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 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.


6 thoughts on “Whelan, Houghton, RTÉ, The Irish Sun and why it matters

  1. Great piece Hugh.

    I am sure it really is very easy for people to wonder what all the fuss is about Hillsborough, especially as all this happened over 20 years ago.

    But I would challenge those same people to just take a small amount of time and look at what the S*n printed about the events of that day.

    Ultimately, Hillsborough was a sad day for football, because what happened there could have happened anywhere and to any supporters. So for a major news paper to commit to print such disgusting lies just a few days after the disaster is totally unbelievable. To this day I find it difficult to understand how anyone could actually go ahead and make the decision to print that story and actually think they would get away with it. Totally shocking. I sometimes wonder how things would have panned out had there not been such a big TV presence there (simply unthinkable).

    Back to Whelan and Houghton, surely anyone who claims a close association to Liverpool FC could never contemplate any sort of affiliation or endorsement of the S*n.

    I’m not sure how this issue was finally resolved or if we will ever know, but I did hope both parties would use this situation to make a real statement and highlight the feeling of all those who love LFC toward this newspaper.

    Well done again Hugh.

  2. Hugh I’ve left this here as Twitter does not allow for any meaningful debate.

    Earlier today 04th October 2011 you tweeted:
    @oconnellhugh Hugh O’Connell
    Jodie Marsh has, eh, changed: bit.ly/oPnNxc

    A few people (including myself) then asked you why you posted a S*n link on your Twitter feed.

    Your responses were:

    @oconnellhugh Hugh O’Connell
    @PaulBoyham it does (link to the S*n). Was passed on to me.
    @oconnellhugh Hugh O’Connell
    @PaulBoyham which is fine. I’m a journalist. If I didn’t engage with the best selling paper in the UK I wouldn’t be doing my job.
    @PaulBoyham doesn’t mean I buy it/support it
    1 hour ago Favorite Retweet Reply

    As a Liverpool Supporter I found this concerning to say the least. So, if you will allow me, here are my thoughts on your tweets and subsequent responses.

    Your first defence was:
    @oconnellhugh Hugh O’Connell
    @PaulBoyham it does (link to the S*n). Was passed on to me.

    Are we to believe as you suggest, that you passed on the S*n link without actually verifying the content of said link? I find it very foolhardy of you to not check the validity of a link you were passing onto your 1000 followers. Also, if you see nothing wrong in posting a link to the S*n (as you later do claim), then why did you intimate that you posted the link unintentionally?

    Your second defence:
    @oconnellhugh Hugh O’Connell
    @PaulBoyham which is fine. I’m a journalist. If I didn’t engage with the best selling paper in the UK I wouldn’t be doing my job.

    Hugh, there are plenty of quality journalists throughout UK and Ireland that will not touch that scummy rag with a bargepole, and even less that will direct their readers to the S*n’s website.
    Have you considered that Ronnie Whelan and Ray Houghton no doubt (whether correctly or not) consider themselves sports journalists? Are you excusing their behaviour now by saying as journalists they are negligent in their jobs by not engaging with The S*n?

    Your final defence:
    @oconnellhugh Hugh O’Connell
    @PaulBoyham doesn’t mean I buy it/support it
    As a journalist you will already be aware that clicks on The S*n website indirectly generates Advertising Revenue for them. You have in essence given them 1,000 referrals today; while you may not support The S*n, you have promoted The S*n this morning.


    Lastly this brings me to your article above; I just cannot marry the two together. On one hand you champion the Justice for The 96 campaign, and criticise Whelan, Houghton and RTE for their links to The S*n.
    On the other hand, you post titillating links to the S*n on your twitter feed, and defend your actions with statements that are contradictory with articles you have written in the past.

    From the above, one could conclude that your articles about why The S*n Boycott is important still today were disingenuous; you do not fully believe in the Boycott, and that you were willing to use the Boycott (and a juicy story involving Ronnie Whelan and Ray Houghton) to further your own career through the inevitable coverage you have received by way of your articles on this subject.

    However I find it more likely that you have just made an error of judgement, and instead of just holding up your hands and saying you got it wrong, you have dug a deeper hole, and even ventured towards paying lip service to The S*n in the process.

    Please feel free to contact me with anything that you wish to discuss in the above.

    Yours Respectfully,
    Rob McCormack

    • Rob, you are of course entitled to your views on this and your feedback is appreciated but you are wrong on a number of points above and have misconstrued my defences above as some sort of way of “digging a hole”.

      My view, and it always has been my view, is this: I am a journalist, not engaging or on occasion having a glance at what the most popular newspaper in Britain is publishing would not be in the best interests of myself or the news organisations I work for. I have written stories for TheJournal.ie which directly link to the stories on The Sun website, am I driving traffic there, some probably (Certainly not 1000 referrals as you appear to think a link posted to 1055 followers would). Should I refuse to do such stories? Well then what would my bosses think of that?

      I have said what I wanted to say about this on Twitter and in response to people. My error was not in posting the link, only in not being mindful of the many who follow me who are Liverpool fans who do not under any circumstances want to countenance the Sun, and I respect that. I should have put a disclaimer perhaps.

      Thanks again for your feedback but drawing wildly inaccurate conclusions about my actions and what they say about me is really not respectful at all in your part and debating this any further really will get us nowhere.

      • Thanks for the response Hugh.

        My sincerest apologies if you think I have drawn “wildly inaccurate conclusions” from your actions. It was honestly not my intention to offend, however as you will no doubt agree, arguing one’s case over 140 characters means that ambiguity prevails, and comments are easily open to being misconstrued. This is exactly why I asked that you respectfully reply on this forum instead.

        In response, if your boss asks you to read The S*n as part of your job? Then fine. I don’t expect you to go unemployed.
        However claiming that reposting a link from The S*n, of a glamour girl now turned bodybuilder, are somehow connected with the expected impartiality and codes of practice involving journalists, and the expectations put on you by your employers, are at best, tenuous.

        As for disputing my claim that you were driving traffic onto The S*n’s website? I think the complaints from other LFC supporters on your timeline suggest otherwise. And those were only the ones that actually took the time to complain.

        So without rehashing the same arguments again – an easy way around this would be to not publish links to The S*n from your personal Twitter, and instead let the Journal.ie twitter feed do this instead.

        You have said you do not want to debate this any further. Which is a shame, as I think you are still leaving yourself open to criticism on the subject.

        I’ll leave you with your own (paraphrased) words:

        “And that’s why Liverpool fans get angry, when one of our own – who knows only too well what happened that day – are seen to be in anyway associated with a newspaper that proclaimed to tell the truth, yet told a dreadful and destructive tale of lies.”

        Rob McCormack
        Don’t Buy The S*n
        Justice for the 96

  3. “However claiming that reposting a link from The S*n, of a glamour girl now turned bodybuilder, are somehow connected with the expected impartiality and codes of practice involving journalists, and the expectations put on you by your employers, are at best, tenuous.”

    I never claimed this. I stated my position on the issue of the Sun which was at the heart of this whole debate.. the fact that it was a link to a shit story about Jodie Marsh is really irrelevant in my view.

    We can debate this till the cows come home but it will make no difference as to whether or not I am criticised. That will happen anyway as evidenced by your tweet in the last few minutes… http://twitter.com/#!/WealthyB/status/121288747609370624

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