“I know they were under pressure,” he told Press Gazette. “As a journalist, you can make mistakes… but not like that. There is a huge difference between the truth and smearing.”
He said: “We cannot forget that 96 people died. Ninety six people came to Sheffield to see their team play, and actually died.”
Conn’s anniversary piece highlighting Hillsborough 20 years after the event played a part in the Supreme Court’s quashing of the original verdict of ‘accidental death’ which led to the reopening of the case and a fresh inquest being set up. But he feels like the media could have done more, and have lessons to learn from this.
“The lack of coverage for all these years… that’s a question for the media to answer,” he says. “It is incredible to think that the media coverage clouded people’s vision in that way.
“It shows the importance of facts, and not taking information at face value. Then there’s the lesson of listening. As a journalist, this is crucial. For the families… every day was grief for them.”
Alongside coverage of Hillsborough, Conn’s work – which won him Sports Journalist of the Year at the British Journalism Awards, included a range of investigations into Premier League finances, drugs-testing within football, and the commercial interests of the FA.
He rejected the “myth” that sports journalistsare too cosy with footballers and clubs, and insisted that there “is a lot of very high quality sports journalism around, and much more investigative pieces than there have ever been.”
Conn notes the work of his many of his colleagues in playing similar roles investigating sport: “Owen Gibson [at The Guardian] has been writing fantastic things about human rights abuses in Qatar, for example.”
Yet, Conn has still faced difficulties in his work, including resistance from clubs. During work for his story about Liverpool FC’s purchase of houses surrounding the ground in order to expand Anfield, “Liverpool declined to comment. So I went to the Housing Association, I went to the Land Registry, I went up to Liverpool and talked to the people who were living there.”
One of the other sports journalists nominated alongside Conn at the British Journalism Awards, Telegraph reporter Luke Edwards, was banned from coming into the Newcastle ground for writing about alleged divisions within the team.
“You get used to [the resistance],” he says. “It keeps you alive to the fact that you have to be balanced in what you write.”
“You just have to hope that people have grown up, and can see that we have a free press now.”
So how does he go about it? Conn insists there is “no magic or mystery to i.! A lot of my sources are public…. You just have to see what there is, go out there and talk to people. That’s it.”