George W. Bush’s pal and war enabler (also, former British prime minister) Tony Blair came to power in the late 1990s, when English soccer was cool and politicians started kicking around balls in photo-ops. Blair was mocked for supposedly saying that he was a Newcastle fan who watched club legend Jackie Milburn play at St James’ Park in the late 1950s – tricky, since Blair was living in Australia at the time. While the stories were based on a reporter’s error, they seemed to sum up the bandwagon-jumping that’s characterized U.K. politicians’ attitudes toward soccer.
Take current prime minister David Cameron, a claimed diehard Aston Villa fan who in April told a London audience he backed West Ham.
But how much of a soccer lover can Blair really be if his attitude towards investigating the worst disaster in English sporting history was determined by his desire not to offend Rupert Murdoch? That’s the implication of comments by Andy Burnham, a senior politician in Blair’s Labor Party who is a former secretary of state for sport. While not directly naming Blair — who declined to comment to the Mirror — Burnham said that he was told he should not “carry on looking into” the deaths of 96 Liverpool fans at Hillsborough Stadium, Sheffield, in 1989.
Asked by a reporter if that was because of the close relations between the Labour Party and Murdoch’s Sun newspaper, Burnham said there had been “a decision to leave it alone.” So, mainly innuendo rather than hard fact, but Burnham’s a government insider and party leadership hopeful who’s long focused on examining the tragedy.
The Sun was forever tarnished when it ran a front page story headlined “THE TRUTH” which falsely accused fans of stealing from victims, urinating on police and beating up a first responder. But the traditionally conservative-leaning paper, the U.K.’s biggest seller, backed Blair in the 1997 general election, and for years afterwards.
It’s certainly weird, considering Liverpool is a Labor Party heartland and the deaths occurred under Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Party administration, that the Blair government wasn’t more responsive to calls for fresh investigations into the role of the police and for more transparency.
It’s enough to put a cynical, sinister twist on those opportunistic Blair soccer photocalls.