Belfast Telegraph

Liverpool was not shocked by phone-hacking scandal

By Rogan Taylor

As the nation reeled from the shock of discovering that a News International tabloid had hacked into Millie Dowler's phone, listened to (and deleted) messages to make space for more, and considerably added to the grief of her parents and loved-ones, there was one place where it came as no surprise - Liverpool.

We had visited this particular circle of hell before, back in 1989, just a couple of days after the Hillsborough disaster, when The Sun published an outrageous attack on the Liverpool fans at the game.

Under the banner headline "The Truth", it alleged that they urinated on "brave cops" helping the stricken and picked the pockets of their own dead. The suffering this front page inflicted on the grieving families of the 96 dead fans was devastating to witness.

The Sun's calumny was clearly an attempt to smear the fans to support the police contention that the supporters were ungovernable.

The essence of this 'defence' was clear within minutes of the disaster unfolding. For the unfortunate Graham Kelly, the newly- appointed head of the FA, the cup semi-final, on April 15, 1989, was his first official engagement.

Within minutes of the tragedy, Kelly made his way to the police observation box where match-commander, Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield, was in post and asked what happened. He told Kelly that the fans had broken the gates down and rushed into the stadium. In other words: blame the fans. It was a lie.

In the event, Lord Justice Taylor's Inquiry principally blamed the police. But the Hillsborough families have never received justice. That is why the recent petition to the Government - urging disclosure of all relevant documents - went from a couple of dozen signatures to more than 100,000 in just a few days.

Many documents have been made available in the past two years following a BBC request under freedom of information. They were released via an independent panel set up for the purpose - but did not include Cabinet minutes, or records of discussions by then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher.

The current Information Minister, Christopher Graham, acceded to the BBC's request for these documents last month, but insisted that their general publication be 'managed' by and through the independent panel.

However, under its terms of reference, the panel may not disclose information about the views of ministers at the time because this would "undermine Cabinet collective responsibility".

What these records of discussions among the Cabinet and others hold is unknown. At the time, Mrs Thatcher appeared sympathetic to the police view. She didn't like football; it was a bloody nuisance and a constant embarrassment when English fans caused trouble abroad.

She announced her intention to "sort football out" once and for all with potentially the most damaging piece of legislation for the professional game which would require fans to buy computer-readable ID cards before they could attend a match.

In spite of intense resistance from every organised group in the game, including referees, the FA, the Football League and, most especially, the fans through their national campaign led by the Football Supporters' Association, by the time Hillsborough happened, the 'ID Card Bill', as it was unpopularly known, was awaiting the formality of a third reading, though, subsequently, Lord Taylor's report dismissed the scheme as unworkable.

After Hillsborough and The Sun's headlines, many people in Liverpool suspected a triumvirate of Establishment powers conniving to serve each other's interests and 'blame the fans' worked for everyone. In fact, it's exactly the same trio so recently caught up in the phone-hacking scandal.

The police (then the South Yorkshire Constabulary); News International (The Sun) and politicians (including local Conservative MPs in Sheffield and the Prime Minister herself). It would be very interesting if the disclosure of minutes of discussions at the heart of government lent any support to these suspicions.

Meanwhile, the Hillsborough families and their supporters battle on. Most of the fans who died were under 30; more than one-third were teenagers; the youngest was 10 years old.

The loss of so many young people at a football match one sunny afternoon has left an indelible scar. When Murdoch Snr was recently questioned in the Commons by the select committee, one MP referred him to that infamous Sun headline. It was clear the 80-year-old Rupert had no memory of it. Not so in Liverpool.

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