Interview – David Conn on Hillsborough


In the second of a two-part interview, Natasha Clark speaks to Guardian sports journalist and investigative reporter David Conn about the impact of Hillsborough on football in 2014…

“96 people died. 96 people came to Sheffield to see their team play, and actually died. We cannot forget that.”

Conn speaks sombrely and yet with sheer passion about what has now been publically revealed to be an extensive police cover up, supported by bogus media reporting, most notably from the Sun’s ‘THE TRUTH’ front page, four days after the event.

“What happened at Hillsborough never should have been allowed to happen,” he says quietly. What happened for the next 23 years should also never have been allowed to happen.”

He speaks about the “21 years of silence” following Hillsborough as equally appalling as the events of the 1989 match.

“I know they were under pressure. As a journalist, you can make mistakes… but not like that. There is a huge difference between the truth and smearing.”

“96 people died. 96 people came to Sheffield to see their team play, and actually died. We cannot forget that.”

Conn highlights the remaining injustice of Hillsborough in his 20th anniversary piece which points still to unanswered questions he hopes will be tackled in the new inquest which begins on March 31. Despite this work, he seems still to be regretful that the media did not do more over the years to highlight the plight of the families affected. Getting Hillsborough back in the public eye “took a lot”.

“That’s the problem with news values, as a reporter we have to think whether it’s been done before. I always look for something new, I have to. The lack of coverage for all these years… that’s a question for the media to answer.”

Conn’s reporting, he says, included little more than getting his old files out of the garage, and calling up former Labour ministers Andy Burnham and Maria Eagle and asking them if they wanted to maintain their position. “But still, there was nothing new there.”

“At least I managed to do something that will make a difference in the end. At least [the families] know about my contribution, even if I was using the 20th anniversary as a huge peg.” He sighs deeply here; regardless of the fact that his coverage helped pull the case back into the public arena, it seems that he will always be regretful that the media didn’t do more for the last 20 years.

“I feel I took all the opportunities I had.”

If anyone ever doubted the power of the media, it is events like the Sun’s Hillsborough coverage that sway the argument firmly away from the ability of the public to have the agency to think independently.

“How was it allowed to be presented in this way?” he asks. “The veil has only just been lifted for most people. That perception of Liverpool fans as hooligans, as scum, has been allowed to prevail for 23 long years. It is incredible to think that the media coverage clouded peoples’ vision in that way.”

An independent report which showed the police cover-up led the Sun to splash ‘THE REAL TRUTH’ last year, and apologise for their coverage of the event.

What then, if anything, can the media learn from this horrific set of events and the years that followed, and what can they do to make sure it never happens again? What followed my penultimate question was the longest silence of the interview.

“There are a lot of lessons that need to be learnt. The Mirror did a good job of fact-checking the information they were given, the Sun didn’t make any follow up calls. There’s the importance of facts there, and not taking information at face value.”

“Then there’s the lesson of listening. As a journalist, this is crucial. For the families involved… every day was grief for them.” After interviewing the first family I met who lost a loved one at Hillsborough, Phil and Hilda Hammond [whose 14 year old son Philip died], in 1996 researching my book The Football Business, I understood they were loving parents who had suffered a terrible injustice.

“The judge who quashed the inquest verdict finally last year seemed to be repeating most of Phil and Hilda’s objections 17 years earlier… when I sat and listened to them for three hours at the kitchen table. It is a second Hillsborough tragedy that the injustice happened then took so long to overturn.”


What if Hillsborough happened today? Would we still see such an intense and determined cover-up of false reports, or would the advent of mass communications quash such atrocities immediately?

“The police still have a tendency to spin the line before everyone’s got their perceptions right,” Conn says, cynically. “But I suppose with many people tweeting, filming, taking pictures and recording events, we could have a lot more information. I hope it would democratise this kind of process.”

“The images of supporters being carried on advertising boards… when the police were just standing there – that was the bravery and heroism of the day, of the ordinary people. And for years, thought of as scum.

“What happened in 1989 was inexcusable.”

There is little doubt that 2014 will be a busy year for Conn, not least with the highly anticipated inquest in March and the 25th anniversary in April, but it should not be the end of remembering Hillsborough. With a new inquest, a criminal investigation and a PCC investigation due to take place, it is a prime, ironic example of the media’s lack of accountability that there will be no repercussions for the Sun or any other newspaper on the reporting of Hillsborough. It is paramount to bear this in mind and to learn from the media’s mistakes, as I am sure Conn will for the rest of his career.

@NatashaClark92; @The_False_Nine

David Conn is a sports writer for the Guardian: @David_Conn.

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