The Sun's failure to make the real truth of Hillsborough front page news was the wrong call

Paul Connew is a media commentator and broadcaster, former editor of the Sunday Mirror and Deputy Editor of the Daily Mirror, and co-author of After Leveson.

From the moment the Hillsborough inquest jury returned their momentous verdict, the Sun newspaper was staring at a no-win situation. To splash or not to splash on a result guaranteed to resurrect bitter memories of the most shameful chapter in the history of Britain's biggest-selling daily.

Call it catch-22, perhaps, but in the end the Sun's current editorial team made the wrong call, scoring a huge own goal and triggering a massive backlash in the court of public opinion by omitting a single reference to the Hillsborough story from its front page and relegating coverage to pages eight and nine, under the headline 'JUSTICE 27YRS ON'. It also printed a short leader, "Justice at last", which contained the inadequate paragraph: “The supporters were not to blame. But the police smeared them with a pack of lies which in 1989 The Sun and others in the media swallowed whole.”

It was a dismissal doomed to infuriate the Hillsborough families, and the city of Liverpool, where the Sun has long been boycotted, but also prompted a deluge of social media hostility far removed from Merseyside or the mindless trolling community. Inevitably, both on social media and among many mainstream media platforms, the image of the Sun's infamous 'The Truth' front page from 1989 was being flashed around the world like a tsunami of shame relived, with its discredited claims of drunken fans urinating on police and stealing from the dead. By any count, the Sun gave far less coverage to the Hillsborough inquest result than any other UK national newspaper, despite it dominating domestic broadcasting news bulletins and receiving huge international airtime too.

Within hours of the jury's verdict after the two-year-long marathon of Britain's longest inquest hearing, online petitions were being launched urging a nationwide boycott of the paper and the sacking of its leading columnist, Kelvin MacKenzie – the editor behind the grotesque 'The Truth' smear 27 years ago.

Tough nut MacKenzie, doorstepped by ITN on the afternoon of the verdict, looked close to tears (a sight I thought I'd never see) as he apologised to the victims’ families, slammed the South Yorkshire police but did himself no favours by implying that he, too, was some sort of victim who had been duped by the police. Later he issued a statement, saying: “As I have said before, the headline I published was wrong and I am profoundly sorry for the hurt it caused.”

Elsewhere, the Sun's political editor, Tom Newton Dunn, appearing on Sky News' nightly newspaper review, repeated that the police were the 'core' story rather than the Sun, but wisely acknowledged understanding why that 1989 front page was still the source of huge anger, saying: “We deserve everything that is thrown our way.”

Well, a helluva lot was certainly being thrown the Sun's way. For starters, the newspaper was banned from the press conference held by the Hillsborough families and their lawyers after the verdict, with a pointed opening remark to that effect in front of the live TV news cameras.

Match of the Day presenter and former England striker Gary Lineker was just one of the celebrities to take to Twitter as the Sun's Hillsborough-free front page appeared, calling the decision “as disgusting as it is unsurprising. They have no shame”.

Tony Barrett, Merseyside football writer for Sun stablemate the Times, simply tweeted 'Unbelievable' when the Sun front page emerged late last night. In fact his own paper also came under fire from critics online and elsewhere – some claiming a Murdoch empire conspiracy – for making no mention of Hillsborough in its first edition front page, although it quickly included a large page one photo of the jubilant families and a cross-reference to a thorough two-page inside spread in subsequent editions. Quite what inspired that mysterious first edition 'misjudgement' is certainly a source of much fevered private speculation among media insiders. The Times has since issued a remarkable public explanation describing the omission as a "mistake".

Meanwhile Alan Green, the BBC's match commentator on the day of the Hillsborough horror, lambasted “Kelvin Mackenzie and his cohorts” over their original coverage on the Today programme.

At this point, it's fair to point out that current Sun editor Tony Gallagher and his senior team weren't around in 1989 and bear no responsibility for that notorious front page and the legacy of contempt it has left in so many minds. It's also true that the paper's latest editorial contained this paragraph: “We apologised prominently 12 years ago, again four years ago on the front page, and do so unreservedly again now.”

But, alas, The Truth, the brutal truth, is that the failure to feature the story on its front page again in the wake of that historic inquest jury verdict was a colossal mistake. Along with the failure to publish again a fulsome, highly-prominent apology for the lying front page of 1989. If nothing else, it guaranteed that the heat would be turned up on the Sun across both social and mainstream media on an even more intense level.

Cue Metro, a newspaper better known for impartiality than scathing leaders, displaying the Sun's 1989 front page under its own 'The Truth' headline and, while blaming the police, also prominently declaring: “The cover-up strategy led to the Sun's notorious story – headlined The Truth – which wrongly said fans stole from the dead and urinated on corpses.”

Cue the Guardian, with its reference to the “spontaneous and deeply emotional outburst on the steps of the coroner's court in Warrington....after the jury had at last vindicated their long struggle to uncover the truth of what happened”. It went on: “From the first blinkered inquest that recorded a verdict of accidental death that the families never accepted, to the judge who ruled out further prosecutions after the failure of a civil case, there has been a sequence of lost opportunities... There is something repugnant in the way in which, it is now clear, the South Yorkshire police went about gathering evidence to support the narrative of blame...

Soon, sympathetic MPs and journalists were being told lies. CCTV tapes disappeared. Subsequently, evidence to the first inquiry was withheld.”

Cue the Daily Mail, which didn't splash on the Hillsborough verdict, but did feature a huge front page blurb to an inside page article by its award-winning political columnist Peter Oborne headlined: “Lies, corruption and why Hillsborough destroyed my faith in the police”. No punches pulled there then.

Cue the online Independent which made effective play of the letter written by Margaret Thatcher's chief spin doctor and close friend Sir Bernard Ingham to a victim's relative not long after the disaster. It read: “I am sorry you are disgusted with the uncomfortable truth about the real cause of the Hillsborough disaster. It is my unhappy experience to find that most reasonable people outside Merseyside recognise the truth of what I say. All I get from Merseyside is abuse. I cherish the hope that as time goes on you will recognise the truth of what I say. After all, who if not the tanked-up yobs who turned up late determined to get into the ground caused the disaster? To blame the police, even though they may have made mistakes, is contemptible”. How cruelly ironic those words sound now, though whether we'll ever learn whether Mrs Thatcher (no lover of football fans) and her team were duped by South Yorkshire police chiefs or somehow complicit in the cover-up is another huge question hanging in the post-verdict air.

Cue the Daily Mirror with its front page headline across a chilling photo of that Hillsborough tunnel of death: “Families of Hillsborough's victims have had 27 years of sleepless nights. Now it's time for those guilty of criminal negligence and a cover-up to have theirs...” Inside, under the headline, “A Dream Come True”, the Mirror featured an excoriating indictment by Brian Reade, its northern-based feature writer who has been a dedicated, digging journalistic fighter for the families from the early days of their quest for justice.

That Mirror front-page headline captured the overwhelming mood of Britain's national papers for the two ongoing police investigations to produce prosecutions against those responsible for both the bloody incompetence that caused the Hillsborough carnage and the cynical, corrupt cover-ups that came so close to concealing the truth and denying justice for the dead and the bereaved forever.

On a personal level, I was deputy editor of the News of the World that grim Saturday, 15 April 1989, when a cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest at Hillsborough suddenly turned from a joyful football occasion into the unbelievable, grotesque tragedy of Britain's biggest sporting disaster. The planned paper was ripped apart as the scale of what was happening on the newsroom TV sets around us emerged and hardened journalists looked shellshocked, some even weeping, as they continued to get on with the job of producing a newspaper full of black-bordered, chilling pages of words and pictures.

By the next morning, the reporting teams I'd got on the ground in Sheffield and Liverpool were calling me to say that the police were briefing, both on and off the record, that drunken, reckless, gate-storming Liverpool fans were to blame. But those reporters were also sceptical, cautioning against any rush to judgement and one memorably told me: “There's something fishy about this... there is the stink of dirty tricks in the air.”

But well before our next Sunday edition, stablemate the Sun and its then-editor MacKenzie had bought into the fan-blaming narrative being peddled and run that ill-fated ‘The Truth’ front page. Although no one on Merseyside will thank me for saying this, MacKenzie was a brilliant, mercurial tabloid editor, with a touch of 'genius' about him, and that's also an opinion shared by many other professionals with no time for the paper and no allegiance to Rupert Murdoch.

The brutal truth, however, is also that MacKenzie's brilliance, epitomised by his determination to produce the most dramatic, agenda-setting, memorable front pages, was his Achilles’ heel, with the inherent risk of going that extra mile too far. And 'The Truth' (now The Lie) of that memorable – for all the wrong reasons – splash was the graphic example. I have no doubt that MacKenzie's belated apologies to the Hillsborough families are sincere enough, but he should be realistic enough to accept that they'll never truly believe him. I have no doubt, either, that MacKenzie accepts that 'The Truth' is the front page catastrophe that will haunt him forever and cast a dark shadow over his undeniable successes in building up Britain's biggest-selling title.

Later, at the Daily Mirror, the reporter whose byline was on that infamous 'The Truth' splash, the late Harry Arnold, worked for me. He was never slow to remind us that he'd argued fiercely with MacKenzie not to handle the story that way because of the doubt already emerging about the police version of events and unsuccessfully requested that his name be taken off the story. “Kelvin made it bloody clear that he was the editor and he alone would decide,” recounted Harry ruefully on many occasions over the years.

Later still, I was editing a phone-in programme presented by Kirsty Young on Talk Radio (before MacKenzie bought the station and turned it into TalkSport) about Hillsborough and, among the mass of callers, there were some from people too afraid to give their full names, who claimed to be current or former South Yorkshire police officers. They told of being “heavily pressured” or even “bullied” into their statements about Hillsborough being doctored or rewritten to protect senior officers and the force's “reputation”. At the time it was impossible to know if they were genuine, although they were clearly articulate and informed, but today I have no doubt that they really were who they said they were.

Protesting on-air yesterday that he'd been 'duped' himself, MacKenzie rightly pointed out that other newspapers and broadcasters had run the police claims in the Hillsborough aftermath. But the key difference was that these were largely published and aired as disputed allegations. The Sun alone elected to produce a front page editorial that treated the police and establishment version as the undisputed gospel truth.

Which brings me back to the present day Sun and its well-regarded editor Tony Gallagher. Will his handling of the inquest outcome backfire badly amid the public backlash? And I wonder if he's already privately regretting his own decision not to make the real TRUTH of Hillsborough his splash on 27 April 2016?

Paul Connew is a media commentator, broadcaster, former editor of the Sunday Mirror, deputy editor of the Daily Mirror and deputy editor of the News of the World. He has given information to the ongoing police investigations into Hillsborough

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