Hillsborough families to sue Kelvin MacKenzie over 'reckless' coverage
Former Sun editor faces claim that he was 'indifferent to truth' after disaster at football ground in which 96 people died
The Observer, Saturday 16 February 2013 20.52 GMT
Kelvin MacKenzie, the former editor of the Sun newspaper, is to be sued by the Hillsborough families. Photograph: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty
Kelvin MacKenzie, the former editor of the Sun, faces being sued for malfeasance over his newspaper's coverage of the Hillsborough football disaster.
Lawyers have indicated that they will issue a civil claim against the 66-year-old whose front-page story, headlined "The Truth", gave credence to a smear campaign and cover-up orchestrated by police in the wake of the tragedy, in which 96 people died. Although MacKenzie offered "profuse apologies" last September after the report of the Hillsborough Independent Panel exposed the article's allegations as wholly unfounded, lawyers for the families also accuse him of adopting a different approach privately.
One lawyer for the Hillsborough Families Support Group said that despite public displays of contrition by the individuals and groups implicated in the 1989 disaster, the reaction to the panel's damning report was disappointing.
He said: "We have written to all these people asking what their proposals are, and none of them, none of them, have said: 'Look, can we talk in order to find out how we can take responsibility for what we did?'
"It's not just Kelvin MacKenzie – the South Yorkshire police should be coming forward to take responsibility, so should the FA, so should Sheffield Wednesday [at whose ground the game was staged]. It's not enough just to say we paid damages, all of which were tiny amounts, and not to take responsibility now." Families received payouts as low as £3,500 for the deaths of loved ones, sums later dwarfed by settlements to policemen, who were awarded up to £330,000 after suffering post-traumatic stress from witnessing the crush on the stadium terracing.
A meeting at Liverpool's Anfield Road ground last Sunday, attended by many families of the victims, heard details of the civil claims that will be levelled at individuals and organisations involved in the cover-up. One of the targets is MacKenzie, whose newspaper falsely alleged that drunken fans urinated on police who were resuscitating the dying and picked the pockets of the dead.
MacKenzie did not issue an unequivocal apology in the 23 years until the panel report prompted David Cameron to condemn the "despicable untruths" in the Sun story. Lawyers – who will meet tomorrow to discuss their next steps – believe MacKenzie is guilty of malfeasance, which is legally defined as intentional conduct that is wrongful. They say they do not have to prove he knew the material was not true, simply that "he was recklessly indifferent as to whether it was true or not".
The families are very keen to press ahead with civil claims, even before fresh inquests into the deaths begin. The original accidental death verdicts were quashed by the high court in December.
Part of their action will include damages claims against South Yorkshire police following the emergence of new medical evidence that shows that most of those who died suffered and did not die quickly, as had been initially contested.
Trevor Hicks, the chairman of the Hillsborough Family Support Group, who lost two teenage daughters in the disaster, launched a legal action in 1992 to determine whether compensation was payable for the pain and suffering of those who died.
At the time, South Yorkshire police argued that there was no pre-death suffering because the then available medical evidence indicated that victims would have lost consciousness within seconds before they died.
It is now established that the courts' decision to agree with South Yorkshire police was based on inaccurate information, and that 58 of the dead might have been saved had the authorities reacted differently.
Meanwhile, the Independent Police Complaints Commission has begun recruiting a team of up to 100 to work on the criminal inquiry into police corruption surrounding Hillsborough.
It is also setting up an independent "challenge panel" which will advise the investigations and the Crown Prosecution Service as it weighs evidence against officers. A source said that the panel had yet to encounter any obstruction in its search for the disclosure of fresh evidence, adding: "So far, everybody has been helpful." .
A spokesman for the Football Association said it would not comment because it had not been issued with an official civil claim. Neither South Yorkshire police nor MacKenzie replied to requests for a response.