Waiting for the word

PHIL Hammond once taught me a lesson about journalistic responsibility. I don’t know whether I’ve always heeded it, but I’ve not forgotten it. Boston Globe columnist Alex Beam could have done with that lesson this week.

Hammond, who was then the chairman of the Hillsborough Families Support Group, came to address a group of journalism students at the University of Central Lancashire – of which I was one – at the turn of the millennium.

He spoke honestly and emotionally about the Hillsborough disaster, in which his 14-year-old son Philip died, about the way it was reported and misreported, about the long and difficult fight for justice. Hammond’s message was that journalists had a duty to report the truth, and that misinformation can cause a great deal of damage.

For all that those bereaved by the Hillsborough tragedy have fought for truth and justice, the myths have continued to persist. Every so often, you might encounter someone who believes them.

Not long after Hammond’s visit to Preston, I spent a couple of weeks in Sheffield. One night, I got into a conversation with a middle-aged man who spoke fondly about the old days of terracing at football grounds. As we moved on to ground safety, I found myself struggling to convince him that the Hillsborough disaster was not caused by drunk Liverpool fans. He seemed to be ignorant of the Taylor Report conclusions that the deaths of 96 Liverpool fans had resulted mainly from a failure of police crowd control. I would like to think he was in a very small minority.

A couple of years ago, I went to Anfield to cover the final of the FA Sunday Cup, a national knockout competition for Sunday league teams. To pick up my press pass, I had to walk past a couple of stewards standing at the Shankly Gates. They were friendly, and happy to help me out as I explained to them that I was a journalist. “You’re not from the Sun, are you?” one of them asked. I wasn’t, but I understood what they were getting at. The newspaper’s name has been mud on Merseyside since April 1989.

Kelvin MacKenzie has proved that it is possible to print incredibly offensive statements about the Hillsborough disaster and continue to enjoy a thriving media career, which is a great shame. MacKenzie, asked on Question Time in 2007 if he stood by the lies printed in the Sun under his watch in the days after the tragedy, delivered a response that was disgustingly evasive rather than remorseful.

“They are angry with me; they want to find somebody who actually caused the disaster,” MacKenzie said, apparently oblivious to the fact that the families of those who died had by then been doing exactly that for 18 years, without anyone being held to account.

MacKenzie, it’s worth remembering, remained as editor of the Sun for another five years after falsely claiming, among other things, that Liverpool fans pickpocketed victims and urinated on police officers. It’s hard to imagine Beam will get off so lightly after an extraordinarily crass reference to the disaster in the Boston Globe earlier this week.

Beam had no reason to reference Hillsborough at all in his opinion piece, which argued that Boston Red Sox owner John Henry’s purchase of Liverpool through New England Sports Ventures will end no more successfully than the Hicks-Gillett regime that preceded it.

The style of Beam’s writing, from what I have read of his columns, is flippant and caustic, and intended to be light-hearted. It’s not a style suited to discussing Britain’s worst sporting disaster.

He describes the city as “grotty” and the fans as “bonkers”. If he had left it at that, he might have got a few Liverpool fans taking him to task for dissing the club and the city, nothing more. It was the dismissive, throwaway reference to Hillsborough which has gained him international notoriety.

“Even by the deranged standards of European soccer, Red fans are totally bonkers,” Beam wrote. “Their excitable internet fan sites are still agonizing over a 21-year-old soccer stadium riot that killed 96 people.”

The Globe, after being inundated with complaints, have since prefaced the article with a correction, changing “riot” to “disaster”. But it’s still indefensible journalism, borne of ignorance. Liverpool fans have, in the main, responded with extraordinary dignity, writing to point out Beam’s inaccuracies and stupidity rather than resorting to personal abuse.

Yet aside from the correction, the Globe have remained silent on the controversy surrounding the article. Perhaps those in charge are hoping the whole thing will blow over. If so, they are being extremely foolish. The longer the paper goes without offering an apology, the lower their stock will fall. It took the Sun until 2004 to apologise, by which time the damage had been done.

Too often, admitting to being wrong is seen as a weakness in journalism. But sometimes, sorry is the only appropriate word.

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