August 4, 2009
I MET Eddie Spearritt in the Philharmonic pub overlooking Liverpool. It was a few years after 96 Liverpool football fans had been crushed to death at Hillsborough Stadium, Sheffield, on April 15, 1989. Eddie’s son, Adam, aged 14, died in his arms. The “main reason for the disaster,” Lord Justice Taylor subsequently reported, was the “failure” of the police, who had herded fans into a lethal pen.
“As I lay in my hospital bed,” Eddie said, “the hospital staff kept the Sun away from me. It’s bad enough when you lose your 14-year-old son because you’re treating him to a football match. Nothing can be worse than that. But since then I’ve had to defend him against all the rubbish printed by the Sun about everyone there being a hooligan and drinking. There was no hooliganism. During 31 days of Lord Justice Taylor’s inquiry, no blame was attributed because of alcohol. Adam never touched it in his life.”
Three days after the disaster, Kelvin MacKenzie, Rupert Murdoch’s “favorite editor,” sat down and designed the Sun front page, scribbling “THE TRUTH” in huge letters. Beneath it, he wrote three subsidiary headlines: “Some fans picked pockets of victims”…”Some fans urinated on the brave cops”…”Some fans beat up PC giving kiss of life.” All of it was false; MacKenzie was banking on anti-Liverpool prejudice.
When sales of the Sun fell by almost 40 percent on Merseyside, Murdoch ordered his favorite editor to feign penitence. BBC Radio 4 was chosen as his platform. The “sarf London” accent that was integral to MacKenzie’s fake persona as an “ordinary punter” was now a contrite, middle-class voice that fitted Radio 4. “I made a rather serious error,” said MacKenzie, who has since been back on Radio 4 in a very different mood, aggressively claiming that the Sun’s treatment of Hillsborough was merely a “vehicle for others.”
When we met, Eddie Spearritt mentioned MacKenzie and Murdoch with a dignified anger. So did Joan Traynor, who lost two sons, Christopher and Kevin, whose funeral was invaded by MacKenzie’s photographers even though Joan had asked for her family’s privacy to be respected. The picture of her sons’ coffins on the front page of a paper that had lied about the circumstances of their death so deeply upset her that for years she could barely speak about it.
Such relentless inhumanity forms the iceberg beneath the Guardian’s current exposé of Murdoch’s alleged payment of $1.7 million hush money to those whose phones his News of the World reporters have criminally invaded. “A cultural Chernobyl,” is how the German investigative journalist Reiner Luyken, based in London, described Murdoch’s effect on British life. Continue reading