Liverpool Vs The Sun: How the City Rid Itself of the UK's Biggest Paper
Charting the history of the total eclipse of The Sun.
Depending on whose estimates you believe, the city of Liverpool has cost Rupert Murdoch either a "shit ton" or a "fuck load" of money.
In an essay penned by Chris Horrie, the author of Stick It Up Your Punter!, the seminal book on the story of The Sun, he estimates that Liverpool's boycott of paper has cost News International (in 1989 prices) approximately £15 million a month for the last 28 years. If you're going by those numbers – which I am – that would make Liverpool's boycott of The Sun one of the longest and most successful boycotts the UK has ever seen. A boycott that, beyond its David vs Goliath political consumer power, strengthened a city and aided its battle for truth and justice.
When The Sun told "The Truth" on the 19th of April, 1989, the people of Liverpool had barely had a chance to bury their dead. Four days after the Hillsborough disaster – the worst sporting disaster in British history, in which 96 people were killed and countless others were left injured and traumatised – the country's biggest newspaper ran a front page claiming, among other accusations, that Liverpool fans had "picked pockets of victims", "urinated on brave cops" and "beat up PCs giving the kiss of life". The allegations, citing comments made by South Yorkshire Police and a Tory MP, were provided by a Sheffield news agency.
The allegations were lies, so the people of Liverpool boycotted the paper.
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Like most people in Liverpool, when you ask Gareth Roberts, editor of The Anfield Wrap podcast, what he remembers about the early days of the boycott, the first thing that comes to mind is the vivid images of women in Kirkby burning newspapers in the street. As Horrie points out, the demonstration was the first time newspapers had been publicly burned on British streets since the 1930s, in Jewish east London, when copies of The Daily Mail were set alight in response to their front page endorsement of British fascist Oswald Mosley and his pro-Nazi Blackshirts.
Gareth also remembers the response of other newspapers. "It wasn't just The Sun," he says. "It has to be remembered that a lot of newspapers reported similar stuff. The Sun was the only one that called it 'the truth', of course. I think the difference was that those other newspapers, including the Liverpool Daily Post, ran very different stories after and put it right, if you like, but The Sun was very resolute in defending what it said."
Despite what was clearly a commercial disaster for the paper, with sales in Merseyside dropping from 524,000 to 320,000 overnight, in the days following the infamous front page The Sun remained stubborn. Upon receiving letters of complaint from families and survivors, the paper's Managing Editor William Newman replied with an unsigned letter, part of which read:
"If the price of a free press is a boycott of our newspaper, then it is a price we will have to pay."
Numan's response arrived with many bereaved families as they were making arrangements for funerals. The letter, like most of the apologies offered by The Sun over the last 28 years, only served to harden a boycott, which – through instinctive solidarity – grew rapidly. In his autobiography, Liverpool's then manager, Kenny Dalglish, recalls a phone call he received not long after the disaster from The Sun's editor Kelvin Mackenzie, asking how they could correct the situation. Dalglish responded: "You know that big headline, 'The Truth'? All you have to do is put 'We lied' in the same size. Then you might be alright." When Mackenzie said he couldn't do that, Dalglish replied, "I cannot help you then."
As Peter Carney puts it when we sit down for a cup of tea, "The Sun didn't just sow the seeds [with the front page], they picked the fruit from that powerful tree and fed their family with it." One of the founding members of the Hillsborough Justice Campaign, Peter was a survivor of the disaster after being pulled out of the Leppings Lane pen by other fans.
When the HJC was formed in 1998, the boycott – which had previously evolved organically – was mobilised in what some refer to as part of the "street battle" for justice. The boycott was visualised with stickers, posters and other merchandise giving the boycott and battle for justice a now iconic face and utilising the match day crowd to spread the message. As always, the boycott came second to the ongoing legal and political battle for truth and justice, helping to raise awareness, resources and support.
Those who weren't in Liverpool took the boycott with them. If you ask Peter Hooton, the lead singer of Liverpool's The Farm, if he has ever come into contact with The Sun, he will admit he has the once, but not on purpose. During the height of The Farm's success they found themselves hanging out with Madness at a Capital Radio stock car racing day in London. In front of them, in a car and helmet both emblazoned with The Sun's logo, was the newspaper's then-Bizarre editor, Piers Morgan.
"I think it was Lee – the saxophone player from Madness – who went, 'There's the fuckin' Sun. What should we do?' So we charged off the podium and overturned his car on the starting line. He was screaming. We could've done society a great favour there, but we had a moment of panic and thought, 'Oh my god, this could explode and we could be charged for manslaughter or something.' But anyway, it didn't."
Pranks aside, Morgan soon got his revenge.
"This is how The Sun works," says Hooton. "[In the next day's newspaper] he'd got one of the lads who wasn't involved, put his arm around him with his helmet on, got a photograph taken [with a thumbs up and called it] 'My prank with The Farm.' The headline was 'Farm Animals', but the whole story was like, 'Me and my mates, The Farm,' and he'd just grabbed a photograph. That's the way they were trying to contrive stories at the time."
Peter adds that if the incident had happened today he would have been castigated on social media, such is the weight given to the boycott. Wayne Rooney, Mel C and John Barnes have all felt the Scouse wrath for speaking to, working with or even touching The Sun.
Peter Hooton was also instrumental in the Justice Collective Christmas single and the Justice Tonight Concert in September of 2011, originally named the Don't Buy the Sun Concert. After discussions with those involved in the HJC, organisers decided that the larger issue of injustice should be the focal point and the name was changed. The highlight of the concert was Mick Jones playing Clash songs, something he rarely did. The day after the concert, Peter recalls Jones coming into a café the next morning and saying: "This is why I joined The Clash, to pick up a guitar to fight injustice. And we're taking this on the road."
A nationwide Justice Tonight tour ensued, followed by European dates supporting The Stone Roses, with both tours raising awareness of the HJC. At the Lyon date, Eric Cantona turned up to show his support for the campaign.
Throughout the length of the boycott The Sun has offered multiple apologies, always lacking sincerity, always rejected and always inevitably followed by a Kelvin Mackenzie or editorial gaffe in relation to Liverpool further down the line. Today, it was revealed that Mackenzie will be leaving the newspaper after making comments comparing Everton player Ross Barkley – who has a Nigerian grandfather – to a gorilla, as well as further insults aimed at the people of Liverpool.
Upon the release of the Hillsborough Independent Panel report in September of 2012 and the inquest verdict of unlawful killing in April of 2016, the boycott was largely rendered symbolic. Since then, although other groups have popped up in the city with the intention of ridding The Sun entirely, the original boycott still stands. Liverpool and Everton football clubs have both banned the paper, and the city is awash with fresh stickers, posters and an army of black cabs with liveries urging shops not to sell the paper. The newspaper's current circulation in the Merseyside region is estimated to be around 10,000.
When asking people what the boycott means to them and what it says about Liverpool, the responses are always poignant and often profound. People talk about struggle, solidarity and strength in numbers. They talk about community, compassion and coping. They talk about how the boycott was the glue that kept people together, how it allowed them to believe they could achieve something, even if just a little bit, even when it looked like there was no end in sight. They speak defiantly about the battle for justice, the importance of challenging authority, about the importance of fighting so that not just football supporters, but everyone who sends their loved ones off in the morning, knows that they will be safe until they come home at night.
They also talk about identity and how people from outside of Liverpool misunderstand sometimes, how when terms like "pity city" get thrown around, what's actually happening is the opposite. There's no pity about it. It's about standing up, about saying bollocks to pity; it's a city rising up and saying your values don't align with ours, your values are the opposite of ours, so we're not going to read your shite and we're going to put another paper on top of yours so that nobody else has to go through the misfortune of seeing the cultural venom of your front page.
But the most common response of all? "They picked on the wrong city."
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