In a few weeks’ time, a couple I have been friends with for the best part of 20 years will be holding a bat mitzvah for their daughter. Anyone who knows even a little about Judaism will know the importance of the event: a celebration for a girl reaching 12, and a great excuse for a great party for friends and families. I would love to have gone but I won’t be there. You see: it’s in Liverpool. And I knew from the emails over the past 23 years and from the anonymous keyboard warriors of Twitter that were I to be seen in the city I would literally be in mortal danger. I am not exaggerating.
So how did I end up being such a hate figure for a city and a club that I (and the paper I edited) had nothing but warm thoughts about prior to that ghastly day at Hillsborough in April 1989? The trap was sprung on me when I was handed copy from a reputable news agency, Whites of Sheffield. Its story made astonishing allegations claiming Liverpool fans had pickpocketed the dead and urinated on the police as the appalling tragedy on the terraces unfolded.
Was it credible? The news agency made clear that the story was sourced from not one but four senior officers from South Yorkshire Police, and corroborated by a South Yorkshire chief ambulance officer. The final proof that the story was copper-bottomed was that Irvine Patnick, a prominent and respectable local Conservative MP, supported the police’s version of events — even revealing that he had visited officers after the deaths of the 96 fans and one had approached asking whether he wanted to know ‘the truth’.
I believed it, and not out of naivety. At the age of 43, I was already an experienced journalist. I had been editor of the Sun for eight years by 1989, and before that I had been night editor of the Daily Express and night managing editor of the New York Post. So I was used to handling big stories and used to seeing copy based on background briefings by senior police officers. When there is a particularly grisly murder (and it’s in their interests) the police are extremely helpful with information, most of it on deep background. There is never a question that what you are being told isn’t true. And you reported it as such. No ‘alleged’, no ‘thought to be’, no ‘one theory is’.
Of course the 1980s was a more respectful decade. But even allowing for that, why shouldn’t I believe what four senior officers had told the partners of a local news agency that had had not just a good but an unblemished record?
So I thought nothing of running the story with the headline ‘The Truth’. There was not a doubt in my mind — and I was by no means the only man in Fleet Street who believed the police’s story. The Daily Star headline on the same day said ‘Dead fans robbed by drunk fans’. The Daily Mail said, ‘They were drunk and violent and their actions were vile.’ The Daily Express said, ‘Police saw “sick spectacle of pilfering from the dying”.’ All of these stories are collected in the Hillsborough Independent Panel report: I was far from alone.
As the report also shows, even a fine journalist like Peter McKay was taken in by police deflecting their mistakes on to the fans when he wrote in the London Evening Standard that the ‘catastrophe was caused first and foremost by violent enthusiasm for soccer and in this case the tribal passions of Liverpool supporters [who] literally killed themselves and others to be at the game.’ And closer to home in the Liverpool Daily Post, John Williams wrote: ‘The gatecrashers wreaked their fatal havoc … Their uncontrolled fanaticism and mass hysteria… literally squeezed the life out of men, women and children … yobbism at its most base … Scouse killed Scouse for no better reason than 22 men were kicking a ball.’ It is difficult to accuse him of an anti-Liverpool bias.
But the Liverpool fans didn’t turn on other media, only the Sun. That has always puzzled me. Was it picked out because the paper had always backed Thatcher, while the city had always been pro-Labour? The Sun had always enjoyed a good relationship with the city — demonstrated by its -parent company, News International, ignoring the blandishments of other towns and picking Knowsley for its northern building plant and employing hundreds of local -people.
The idea that the Sun was somehow alone in concocting the story took root. People in Liverpool stopped buying the newspaper and put pressure on me to apologise. It’s true that, following an order from Rupert Murdoch, I went on the Radio 4’s World at One a few days after the headline with a mumbled apology. But I didn’t really have my heart in it. After all, I still believed that the agency story had come from the top. Where was the proof that the Liverpool fans were telling The Truth?
Now I know — you know, we all know — that the fans were right. But it took 23 years, two inquiries, one inquest and research into 400,000 documents, many of which were kept secret under the 30-year no-publication rule, to discover there was a vast cover-up by South Yorkshire Police about the disaster. Where does that leave me?
There can be no doubt I have been -deeply affected by the affair. I am not a victim, clearly, certainly not in the way the dead or their families are. But I have suffered -collateral damage. It would be unwise for me to go to certain areas of the -north-west on business. Even the other day at Waterloo station a portly, balding chap pushing a bike shouted ‘liar!’ at me.
Police have increased patrols around my house and Channel 4 has found something interesting to put on its lamentable news programme but the people who have got away scot-free are South Yorkshire Police.
This week my lawyer, Ian Rosenblatt, sent a letter to South Yorkshire Police explaining that the lies their officers told to the news agency had led to my personal vilification for decades and that on that basis I was seeking an apology in terms to be agreed between us. I hope that after 23 years we can all agree on the truth.