After 23 years, this week the official papers relating to the Hillsborough disaster are being released. Sales of The Sun are still said to be affected by that newspaper’s coverage of the tragedy, which included a headline that its own reporter on the story, Harry Arnold, has now denounced: THE TRUTH.
Arnold told a BBC documentary, screened on Sunday night, that it was his Editor, Kelvin MacKenzie, who chose this for the splash. The reporter says that he protested on his way out of the newsroom that the headline wasn’t right for allegations he made that he now says came from a news agency and will always be difficult to verify. “When I saw the headline THE TRUTH I was aghast, because that wasn’t what I’d written,” he told the BBC. “I’d merely written it, I hoped and I still believe, in a balanced, fair way. So I said to Kelvin MacKenzie, ‘You can’t say that’.”
The Editor – who has played along with the caricature of himself as a shameless tabloid hack – apparently replied: “Don’t worry. I’m going to make it clear that this is what some people are saying.”
Liverpool fans who saw the edition the next day certainly didn’t see it that way – straplines accusing them of stealing from victims and “urinating on brave cops” in fact seemed to upset them even more. But it’s hard to imagine the furniture that MacKenzie or his back bench could have crafted that would have rolled things back from THE TRUTH.
It’s so nearly a great headline. It looks like what I call a Ronseal: it does what it says on the tin. Headlines like this are useful in a serious paper, or on a tragic story where spin or wordplay wouldn’t be appropriate. On another story – on a “true” story – it could have been remembered as powerful, summing up a mood or a moment. Raw and powerful, it reminds me of a 1997 Daily Mail splash. Above individual pictures of the five men who everybody believed – but no court had been able to prove – had killed Steven Lawrence, the Mail wrote one word: MURDERERS*.
But what separates Paul Dacre’s headline from Kelvin MacKenzie’s is, of course, the truth. The Sun’s splash didn’t do what it said on the tin. They had called it too early, using the headline for the story they wanted, rather than the story they had**. This is always tempting, but take it too far and you will annoy the readers. Take it far enough, and you will alienate them for ever.
*That was the big word. The standfirst underneath, and this actually gives me goosebumps, read: The Mail accuses these men of killing. If we are wrong, let them sue us
**In fact, while searching for pictures of the Sun splash, I came across another headline that – incredibly – echoes it. The Express did a front page in 2007 that read DIANA: THE TRUTH. The straplines said that the Princess of Wales was pregnant when she died, that Dodi Fayed had bought an engagement ring for her, and that the driver of her car was not drunk. Verifying it, I find that the Express also has stories about “Diana’s psychic” and samples from the princess’s inquest being switched. We can’t know, of course, the truth about this case. But bearing in mind the heritage of that headline, and that this is The Express, I doubt it. And if I am wrong, let them sue me.