Award-winning Hillsborough campaign down to Liverpool Echo reporters 'not swallowing the line' says editor

“The single most moving experience I have had in 30 years in journalism.”

That’s how Liverpool Echo editor Alastair Machray describes the moment, last September, when the Hillsborough Independent Panel (HIP) announced its findings, finally absolving Liverpool fans of responsibility for a disaster that claimed the lives of 96 of their own.

It was also the culmination of a campaign from the Trinity Mirror paper that spanned 23 years, four editors and countless column inches. It’s a campaign that earned recognition at the Regional Press Awards last month when the Echo picked up four of the top prizes, including daily newspaper of the year.

For the city of Liverpool, its local paper provided a vital counterpoint to how much of the mainstream media covered Hillsborough in the wake of the disaster. The Sun’s infamous ‘The Truth’ story may be the example everyone remembers but as Machray points out, much of the press parroted the line that drunken fans were at least in part to blame.

But the editor at the time, Chris Oakley, was one of those who broke ranks. “He decided he was not buying the line being spun by the government and the media,” remembers Machray. “That was the moment the Liverpool Echo stood behind the people of Liverpool.

“The world and his dog had swallowed the line. People bought it, we did not. The way we saw it was that Liverpool was under attack and our duty was to defend it.”

What no one at the Echo would have believed was how that defence would end up spanning more than two decades before culminating in the moment of victory last year. So, how does a newspaper carry on the fight for so long?

“At every point where the world was losing interest, we redoubled our effort,” answers Machray. “When people are getting bored with something we have to reinvent it, refuel it and keep at it.

“The secret of a campaign of this sort is not to wait for moments to happen but to make sure that people don’t lose interest and that’s when we have to work hardest.”

In the case of Hillsborough the deep scars left not only by the tragedy itself but also by the subsequent reporting of it meant that Machray and his team had to tread with extra care when it came to dealing with the story, and particular with the victims’ families.

“We met and established ground rules about how the families wish to be engaged,” explains Machray. “The most vital thing has been the longevity of some of the journalists. Paddy [Shennan], who won the feature writer of the year award for his work on Hillsborough] reported Hillsborough at the time and has reported on it ever since. Families have got to know him and develop a relationship with him.

“With everything we do we try to think about the end user, and in Hillsborough’s case that end user included the families. In everything we write we have to have them in our minds. They have already been through so much, so what we never want to do is make it worse with clumsy journalism.”

Although Machray joined the paper in 1994 before taking over as editor eight years ago, several staffers have been at the Echo since before that fateful day in April 1989. Machray tells of the “tears rolling down the cheeks” of those reporters who had covered the story for 23 years when the HIP’s verdict was read.

“It was an absolute vindication of the work that two generations of Liverpool Echo reporters had done,” he remembers. “My sense is one of pride in the people I work with and in the journalism they produced.

“What I am most proud of is that when people – be they members of the public or senior politicians or senior police officers – told us to move on or that it might be good to help the city move on, we resisted that pressure and stayed with the story.”

Machray speaks of what he terms “dinner party chat” from influential figures, urging the paper to stop banging the Hillsborough drum. The fact that he, Oakley and the two editors in between – John Griffith and Mark Dickinson – chose not to drop the campaign speaks volumes for the paper’s determination.

But with local and regional papers ever more threatened by declining readers and dwindling staff numbers, could an enduring campaign such as the one the Echo ran to get justice for the victims of Hillsborough happen today?

“It’s a terrifying question,” admits Machray. “Are newsrooms going to have enough journalists to expend the time and energy into campaigning?”

The question has been brought in to stark relief recently after Local World chairman David Montgomery caused a certain amount of alarm by telling a Commons select committee that, in future, regional reporters would become “harvesters of content”. The publisher has since watered down the remark, but it has sparked a debate about the future of the trade.

Machray is adamant that his paper’s campaign should be a warning to anyone who thinks the world can do without local media.

“Whenever you make calls on the future of the press you need to remember the role of newspapers at Hillsborough and see that this is more than a financial decision; it’s about leaving a social and democratic void.

“That’s something any government should think about when legislating on the future of newspapers.”

For Machray and the Echo though, times are good. The paper has just launched a Wirral edition – its first new edition in a decade – and has hired two reporters to staff it. As Machray says: “It was great to interview people for jobs again!”

Other new product launches are in the pipeline and Machray maintains that it is an exciting time on the banks of the Mersey.

“There’s a change in mood and a real intention to try stuff, to break the cycle of declining revenue and cost-cutting,” he enthuses.

And he admits the steady flow of awards helps him sell his ideas to Trinity Mirror management. But for Machray – an adopted Scouser by way of the North East – it is the readers who come first.

“As an editor, all you are is a tenant in the property,” he explains. “We are owned by the people of Liverpool and it’s them who allow us to stay here.”

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