LIVERPOOL'S TOTAL ECLIPSE OF THE SUN REMAINS SYMBOLIC AND IS HERE TO STAY
BY DANIEL DOLADO-HOLLYMAN
As a well established and influential media presence, the Sun remains Britain’s most popular printed newspaper. Selling around 1.5 million copies a day, a glance at its morning headlines on the train or in the newsagents is practically unavoidable. Yet for almost thirty years, the paper has rarely been sighted on Merseyside and even today, one would struggle to get hands on a copy.
Following the tragic events at Hillsborough in April 1989, during which ninety-six Liverpool football fans lost their lives, the Sun published its infamous ‘The Truth’ article which falsely blamed Liverpool fans for their own fate and created negative stereotypes that have lasted for decades. Liverpool fans and the bereaved families were rightly outraged by the allegations and as a result, a unique moral battle was waged against the newspaper.
The Hillsborough Justice Campaign Group (HJCG) and Liverpool Football Club spearheaded a city-wide campaign to boycott the paper - a decision that has had its fair share of opponents over the years. But why has this issue resurfaced now? In light of the Hillsborough inquests ruling the ninety-six were unlawfully killed and the ongoing prosecutions, most would agree that a degree of justice has been brought to the families affected by the tragedy, albeit belated. As these inquests come to a close and the real truth becomes clear for all to see, various commentators have suggested that now would be a good time for the city to move on from the dispute.
Twenty-eight years on however, and the boycott’s emotional significance still reaches deep into the heart of the local community. Take a walk around the city and you’ll soon find evidence of resilient local support; from banners in shop windows to a new fleet of anti-Sun taxis refusing to take anyone who even mentions its name. This issue has far from faded away. Interestingly, support for the campaign has actually grown since the inquests. A renewed surge from the HJCG prompted further backing from Liverpool city council along with both Merseyside football clubs taking measures to completely ban Sun journalists from their training facilities and stadiums earlier this year – reconciliation, it would seem, is the last thing on anyone’s mind. This community was wrongly attacked and made an embarrassment of by the very institutions that exist to represent us – something very difficult to forgive, even after all this time.
Nonetheless, attempts to reconcile have been made by the Rupert Murdoch-owned paper. In 2012 it released a front page apology expressing its deep regret over the way it reported the Hillsborough disaster and describing initial allegations as its ‘gravest error’. This sudden apologetic tone was met with little more than a few groans and a shrug of the shoulders on Merseyside – this is not a community that forgets the past easily. In 1989, the Sun and the South Yorkshire Police were quick to organise false allegations, create damaging stereotypes and hold those bereaved with contempt in order to cover their own backs. Only after a prolonged and unprecedented struggle was the truth finally acknowledged and righteousness returned back to those affected. It is morally inconceivable that those very people who were victimised would ever return to buying the newspaper responsible for such wrongdoings.
As well as the moral arguments against the Sun making a comeback on Merseyside, there is also a wider social significance to this boycott. As police commissioners prepare to go on trial and newspaper editors continue to be sacked, it has become evident that the impacts of the disaster have reverberated right to the top of Britain’s elite. In 2012, Hillsborough campaign spokesman Peter Hooton said that the boycott is ‘symbolic’. The grander social significance is key to understanding why the boycott has been upheld for so long.
It is important to remember that Hillsborough was not merely a terrible and unnecessary tragedy, it is a stark example in modern British history of how many in power believed they were above the law. Consistently putting their own interests over and above ordinary people, the South Yorkshire Police, along with a complicit print media, took part in one of the greatest cover-ups in British judicial history that went right to the top. The Independent Police Complaints Commission uncovered that 219 officers had altered their accounts of Hillsborough to favour a version of events set out by the police and promoted by the Sun. Six people, including Hillsborough match commander David Duckenfield and former Chief Constable Sir Norman Bettison have now been prosecuted for offences related to the disaster yet, no-one in the media has ever been held to account for the harm they caused. On the contrary, former editor of the Sun, Kelvin Mackenzie, retained a column with the paper, writing derogatory articles aimed at Liverpool until just this year. These endless attacks and perpetual lies have only strengthened the consensus that the boycott is here to stay.
What Hillsborough helped to expose was a total disjunct between the interests of common people and those of powerful institutions. This was social inequality unfolding before our eyes. Today, the boycott stands as a real life expression of that disjunct and as an important reminder of past injustices. Ordinary people literally refusing to bow down to media interests – a powerful symbol of solidarity and one that should be celebrated. At a time of such distrust and disillusionment with the mainstream media, acts of solidarity at the community level become sacrosanct. Also, who’s to say that, given the opportunity, a cover-up of this nature could never happen again? The same parallels between Britain’s elite and media organizations exist today, the same media oligarch presides over the Sun newspaper as was the case in 1989.
The long battle for justice has seen much turmoil and grief, but now this story is an example of true British resolve in the face of adversity and of how the underdog can always win if there is enough persistence and love behind their fight. For the Sun, this act of defiance should serve to remind them of whose interests they exist to represent and for the people of Liverpool, the ongoing boycott stands testament to their struggle for justice and should be maintained as a beacon of solidarity and hope for all to take inspiration from.