Endings are important: they help us to tell a story that is memorable.
This week’s ending is especially important. For the families of those killed in the Hillsborough disaster it represents something truly incredible: a resolution many never expected to see.
For those of us who teach journalism it represents an important opportunity: to tell that story – and make it memorable – to the next generation of journalists, in the hope that they avoid making the same mistakes.
It is a story every bit as important as Watergate or the Thalidomide scandal in the history of journalism, with the potential to teach so much more.
It is a story which begins with one of the most famous mistakes in UK journalism: The Sun’s front page story on ‘The Truth’ of the Hillsborough disaster.
Truth is at the heart of a journalist’s claim to legitimacy. The story of how The Sun got it wrong is part of that bigger story:
“The newspaper, edited at the time by Kelvin MacKenzie, who was personally responsible for the headline The Truth, ran claims from anonymous police officers that, as people were dying at Hillsborough, their fellow supporters stole from them, urinated on police officers and beat up “brave cops” trying to help.
“The stories were initially defended by the paper as vital reporting of the truth, but it emerged in 2012 that they were sent by a Sheffield news agency, White’s, and run by the Sun almost verbatim.”
Famously, the people of Liverpool boycotted The Sun and continued to do so for decades.
But it was not just The Sun that got the facts wrong.
In his detailed report on the disaster, David Conn reminds us that BBC commentators also reported police claims as fact:
“This fiction, that fans without tickets had forced the gate, had already found its way to the BBC, reported as a version by John Motson, the television match commentator, at 3.13pm. Alan Green, commentator for BBC Radio 2, broadcast an unconfirmed report of “a broken-down door” at 3.40pm, then at 4.30pm he reported that police had said “a gate was forced” – the police story of misbehaviour settling on the initial public consciousness.”
It is a very simple story: people lie.
But it’s all the more important for that: at 18 or 21 it is easy, even habitual, not to question what you have been told, especially if it comes from a ‘reputable’ source. Developing techniques (even habits) for doing so is vital.
Avoiding excuses is too. You might claim “I’m only reporting what he said”, and that’s where we hit the ethics.
Here’s another simple story: lies hurt people.
Lies also protect the incompetent and corrupt, who go on to hurt more people. Discuss.
Sometimes, this story tells us, a source has told you a lie without realising it: with Hillsborough the lie was propagated not only by the police but by a local MP (who had been fed the lie in a police bar).
And that very reputable quality is the key to exploring methods of challenging such claims: “if this is true, you must have evidence?”
Eye witness footage
Would such a mistake be made these days, in an age when every football fan can capture and broadcast eye witness footage live? That’s another story to tell.
Not only do we live in an era of mass social media, we also live in an era of news management, crisis communication and publishing stories direct to a public without news organisations acting as intermediaries.
In some cases this includes techniques such as sockpuppetry and astroturfing.
These techniques bring the story up to date too: what is the role of the journalist when anyone can publish to anyone? Is it merely to report what someone said? Or is it something deeper?
Why might people lie to you when they can lie without an intermediary? For the same reason that police lied to the MP in the police bar: they will lie because they want to exploit your position of authority and relationships of trust.
This, then, means recognising and exploring what that position means: what do we expect from journalists? And by extension what do we expect of ourselves?
I said that endings were important – but the ending here is not the victory in court: it is a victory that took place in the newsroom the day after the verdicts.
The Times – part of the news group that owns The Sun – did not run the Hillsborough verdict on its first edition this week.
Then journalists staged a ‘mutiny’.
The result was a front page that led with a picture of the Hillsborough families.
It is a small victory, but one which highlights that it is not just sources that we fight with in journalism: the internal battles – sometimes, helpfully, backed by loud voices on social media – are just as important too.
The Sun was widely criticised for ignoring the judgement on its front page, an aspect of this story which highlights that not reporting a story, or giving it due prominence, is itself a political act:
“All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”
(For a special twist, note that women are not given due prominence that quote.)
Good journalists fight to report what is important, and fight to report it well. Back in 1989 some journalists were reporting alternate versions of events too, and over the 27 years since have fought to dig into the story again and again.
Sometimes stories just take longer to get right.
and qualified privilege isn’t a reason to not check the facts.
It’s impossible to understate the impact of The Truth front page on the city of Liverpool. I was a student living in the city in 1989 and had many Liverpudlian friends. On the day of the disaster I was at a wedding in the city centre as news began to emerge of a tragedy at Hillsborough. That night the city’s pubs were eerily empty, its people united in a sense of helplessness and grief. Every Liverpudlian I knew was affected – everyone knew someone who had been at the match, it seemed. When The Sun hit the newstands just a few days later, I remember seeing it on a display and being truly horrified by its insensitivity. In my future years in a newsroom, when confronted with a tragedy, I always tried to remember that I was writing or editing a page that the families involved would read and reflect on. It ensured that even when I was dealing with uncomfortable truths, and especially allegations or half truths, it was done with what I hope was real humanity. Even if there had turned out to be any “truth” at all in the claims made by the Sun that day, there was something about that front page and the language it used that was so cruel as to be unfathomable. A bleak day for journalism indeed.