No-one ever expected the Hillsborough files to significantly alter the perception of the Hillsborough disaster and its aftermath. The de facto truth over what actually transpired on that day has been slowly stitched together by various journalists over the years; the drip of revelations over how journalists, police, emergency services and politicians conspired to divert blame for the tragedy slowly combined to draw a picture of widespread collusion, deceit and malice.
Reactions have ranged from anger to sadness, but have overwhelmingly revealed shock that a country can so easily turn on its own people.
Liverpool Football Club fans have been completely exonerated of any blame for the tragedy by the findings of Bishop James Jones. In light of the new evidence there’s been a deafening chorus of sorrow and regret from government, political parties, football clubs and other government agencies.
It has been revealed that South Yorkshire police deleted 116 negative comments from testimonies. Again, it’s been known for some time that individual police officers were aghast at their force’s response to the disaster, directly contradicting some elements of the official South Yorkshire police line. David Duckinfield, then in charge of South Yorkshire police, was quickly pensioned off under ill health, castigated for his role on the disaster by the Taylor Inquiry and narrowly escaped a private prosecution 12 years ago.
The Attorney General is currently considering applying to the High Court to reopen the controversial official inquests into what happened on that day in April 1989. Private and criminal prosecutions – and a new official inquiry – have been mooted.
“Not enough people in this country understand what the people of Merseyside have been through,” David Cameron said. Ed Miliband apologised on behalf of successive Labour governments. Sheffield Wednesday Football Club has apologised, South Yorkshire Police has apologised.
Even the Sun journalist who wrote the story that claimed Liverpool fans urinated on police and picked the pockets of corpses at Hillsborough has apologised, even though he appeared not to know or care if the allegations were true. But, as was already understood, he wasn’t responsible for the headline – The Truth – that so enraged people. Simply, The Sun published the allegations as fact; other news outlets labelled the allegations as just that.
One individual who had not shown contrition – perhaps the one who has the most reason to apologise for his behaviour in the intervening decades – is Kelvin Mackenzie, then editor of The Sun.
Mackenzie has remained unapologetic for his behaviour in the aftermath, barring a cursory apology forced from him by Rupert Murdoch that has been subsequently retracted. The former Sun editor has continued to repeat the slurs again and again, defending their repetition on the false basis that a Liverpool journalist first came up with the allegations.
In fact, as has again been long known, the sources were Tory MP Irvine Patnick and a South Yorkshire news agency. Both were believed to have been briefed by South Yorkshire police and passed on the allegations to several national newspaper journalists – unwitting dupes, we assume, who went on to do the police force’s dirty work for them.
Much of this can be laid at the door of attempts to escape the blame by South Yorkshire police, seeding local media with lies to deflect attention from their own mistakes; a pitiful, pathetic reason to condemn grieving families to 23 years of despair over their inability to find some simple truths over how and why their loved ones perished.
The official line on events now lays the blame at a grisly collection of organisations with agendas to dodge the blame – and individuals with axes to grind. There has been apology and admission from many sides.
Yet, for some time today, one key player who has been among the most voluble on the subject was silent. Kelvin MacKenzie – so often to be seen on the comfy sofas of the BBC – had been refusing media requests.
It looked like the self-styled voice of the people had lost his defining trait; the ability to professionally chunter his tiresome opinions for cash. In the face of his flimsy defence being whittled away to nothing, surely MacKenzie could not maintain his stubborn refusal to accept the facts as acknowledged by everyone else?
Even – eventually – for MacKenzie, the penny appears to have dropped that he was played like a violin all those years ago. Rather than simply admitting that he wished he had published the slurs as mere allegations, rather than fact, all those years ago – his chosen line on the coverage recently – MacKenzie has now offered a ‘profuse apology’ to the people of Liverpool.
Yet even MacKenzie’s apology seems self-serving. He was misled, he says, by police forces, news agencies and a local MP. He received the allegations ‘in good faith’. Not me, guv.
MacKenzie also apologises, specifically, for ‘that headline’ rather than the story and his subsequent 23 years of repeating and backing up the original accusations. It is unlikely to be well received on Merseyside.
That Kelvin MacKenzie remained the last voice holding out against all reason, all evidence, was telling; the measure of the man. That he remained a willing thorn in the side of people who have suffered and were without blame for over two decades was unforgiveable.
What to make of this new apology then? What does MacKenzie know now that he did not over the last 23 years? What can he possibly have seen today that was not – as we have seen – widely known already? The answer is nothing.
But the Hillsborough files have removed whatever fig-leaf of protection MacKenzie could hide behind. What we are left with looks very much like a strategic move, designed to keep him on-side with the media – the BBC particularly – who have bizarrely offered him a platform over the years; like a last-gasp admission from a criminal when faced with insurmountable evidence of his wrongdoing, proffered in an effort to curry favour.
Whether his late mea culpa – over eight thousand days after The Sun printed those notorious headlines; those horrific deceits – is enough to save his broadcasting career remains to be seen.
Shorn of even the hint of a believable defence, the years that Mackenzie spent denigrating the names of those 96 dead football fans will surely alert the country to what the people of Liverpool have known all along.
Update: Kelvin MacKenzie has written an article for The Spectator in which he says that South Yorkshire Police and Irvine Patnick owe him an apology. The former Sun editor has instructed his lawyers to seek an apology from the police force in light of the vilification from the people of Liverpool.
MacKenzie says he has been “deeply affected by the affair” and though he is not a victim he has “suffered collateral damage” – adding that were he to visit Liverpool his life would be threatened.
He also suggests that he was fitted up by the police force, while Patnick added weight to the story.
A South Yorkshire Police spokesman said the force “awaits Mr MacKenzie’s letter with interest” and points out that while the rumours that sprung from the police force and the Tory MP were widely reported, MacKenzie chose to back them with the headline ‘The Truth’.
As we pointed out above, much of the story relating to how the media reported Hillsborough was already widely known, so we’re unsure why MacKenzie had not previously made a fulsome apology to the people of Liverpool. We might go on to question the motivation of Kelvin’s demands now that the Hillsborough files have laid bare the thin justification for his behaviour over 23 years.