Sun editor and Liverpool FC fan Victoria Newton has revealed that her family were at the 1989 Hillsborough disaster, as she described her newspaper’s response to it as “the biggest mistake in tabloid history”.
The Sun is still boycotted by many in Liverpool because of false claims it published around the disaster, at which 97 people were killed due to a crush caused when police opened turnstiles into the Liverpool FC stands.
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Newton (pictured, right), who was born in the city, addressed The Sun’s notorious “THE TRUTH” front page at a Women in Journalism event about leadership held at News UK’s London headquarters on Monday.
Host and Mail on Sunday assistant editor Kate Mansey (pictured, left) questioned Newton about her relationship with the city by saying “controversially, perhaps for a Sun editor… you’re from Liverpool and you’re a Liverpool fan”.
Mansey asked Newton how people in her home city reacted to her working at The Sun.
“Well obviously my family are extremely loyal, and my friends,” Newton said. “Look, it was the biggest mistake in tabloid history. And there’s not much more I can say about that.
“I admire the people of Liverpool for campaigning as long as they have. And it was a terrible thing that happened, that tragedy. And I can see why they’ll always feel a sense of injustice.”
Newton, who was 17 at the time of the disaster, said: “My family were at Hillsborough. So there’s nobody who has better empathy than I do about what they went through. The only reason I didn’t go that day was because I had to play in a school concert.
“But look: I wanted to work at The Sun newspaper. It was the biggest newspaper. I wanted to be editing the Bizarre column, that’s why I started working here. And I’m immensely proud of this newspaper.”
Newton recounted that in her career there had been at least one positive reaction to her being a Sun journalist from Liverpool, also home to The Beatles.
“I went to interview Yoko Ono in the Dakota Building [New York]… She was so excited when she found out I was born in Liverpool that I literally was trapped in her kitchen.”
The Sun’s “The Truth” splash days after the Hillsborough disaster was based on false information supplied by police to a local news agency which claimed Liverpool fans had picked pockets of victims and attacked first responders.
Despite two subsequent apologies, the paper has been shunned in Liverpool ever since. Chris Horrie, co-author of a book about The Sun called Stick It Up Your Punter, estimated in 2017 that the boycott had cost the business millions of pounds a month. A 2019 study claimed the absence of the paper from Merseyside had cut the influence of Euroscepticism in the area.
Local paper the Liverpool Echo continues to refuse to use The Sun’s name, referring to it in copy as “The S*n”. As recently as January Merseytravel was forced to apologise for allowing the paper to advertise on its billboards.
White van men and Facebook mums
Newton told Mansey The Sun’s demographic had shifted away from working class men. Asked who she had in mind when she thought of “Sun readers,” Newton said: “It’s a really broad church, especially now with digital, because a digital audience is – I’m sure this is true of many news brands, certainly of ours – it’s a bit younger and more female, more affluent, the digital audience.
“Print audience is a bit older, about 50/50 male female. But within that there are different groups of people – so you know, the legendary Sun white van man. Still most white vans that you’ll see around the country have usually got a copy of The Sun on the front dashboard, which I always like to see.
“And the cabbie, the black taxi drivers. I’ll always be thinking: what will the black taxi driver think about [something]…
“But equally now, at the forefront of my mind is often the Facebook mums.
“Because The Sun’s audience on Facebook is huge. And it’s really interesting – the stories that they’re into are so different to perhaps some of the more traditional stories. And the joy of the internet is that we have this really rich data…
“We’ve got a brilliant social media team on The Sun. And each day they’ll give me a round up of the top ten stories that our Facebook audience are into, and it’s always things to do with parenting, household hacks – it’s that sort of day-to-day stuff of having to run a family and being a busy mum.
“There are certain things they’re just not interested in. A lot of politics, they’re not interested in. They might be interested in issues. But not Westminster politics.”
Asked if she felt there were any widespread misconceptions about The Sun, Newton said: “A lot of people think we’ve still got page three.
“Some of the misconceptions about The Sun are clearly from people who haven’t read the paper since about 1980.
“The biggest criticisms come from people who don’t ever read it.”
Biggest Sun misconceptions
Mansey asked what sort of criticisms those were – for example, whether it was too racy or that it ran unsubstantiated gossip.
“That sort of thing, or that we’re homophobic, or racist. And yeah, it’s a misconception.”
During an answer about representation of non-white journalists in the news industry, Newton claimed that during last year’s European Championship “I think we were the only newspaper to keep putting Raheem Sterling on the front page.
“Raheem changed each game, pretty much, and I just thought he was an amazing story. Whereas some newspapers chose to keep putting Harry Kane on.”
In 2018, prior to Newton’s editorship of the daily paper, The Sun was driven to defend its coverage of Sterling after the footballer said coverage of him in the media had fuelled racist abuse against him.
A year earlier former Sun editor Kelvin MacKenzie left the paper as a columnist after he compared footballer Ross Barkley, whose grandfather was born in Nigeria, to a gorilla. MacKenzie edited The Sun from 1981 to 1994, a period that covered the Hillsborough disaster.
Picture: Press Gazette