzie has said that the distinction between the tragedy and the newspaper story is blurred, and he is right. The blame for the events of the day that caused the 96 deaths should not lie at MacKenzie's feet - he was not responsible, or in a position of authority on the day that could have saved those lives. The Justice For 96 campaign needs to remember the facts, and they are firmly pointed toward the authorities at the ground on the fateful day.

MacKenzie, however, refused to deal in, and still fails to acknowledge, facts. His terribly misguided bullish stance has earned him notoriety in Liverpool, and indeed across most football fans who were alive at the time, and he is hated. However, such an arrogant, callous man does not deserve a place in history alongside one of the most genuine sporting tragedies, and neither does the diabolical decision he made to publish a newspaper story belittling it. Boycotted for the last 20 years by thousands and thousands of people across Merseyside, and indeed the nation, The Lies by the Sun and its editor will never be forgiven, of course, and there will never come a day where the paper can make amends for its shocking conduct over Hillsborough.

What is most important, though, is that what happened on the day is remembered beyond all. Only in the hearts of those who were at Hillsborough on 15th April 1989 are the full facts, and for the peace and mind of families and friends of the 96 victims, justice might never find its way out. But The Truth is that the dead need to be remembered, the mistakes need to be learned from (and have been), the grieving needs to respected and wounds need time, and support, to heal. The humanity of Hillsborough - the loss of life, the outpouring of emotion, the uniting of people in sadness and respect - is its greatest lasting memory, and one man and one issue of a tabloid are just tomorrow's fish and chips paper.

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