The comedian Jimmy Carr is not necessarily a guy you would trust on much, but he was spot on the other day when he said that the Hillsborough disaster was something you would never joke about. Of course not, but it seems you can’t have even a sliver of a divergent view. Now, thanks to the timorousness of one of the world’s major football clubs, and the pusillanimity of the Premier League, a bitter little drama is being played out that could have savage implications for freedom of the press.
Early in February this year Liverpool FC announced that the Sun would be banned from all home facilities, Anfield and the club’s Melwood training ground; the paper would not be allowed into home games and its Liverpool reporter would be given no access to players or the manager. This was a result of the newspaper’s notorious coverage of the aftermath of the disaster, nearly 28 years ago, when it carried damaging and false allegations about the behaviour of Liverpool fans — coverage for which the paper and its editors have repeatedly apologised.
It is hard to establish where the decision came from in the senior Liverpool hierarchy, but I understand that the club’s owner, John Henry, founder of the Boston-based Fenway Sports Group, was not involved. He is said to be ‘embarrassed’, as well he might be since Fenway also owns the Boston Globe, which makes hay whenever President Trump tries a similar stunt.
At the root of the latest ban is a group calling itself ‘Total Eclipse of the S*n’. It claims to have more than 30,000 supporters but my guess is that represents clicks on its social media page. They are separate from the families of the 96 Hillsborough victims — a disparate group, both in where they live and in their long-term aims. Total Eclipse is about what its title suggests. It has already pressured many cab drivers to refuse passengers carrying the Sun, is forcing supermarkets as well as small newsagents to stop stocking it, and is piling pressure not just on Liverpool City Council, but Preston, Wirral and even Derry in Northern Ireland, a stronghold of Liverpool support. It is said to be trying to force Everton to ban the Sun too.
Liverpool gets a great deal of Sun cash via its goals clips app. The club also comes in for a small fortune from Sky TV, which is of course partly owned by Rupert Murdoch, whose News UK group owns the Sun. But these anomalies don’t seem to bother the club. The Sun is also a stakeholder in the Premier League, whose behaviour over this episode has been woeful. Rather than defending the paper it has said that clubs can give accreditation to whoever they like. It is too feeble to insist that Liverpool lets the Sun in, in the way that American football’s NFL mandates teams to give transparent and open access.
Currently, Liverpool is sitting so far atop the high moral ground it is hard to see how it can climb down. The paper wants to sort things out at a local level. There is a nuclear option of trying to get Murdoch and John Henry together, and both men have good access to President Trump, but that raises the stakes astronomically. My hope would be that Liverpool quietly drops the ban over the summer. I am not holding my breath.
Out of the appalling tragedy of Hillsborough has emerged the shape of modern British football; its stadiums, its massive audiences, its wealth. Out of the sadness too has come a belated justice, and the corruption at the heart of South Yorkshire police was finally laid bare in the inquest. No one could watch the families emerge on to the steps of Warrington Crown Court last April to sing ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ after the verdict without shedding a tear. But it seems an ominous reason, now, 28 years later, to prevent one football reporter from doing his job. Who knows what could come next? First they come for the Sun…