As is now very well known, the response of the Sun newspaper to the Hillsborough disaster was to mount a front page attack on the fans.
Under the fateful headline “The Truth” the paper printed the vilest lies about the victims of the horrific event. The supporters, it was alleged, urinated on police, stole from their own dead, beat up rescue workers, and caused the problems in the first place through widespread drunkenness. The editor of the paper and the man who decided on the headline was Kelvin McKenzie.
On 10 September McKenzie issued the apology he had spent the last 23 years aggressively resisting. “Today” he said “I offer my profuse apologies to the people of Liverpool for that headline.” One of the lead representatives of the victims’ families was quick to reject this apology out of hand. It was “too little too late” said Trevor Hicks, whose daughter died at Hillsborough, and for sure he spoke for the other families.
Kelvin McKenzie has built his reputation as the “say-it-like-it-is” big bruiser of British tabloid journalism. During a lifetime working in the foulest sections of the press he has cultivated an image as someone who you can disagree with (indeed he invites it with relish) but has to be respected for his fearless and independent-mind.
Another part of his persona is that of “man of the people”. Whereas liberal-lefties bleat on about “ordinary people” and the working class, he understands instinctively their concerns and priorities and makes it his mission to let these instincts shape his papers.
The proof that only he has his finger close to the pulse of the masses, he would claim, is the huge and increased sales of the papers he worked on. His view of the typical Sun reader: “He’s the bloke you see in the pub, a right old fascist, wants to send the wogs back, buy his poxy council house, he’s afraid of the unions, afraid of the Russians, hates the queers and the weirdos and drug dealers. He doesn’t want to hear about that stuff (serious news)”. The content of the Sun and News of the World has for decades both reflected and reinforced this toxic fusion of pandering to and sneering at their own readers. McKenzie and his ilk get away with this most of the time because the prejudices he talks about are real, even if not as widespread and deep-rooted as he thinks. They have a certain appeal amongst the most exploited and socially disenfranchised sections of (in particular) the white working class. The Hillsborough tragedy has from the start been a powerful reminder of the limits of this take on our class.
This time McKenzie was promoting an essentially middle-class prejudice (football fans are all drunken hooligans) to a largely working-class audience whose lived experience suspected it to be lies.
The vast majority of their demographic follows football keenly. Many Sun readers will have experienced huge and dangerous football crowds, brutal policing and shoddy, unsafe stadiums.
In 1989 the paper’s editor published the kind of prejudice they routinely print about travellers, immigrants and strikers only this time it was about a demographic their readers know all too well. Prejudice relies for its power on ignorance. Sun readers are not by and large ignorant about football supporters or the issues they faced at British grounds before Hillsborough. An attempt to blame fans for an event as grotesque as Hillsborough was always going to be hard to carry off.
So why did McKenzie think he could get away with it?
This was the high point of Thatcherism. The police had been given extensive powers to deal with the 1984-5 miners’ strike and after the Tory victory were basking in more than usual licence and political protection. The South Yorkshire Police had been in the forefront of confrontation with strikers. Local government power had been decisively defeated after a poorly-led battle with a few left-Labour councils. By far the biggest stand-off had been between the Thatcher government and Liverpool City Council.
For people like McKenzie the working class people of Liverpool were no more than feckless, commie-supporting skivers. But the South Yorkshire Police were the very epitome of the upstanding Briton the Sun aspired to lead. And just as the tide of history was bringing the upstanding Britons to the surface it was drowning the strike-happy socialists of Liverpool forever. Drunk on Thatcherite hubris McKenzie launched his attack and assumed the “blokes in the pub” would cheer him on.
Kelvin’s defence of the Hillsborough story has wavered along the way but never out of any genuine rethink. In 1993 he was forced by Rupert Murdoch [thinking about damage to his business] to appear on BBC Radio to apologise for the front page, calling it “a rather serious error”. The same year he appeared in front of a Commons Select Committee and described it as “a fundamental mistake”, blaming the chief superintendent of South Yorkshire Police and a Tory MP for providing the information. These were not sincere regrets but cynical attempts to overcome a phenomenally successful boycott of the Sun across Merseyside.
Speaking to what he thought was a private audience in 2006 McKenzie revealed that “I only did that (went on ‘World at One’ to apologise) because Rupert Murdoch told me to. I wasn’t sorry then and I’m not sorry now because we told the truth”.
In 2007 McKenzie appeared on BBC’s ‘Question Time’ and refused again to apologise. More than that, he repeated the claim that ticketless fans had been responsible for the disaster. And last week his “profuse apology” was a grudging, cowardly affair, concerned more with passing the blame onto his sources than taking responsibility for his own shameful role.
McKenzie doesn’t matter anymore. Trevor Hicks of the Families Campaign was right to respond to his apology by describing him as “low-life, clever low-life but low-life”. His reputation and ability to promote his poisonous ideas will hopefully never recover. More important is that our class learns the one lesson that could strengthen us long into the future.
What the Sun and papers like it print about immigrants, asylum seekers, strikers and benefit claimants is no more reliable or honest than what it printed about the Liverpool fans in 1989. Like the families we will only get justice when we unite in solidarity with each other to fight for it.