Senior lecturer Robert Minton-Taylor discusses the latest twist in a long-running story involving the police, a famous football club, and a tabloid newspaper.
It has taken 23 years for the ‘truth’ to come out that Liverpool fans were not responsible for the tragedy at the Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield which hosted the FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest football clubs in April 1989.
It is a damming indictment that it took 20 years for a government minister to call for the police, ambulance, and all other public bodies to release documents which had not been made available to the official inquiry into the disaster led by Lord Justice Taylor in 1990. That inquiry concluded that “the main reason for the disaster was the failure of police control.”
Thankfully the Taylor report’s findings resulted in the elimination of standing terraces at all major football stadiums in England, Wales and Scotland, but it did nothing to exonerate the role played by Liverpool fans who were dammed in a Sun newspaper article four days after the disaster.
The then editor of the Sun Kelvin MacKenzie headlined the front page of the paper with the words “THE TRUTH” followed by three sub-headlines: “Some fans picked pockets of victims”, “Some fans urinated on the brave cops” and “Some fans beat up PC giving kiss of life”.
Who briefed the Sun and other national newspapers on the day is an interesting question especially in light of the need today for open, honest, transparent communications between PR professionals and the media and the publics they serve.
The fact that Kelvin MacKenzie is now demanding an apology from the police for the Sun’s coverage is perplexing to say the least. Today’s Daily Mirror (27 September) says that “Kelvin MacKenzie has told his solicitors to write to South Yorkshire Police demanding an apology they they say sorry to him for allowing the smears to be passed on.”
The Sun journalist who wrote the story alleging drunken Liverpool fans abused victims and police during the Hillsborough disaster said he was “aghast” when he saw MacKenzie’s headline. Reporter Harry Arnold told the BBC his story had been written in a “fair and balanced way” and the controversial claims had been “allegations”. He said it was editor Kelvin MacKenzie who wrote the headline “The Truth”.
Correct me if I am wrong, but aren’t journalists supposed to check and double-check their sources? Relying solely on information provided by press officers and other public relations professionals to write front page stories is a serious dereliction of the duty of a journalist.
As a PR practitioner I would never presume that a journalist would simply take information from a PR person and presume that he or she was disseminating the full unexpurgated picture of an ongoing incident. I trained as a journalist and all my NCTJ training taught me that asking the who, why, what, where, when and how questions were paramount and that a single source for a story was simply not good enough.
Why weren’t these basic skills deployed at the time of writing? Could it be that ‘the facts did not fit the story’ and that cynically spinning “The Truth” headline was simply for increased newsstand sales? Surely not?