Whelan, Houghton, RTÉ, The Irish Sun and why it matters

Over the last few days I’ve been extensively covering the controversy surrounding what was the proposed appearance of former Liverpool stars Ronnie Whelan and Ray Houghton on an Irish TV programme sponsored by The Irish Sun.

The story is pretty well encapsulated here, and now appears to have reached its conclusion following the decision that neither of the two men will appear on ‘Premier Soccer Sunday Live’ on 1 May.

How it unfolded 

The issue of Houghton and Whelan’s appearance was raised by Irish Liverpool fans earlier this season when it was originally announced.

I’ve been told that there were a “small number” of complaints made to RTÉ about the issue and that these were “dealt with” but it became a very live issue in recent days as Liverpool fans brought it to the media’s attention.

The story was newsworthy on the basis that two former Irish internationals and Liverpool stars were seen to be associated with a boycotted newspaper, angering fans who had hoped that all connected to Liverpool FC would honour such a boycott as the club itself does in asking current players not to deal with the tabloid.

It also raised questions about the conduct of Ireland’s state broadcaster and as to whether or not they knew about the sensitive nature of the Liverpool/Sun relationship.

On Sunday, the Irish Sunday Independent newspaper ran the story on the front page of their sports section and both Houghton and Whelan indicated they were not aware of the sponsorship deal and said they would have to talk to RTÉ about it.

I attempted to contact both men on Sunday. I only spoke to Whelan who said he was wasn’t going to comment but I asked him did he know? Was he aware of the sponsorship deal? He responded: “not fully”. Make of that what you will.

By Monday, the story was in a number of newspapers and continued to be the subject of much debate among Liverpool fans and in a poll that TheJournal.ie ran.

The matter was actively under discussion between the relevant parties. I understand that Houghton had raised the issue when he made his regular appearance on ‘Premier Soccer Saturday’ over the weekend.

Then just before 7pm on Monday evening I received a statement from RTÉ which read:

RTÉ Sport can confirm, as of today, that the panel for the Premier Soccer Sunday live programme will consist of John Giles, Kenny Cunningham and one additional panellist (to be confirmed). Ronnie Whelan and Ray Houghton are no longer appearing on the panel on May 1st.

In my eagerness to break the story before anyone else I reported that Whelan and Houghton had withdrawn from the programme, when in fact the statement did not say that (The story was later amended).

I contacted both Whelan and Houghton just before 8pm for comment. Neither seemed pleased to hear from me.

Whelan was still not prepared to comment and said he would deal with it when he was back in Dublin (He had been away in Dubai).

With Houghton, the phone line was not great but he referred me to RTÉ: “It’s down to them I’m not going to say anymore,” he added.

I asked him was he going to honour the boycott of The Sun as I am sure many Liverpool fans were keen to know. He responded that he was “not prepared to answer a question like that.”

And there the conversation ended.

The devil is in the detail. The RTÉ statement never said anything about the pair withdrawing, only that they would no longer appear on the programme.

If Houghton and Whelan wanted to go about rebuilding what is now a damaged relationship with many Liverpool fans, they could have said they were withdrawing upon being made aware of the sponsorship deal. But they didn’t.

Either they had no interest in speaking to me personally, not being affiliated to a major news organisation, or there is something else going on…

Questions

Questions remain as to whether or not Houghton and Whelan were in any way aware about the sponsorship deal, and also whether RTÉ notified them of the complaints, however small in number, that came in about the deal both earlier in the season and in recent days.

If RTÉ did not make the players aware, then why didn’t they? Surely the makers of ‘Premier Soccer Saturday’ knew of the sensitivity surrounding Liverpool and The Sun?

Why are Houghton and Whelan not willing to comment on whether or not they are as committed to the boycott as fans and even Liverpool FC are?

These are questions that linger and neither Houghton, Whelan, nor RTÉ seem prepared to comment any further on the matter now it has been dealt with.

That will not please Liverpool fans.

Why it matters

Many will ask why this even matters and what is to be got from boycotting The Sun and its Irish version, 22 years on from Hillsborough.

It matters to Liverpool fans and indeed the people of Merseyside because when four days after the disaster, The Sun – under a headline reading ‘The Truth’ – alleged that Liverpool fans had pickpocketed dead supporters, urinated on police, and beat up an officer who was trying to save a victim, it did untold damage to their reputation and their efforts to achieve justice.

No one has ever been prosecuted for what happened at Hillsborough and what happened was a systematic and disastrous failure of police management, in a dilapidated stadium, where preconceived notions among many police officers about how football supporters should be handled led to a catastrophe and the death of 96 men, women, and children.

The importance of Hillsborough and laying bare the full facts of what happened through the Hillsborough Independent Panel – set up in the aftermath of the 20th anniversary of the disaster – is of paramount importance to families of those who died and survivors.

It matters so much that a former government minister said only last week: “that no other single issue is more important to me.”

And that’s why Liverpool fans get angry when two of their own – who witnessed what happened that day – are seen to be in someway associated with a newspaper that proclaimed to tell the truth, yet told a dreadful and destructive tale of lies.

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Remembering Hillsborough 22 years on

I doubt it gets any easier for people like Anne Williams.

She still fights for justice for her son Kevin and when you meet her, her face bares all the emotional scars of that fight. Her voice and the way she speaks to you gives you just a sense of the anger she still feels towards those who caused her son’s death.

Last year, after the memorial service for the 21st anniversary, I interviewed Anne and found out a little about her story as part of a package I put together for JMU Journalism. Here is the interview in full:

Two years ago, Hillsborough was national news, I remember it led all news bulletins and the barracking that the Anfield crowd gave Andy Burnham was memorable and powerful and prompted action.

Action came in the form of a panel, the one Williams mentions sceptically, to comb through the unreleased state documents pertaining to Hillsborough in the hope of finding answers as to why no one has ever been held to account for the death of 96 football supporters at a football ground.

Today, Hillsborough will hardly be mentioned but the pain for those who lost family and friends and those who survived will go on and the city of Liverpool will pause to remember the 96 who never came home from a football match.

Gary Curtis was one of those who did come home but who lives with the trauma of the day everyday. Last year, I interviewed him as part of my package for JMU Journalism.

His journey to Anfield was the first time he had been back in a football ground since 1989. Speaking to him beforehand, you could hear the fear in his voice but thankfully he made it through the service and hopefully that, in someway, has helped his suffering.

Here’s the interview in full (the other questions come from Andy Downton from Heart FM):

I have no link to Hillsborough but as a Liverpool fan for all my life and someone who has lived and fallen in love with the city over the past four years I do feel a certain attachment to the events of 15 April 1989.

My thoughts are better encapsulated in this blog I wrote two years ago on the eve of the anniversary and as I contemplated doing my dissertation on the subject. In the end I didn’t for other, unconnected reasons.

My package in full for JMU Journalism on the 21st anniversary service can be heard here:

All that’s left to add is Justice for the 96. Please visit this website, learn and pass it on. To educate one, is to educate a thousand.