Ben Sledge 23rd July 2019
“Liverpool is a handsome city with a tribal sense of community. A combination of economic misfortune — its docks were, fundamentally, on the wrong side of England when Britain entered what is now the European Union — and an excessive predilection for welfarism have created a peculiar, and deeply unattractive, psyche among many Liverpudlians.
“They see themselves whenever possible as victims, and resent their victim status; yet at the same time they wallow in it. Part of this flawed psychological state is that they cannot accept that they might have made any contribution to their misfortunes, but seek rather to blame someone else for it, there by deepening their sense of shared tribal grievance against the rest of society.
“The deaths of more than 50 Liverpool football supporters at Hillsborough in 1989 was undeniably a greater tragedy than the single death, however horrible, of Mr Bigley; but that is no excuse for Liverpool’s failure to acknowledge, even to this day, the part played in the disaster by drunken fans at the back of the crowd who mindlessly tried to fight their way into the ground that Saturday afternoon. The police became a convenient scapegoat, and the Sun newspaper a whipping-boy for daring, albeit in a tasteless fashion, to hint at the wider causes of the incident.”
This is an excerpt from an article published on 16 October 2004, in an editorial column in The Spectator. It suggested the murder of Kenneth Bigley by a Jihadi terrorist group was somehow caused by the fact he was from Liverpool. Scousers were rightfully enraged — at both the mischaracterisation and misinformation — and Boris Johnson, The Spectator’s editor at the time, was roundly criticised.
In 2012, Simon Heffer would admit to writing the first draft and would paint Johnson as a hero character, a Steven Gerrard-esque captain leading The Spectator by example and offering to take the blame for the comments published.
He said: “[Johnson] was the editor of the magazine, and it was his duty to deal with the matter. Perhaps, though, this response was because he felt he was untouchable, for his penitent tour of Liverpool earned him more admirers.”
In hindsight, it is pretty clear that most things the new prime minister does are to improve his own chances at further success
But that is the editor’s job. The editor of any magazine, news website or newspaper is responsible for anything published in it, just as my editor is responsible for anything I may or may not write about Johnson here.
That is especially the case with an editorial column, which is published without a byline and intended to portray the views and positions of the editor and the publication, which in this case were Johnson and The Spectator.
However, Johnson clearly saw this as an opportunity for a public mea culpa to improve his own standing in Liverpool. In hindsight, it is pretty clear that most things the new prime minister does are to improve his own chances at further success and this incident serves to prove the point that privately educated white men can only fail upwards.
What would have helped Hillsborough families get some kind of closure would have been if journalists actually did some investigating
“I was very, very sorry in 2004 that the Spectator did carry an editorial that partially repeated those allegations… I do hope the families of the 96 victims will take some comfort from this report and that they can reach some sort of closure,” Johnson said in 2012, after the court ruling about police failures.
It’s all well and good (if a little patronising) to be “very, very sorry”, but what would have helped Hillsborough families get some kind of closure would have been if journalists actually did some investigating, rather than spreading rumours and regurgitating falsehoods. It was left to the grieving families to pursue justice, in spite of repeated attacks from the likes of The S*n and The Spectator, in the 30 years since the disaster.
When this editorial was printed, it was still legally unknown what caused the tragedy at Hillsborough. In 2016, courts ruled police failings were at fault for the 96 deaths by gross negligence manslaughter. The report also found Liverpool fans in no way contributed to the dangerous situation. At last the families felt like they had some kind of justice but there was still a long way to go. Earlier this year, a jury could not come to a decision on whether former chief superintendent David Duckenfield was responsible for the manslaughter of 95 fans (the 96th victim, Tony Bland, died of his injuries more than a year after the disaster and under law at the time Duckenfield cannot be tried for his death).
The editorial simply reiterated the same old stereotypes of an ‘excessive predilection for welfarism’, which were, and still are, statistically untrue
So, it would seem that Liverpool fans are not actually “wallowing in victim status” but pursuing justice, as nobody else will do so for them. And, despite the police force and Thatcher government working together to cover up police mistakes, they are now, 30 years on, starting to see justice for their friends, family, and loved ones.
And The S*n has faced no repercussions for the lies printed on its front page, other than a notable absence of sales in Merseyside, representing one of the longest-lasting public boycotts in history. Johnson has faced a wave of vitriol from those living in the North West but otherwise his lies have had no impact on his wellbeing or career prospects. And his lies about Liverpool didn’t stop at blaming them for Hillsborough.
At the time Johnson wrote, dictated, or commissioned this piece, the Office for National Statistics shows the North West had a lower unemployment rate than the average in England and a 2.5% higher employment rate than London, the city where Johnson would soon become mayor. The editorial simply reiterated the same old stereotypes of an “excessive predilection for welfarism”, which were, and still are, statistically untrue.
The publicity these riots received shaped Britain’s perception of scousers to this present day
Many scouse stereotypes stem from the Toxteth riots in 1981, a direct response to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s policies in Liverpool. Notes revealed in 2011 under the 30-year rule show Thatcher talking with Chancellor Sir Geoffrey Howe about the “managed decline” of the city.
The publicity these riots received shaped Britain’s perception of scousers to this present day. Yes, people were rioting, yes people were stealing, but was that so different from other riots? The same year, riots of similar sizes happened in Handsworth in Birmingham and Chapeltown in Leeds, but they didn’t receive the same reaction.
Scousers were angry at how the government was treating them. They were seeing first-hand the effects of a managed decline of the city, without needing official notes to prove it. And, while scousers do not have a “peculiar and deeply unattractive psyche”, they are fierce and loyal, and willing to fight for their families and their livelihoods.
The truth is, popular culture jumped on the stereotypes that came out of the Toxteth riots and amplifying an otherwise relatively small amount of damage to the city’s reputation. While Boys From The Blackstuff’s constant calls of “gizza job” probably contributed to the stereotype more than Harry Enfield’s coos of “calm down, calm down”, the latter still comes up if a scouser has a conversation with anyone of a certain age.
Johnson’s column, whoever it was written by, was signed off by him and published by him. He is responsible for what is written there and has contributed to the demonisation of working-class scousers that continues to this day.
After some silly stunts and a turn on satirical BBC panel show Have I Got News For You, Johnson is now renowned for his clownish behaviour and ‘funny’ turns of phrase but it is high time he was held accountable for what he says
It is blindingly obvious that he was out of his depth and that top editorial roles should not be handed out to incompetent people through nepotism. These jobs should go to people who have worked in newspapers their whole lives, people who are from a diverse range of backgrounds and people who actually write the words attributed to them.
After some silly stunts and a turn on satirical BBC panel show Have I Got News For You, Johnson is now renowned for his clownish behaviour and “funny” turns of phrase but it is high time he was held accountable for what he says. This goes for his columns perpetuating scouse stereotypes, his jokes about black people, Muslim women, gay men, and any of the other bigoted statements he vomits out on a regular basis.
For these things, Johnson can, and regularly does, apologise. But scousers see right through him — and so should you.
Ben Sledge 23rd July 2019