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.

O’Connell on the radio

Freelancing between two countries has its perks.

The feeling of great self-importance as you operate two phones is one especially when one of them is an iPhone.

I also enjoy spending as much time as I seem to do these days on public transport and in airports. The transience of it all is really appealing to me and I refuse to moan like most other frequent travellers do.

I am writing this blog in Manchester airport as I return to Dublin for the next month. I thought I’d share with you my contribution to local Irish radio – WLR FM –  not so long ago, merely as it has been hanging around on my desktop for a while waiting to be uploaded.

I am speaking on Ireland’s general election day on 25 February as the polls showed high turnouts across the country. Hat tip to my sometime TheJournal.ie colleague Gavan Reilly for recording it for the purposes of making my mammy proud and sticking it on here, I guess.

 

 

New Year, fresh blog and good intentions

Like many of us, I hold good intentions for the year ahead.

One of these is to blog more which is why starting today/tonight and happening (hopefully) regularly I intend to bring you the best of the web or at least what I consider to be the best from the web.

Those who follow me on Twitter will know that I post a lot of links to various articles that I have read online. They range from quirky stories from Ireland to sometimes obscure political matters in the US, with a bit of UK, world and Liverpool FC related news in between.

The intention of the ‘News Picks’, as I have decided to call them, will be to bring all these links together under one blogging roof. It will consist of stories you may have missed or that you may not have heard about. It may be an alternative view on a story you’re familiar with or it may be totally useless.

In any case I hope it is a fun, quick read that enlightens your day.

Two stories that highlight South Africa’s continuing divide

South Africa was a country that fascinated me when I visited it last summer and continues to fascinate me now that I am back in the UK, totally removed from what was an amazing and eye-opening experience.

Obviously, earlier this month and last the world focused on SA as it hosted what was generally acknowledged as a successful World Cup. In the immediate aftermath of the tournament, one Cape Town friend told me that I should have visited this summer, not last, in order to savour the magic and buzz he had felt throughout the tournament. And he hadn’t even been to any games, priced out of it like many other South Africans, but that’s another story….

However, from the South African World Cup there emerged all too frequent stories about the stark inequalities that still exist in the country less than two decades after the end of apartheid.

For South Africa to properly escape from the era of social and cultural apartheid may take a generation, maybe longer. You don’t reverse decades of a mentality that permeates a society as a result of a total divide of different races in a few years.

One story out of Bloemfontein highlights that rather starkly. The humiliation of Free State University black employees by former white students who forced them to carry out typical student initiation acts for a video that became a world-wide sensation for all the wrong reasons is shocking but not so surprising for many familiar with the problems of racial integration in SA.

The students claim this was a satirical take on racial integration within the country. But humiliating black workers in this way is in no way satirical, it’s not even a little bit funny.

It’s just another example of a subconscious feeling amongst certain white people in South Africa that they remain superior to the black majority. The story of the “Reitz Four”, as the offending students became known, is a dark reminder of why South Africa cannot fully escape its past.

However, the story of same-sex marriages becoming increasingly popular in the country is one that offers hope that bit by bit South Africa is emerging as a true rainbow nation. Cape Town, with what The New York Times describes as its it’s “gay-friendly culture”, is in many ways a shining example of what South Africa can become in the years ahead.

But even the Times article, largely positive about the country’s progress with same-sex marriages highlights the near total domination of gay marriage by white Afrikaners.

For those in the socially conservative and economically deprived areas of the townships and settlements, many located in the suburbs of Cape Town, they have yet to embrace the idea of same-sex marriage or engage in it.

This is probably because they are more concerned about reducing the crime rate, and ensuring they have basic facilities like running water and electricity. Afrikaners may be increasingly embracing same-sex marriage because they don’t have to fight for basic human rights like those in the townships and settlements.

The growth of same-sex marriages is a positive example of how South Africa is progressing in the post apartheid era.

But the almost total incomprehension of the idea by the black majority and the awful case of the “Reitz Four” in Bloemfontein is a stark reminder of however much progress may have been made in the last few years, there is much more that needs to happen in order for South Africa to properly break free from the shackles of its horrible past.

From the Conference to the Champions League

Predictably, this blog was woefully neglected in the closing months of my university life.

I was dealing with dissertation, essay and final project deadlines, exams and making sure I had enough of a good time to ensure there were no regrets once I finished university and emerged into the “real world”, a phrase bandied about by third years at university so much that it’s no longer cool. And I’ll try not to use it anymore after this blog is written.

The jump from university life into this “real world” is, in the words of one very wise person I know: “like going from the Football Conference to the Champions League”.

Last week I went from the euphoria of graduating with a first class honours degree in journalism from LJMU to moving house, unpacking, building furniture, and desperately searching for some type of employment to sustain me. It was exciting in a way, but it was also stressful and in someways very depressing.

Thankfully, things have settled down this week. I’ve accepted a job for the next six months that is definitely not a journalism one but does give me a chance to hopefully save some money and find the job I really want, as opposed to taking the plunge straight away and being stung by a total lack of money and/or a total lack of opportunities available in the industry.

All that said, my journalism career is not totally on hold. I have a busy August where I’ll be working with BBC Radio 4 in Manchester, gaining yet more experience alongside some fantastic people. And, overall it’s been a good summer for me journalistically. I’ve graduated with a great degree, got some great experience and now, I’ve formulated a plan of sorts for the months ahead.

It’s all a far cry from those care free days of student life but acceptance of the fact that it’s all over becomes easier as the days progress and the opportunities present themselves as they have.

On top of all this, the fact that I am no longer at university will hopefully mean I can blog a bit more, safe in the knowledge that when I am doing so I’m not avoiding essay or dissertation research as was often the case over the last three years.

For me that’s something to look forward to, for you my loyal readers (all three of you), I hope it is too.

Oh, and if you’re not following me on Twitter, you really should: @oconnellhugh

Circus Clegg comes to Liverpool

So the choice was clear, a day doing dissertation in the library or a sunny afternoon in Penny Lane stalking Nick Clegg as he met locals, and did countless interviews, including taking a brief question from yours truly.

There was a certain thrill and excitement in the air as the nations media descended on the Penny Lane Development Trust Centre for the visit of the Liberal Democrat leader.

He’d spent the morning and early afternoon branding Gordon Brown and David Cameron as “corrupt” amongst many other things before descending on Liverpool Wavertree, where he’s hoping his party’s candidate Colin Eldridge can win the seat from Labour.

The media surround Nick Clegg in Penny Lane, Wavertree on 7 April 2010

There was my first exposure to a proper media scrum as TV cameras, photographers and the journalists all crammed for a shot of Clegg speaking to youngsters at the community centre. I even got my ugly mug on Granada last night. (After about 30 seconds in if you’re interested!)

Clegg was smooth as you like, he knew how to work the community centre people and then work the media as he was dragged left, right and centre for various interviews. Sky News even made him wait three minutes while they finished interviewing Yvette Cooper. The cheek!

And when it was all over, he jumped back on his bus, adorned with his face and that of the party’s much lauded Treasury spokesman Vince Cable, and departed Wavertree.

It was sunny, it was brief but my word, it was all very exciting for this political journalism novice!