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Hillsborough: A Convenient Source

THERE are innumerable reasons why Kelvin MacKenzie’s apology for The Sun’s contemptible coverage of the Hillsborough disaster ought not to be greeted as an unequivocal show of candour, but rather a derisory and disingenuous sham. Many on Merseyside, quite rightly, point out that no apology, no matter how earnest, could ever suffice for a story which besmirched a city, pained families reeling with grief, and cast a shadow of the fourth estate for years to come.

Sincerity, however, has seldom been a trait readily associated with MacKenzie, editor of The Sun between 1981 and 1984, and the statement he issued yesterday in the wake of the Hillsborough Independent Panel’s remarkable report continues that long and ignominious tradition.

I wrote about the independent panel’s findings extensively for The Scotsman (below) and the dizzying scope of its disclosure meant that the controversy surrounding The Sun’s infamous front-page report, ‘The Truth’, played second fiddle to the key issues of the day – the calls for criminal prosecutions, and the scale of the deceit on the part on South Yorkshire Police.

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However, the panel’s website has made available to the public the vast majority of the hundreds of thousands of documents its members have pored over during the last 18 months. One in particular pours scorn on MacKenzie’s statement that he had “absolutely no reason to believe that these authority figures would lie and deceive over such a disaster.”

It emerged yesterday that a primary source for The Sun’s story was Irvine Patnick, a Tory MP who was knighted in 1994, and lost his seat in the House of Commons three years afterwards. MacKenzie claimed that the story came from White’s, a Sheffield news agency. Indeed, the original report quoted several anonymous police officers, but Patnick went on the record to back claims that police had been assaulted and urinated on by supporters, having spoken to officers. “I have kept quiet about this because I did not want to inflame a delicate situation,” Patnick told the agency, “but it is a fact that these are the stories they told me and they had no reason to lie.”

However, in the dark days which followed Hillsborough, it seems that Patnick took a leap of faith in placing such fulsome trust in those officers he spoke to. In a letter to the chief constable of West Midlands Police, written on 19 April, 1989, Patnick recalls how he was far from Hillsborough as the gruesome scenes were playing out. Indeed, at around 3pm, he was cocooned in his home office, typing on a word processor, when his wife alerted him to the fraught scenes playing out on television.

At around 9.30pm that night, Patnick visited the transport department of South Yorkshire Police at, where he was asked by a chief superintendent to speak with some of the officers who had been on duty at the stadium and were “down in the dumps.”

Patnick related a “frosty” atmosphere among the rank and file, and was approached by one, unnamed officer, who asked of him, “Did I want to know the truth?” The allegations which followed included some particularly lurid details which were even excised from The Sun’s copy.

To directly quote from Patnick’s recollections (below) he said: “I was taken back to his table and from police officers around this table I heard the following which I will try to convey. Just as I heard it.

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“’Some of the supporters were pissed out of their minds. They were pissing on us while we were pulling the dead and injured out they were swearing at us kicking and punching us and hampering our work’.

“One seated showed me the marks of the kicks on his left trouser leg and the marks on his skin. Another one informed how the crowd had lifted up a police horse, how the fans had been crawling beneath the horses and inquired if I was like him and gave them a wide berth I affirmed this.

“One said ‘I picked up a girl she was dead she was in my arms her blouse was torn she had no bra on her breasts were exposed when someone shouted at me throw over here we’ll fuck her. It was booze that did it – you speak up for us tell them in Parliament wbat happened.’”

Significantly, Patnick recalls some final exchanges, held with an undisclosed number of senior police officials, adding: “I was advised by senior officers to take what had been said ‘with a pinch of salt’.”

Towards the end of the correspondence, Patnick admits that he was aware of neither the names, ranks, nor numbers of the officers he had spoken with initially, but said he believed “they were telling me the truth.”

What is unclear from the tranche of correspondence unveiled yesterday is whether Patnick related to press agencies in Sheffield, or indeed, The Sun, the circumstances by which he learned of events at Hillsborough – namely, not just that accounts came second-hand, but that he had been explicitly warned about putting faith in their credence.

As editor, it is unlikely MacKenzie would have spoken to Patnick directly, but given the contentious nature of the story, it was surely incumbent on him to ascertain from his reporter, or the press agency, the origins of the claims. Even if Patnick was not forthcoming with such details, it was The Sun’s duty to ask him. The most rudimentary of questioning would have shed light on the fact there was no consensus among police regarding what happened, and his credentials as a source were negligible at best.

With the candid disclosure brought about by the Hillsborough Independent Panel, there are calls for Patnick to be stripped of his knighthood. Certainly, his actions were remiss, but the focus should instead fall on Mackenzie and South Yorkshire Police. Patnick may claim he did not know the identity of the officers who spoke to that night in April 1989, but unwittingly, the former Sun editor may be able to shed light on that.

Back in 1993, when he was still at the helm, he appeared before the the Commons National Heritage Select Committee. “I regret Hillsborough,” he told MPs. “It was a fundamental mistake. The mistake was I believed what an MP said. It was a Tory MP. If he had not said it and the chief superintendent had not agreed with it, we would have gone with it.”

It is reasonable to infer from that statement that MacKenzie, or his staff, did not just rely on the agency copy, but instead sought to corroborate the claims – in the White’s article, there is no explicit mention of a chief superintendent. Did The Sun speak to him or Patnick directly, and if so, were they warned against trusting the accounts, just as Patnick had been?

This, of course, is just one of a raft of questions to emerge after yesterday’s report, and while others may assume more importance over the coming days and weeks, the scrutiny of MacKenzie’s sources ought not to be ignored. Having already been rejected out of hand by many, his “profuse apologies” mean little to the people of Liverpool, where he will remain a vilified figure. But we must not construe his supposed atonement as closure to 23 years of hurt. ‘The Truth’ has yet to out.

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About martynmcl

Senior reporter at The Scotsman and Scotland on Sunday. Views here, however, are personal.

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