An apology from Kelvin MacKenzie over The Sun’s news coverage of the Hillsborough disaster has failed to win over victims’ families, after thousands of concealed documents outlining the full story of the tragedy came to light.
MacKenzie edited the paper when it ran its infamous front-page news story promising “The Truth” behind the events of 15 April 1989. But as the documents emerged yesterday, it became clear that the story was nothing of the sort. While the paper claimed at the time that most of the Liverpool fans involved were ticketless and drunk – and had picked victims’ pockets and urinated on police officers – an independent panel confirmed yesterday that the article was the result of smear tactics on the part of officials seeking to deflect blame for their mismanagement of the emergency response.
The devastating crowd crush at Sheffield’s Hillsborough Stadium claimed 96 lives. Following 23 years of campaigning, the victims’ families have at last received access to over 400,000 previously classified documents, which completely exonerated Liverpool supporters. Instead, they revealed an attempt by South Yorkshire Police and the emergency services to shift attention away from their own damning failures. More than 160 witness statements had been tampered with.
While MacKenzie offered his “profuse apologies to the people of Liverpool for that headline”, many were left unsatisfied by other parts of his statement, which implied that he was avoiding responsibility. “I too was totally misled,” said MacKenzie, adding: “23 [years] ago I was handed a piece of copy from a reputable news agency in Sheffield in which a senior police officer and a senior local MP were making serious allegations against fans in the stadium. I had absolutely no reason to believe that these authority figures would lie and deceive over such a disaster.”
Former Sun reporter Harry Arnold had already claimed that he was “aghast” when he saw how MacKenzie had spun his story, which he had initially intended to be “fair and balanced”. Until now, MacKenzie had refused to apologise – but in the wake of the evidence was forced to concede his error.
Reacting to the statement, Hillsborough Families Support Group chairman Trevor Hicks called the apology “too little, too late”, and it is clear that MacKenzie’s impulsive choice of angle for the Sun story – without the benefit of independent verification via such routes as witness interviews – offers a number of grave lessons for managers of news organisations.