Billy Bragg debuted a new song on stage this weekend, a throwback to the topical political tunes of his youth. Titled “Never Buy the Sun,” it’s a commentary on the scandals currently engulfing the British tabloids owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News International.
If you haven’t been following that story, it’s a doozy. For several years now, it’s been known that the weekly News of the World tabloid had illegally hacked into certain celebrities’ voicemail messages as part of its newsgathering operations. But in the last few weeks that story has been completely transformed, as the full scope of the hacking and related misbehavior has come to light.
First it was revealed that the paper gained access to the cellphone voicemail of teenaged murder victim Milly Dowler while Dowler was still missing. Journalists at the time went so far as to delete messages from the system in an effort to free up space for more incoming calls, leading Dowler’s parents to conclude that their child was still alive and checking her phone. It has also been suggested that the deletions misled police as to the facts of the crime, hindering their investigation, and may even have destroyed evidence in the case.
Not long after the Milly Dowler story broke, it was charged that News of the World had hacked into the phones of British servicemembers who had been killed in action, and into those of relatives of victims of the terrorist bombings that struck London on July 7, 2005. More recently, it’s been learned that the paper had made a habit of bribing police officials for tips, and just today, a series of revelations emerged about how papers throughout the News International organization targeted former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and his family.
This is a huge scandal in Britain right now — it’s already led to the permanent closure of News of the World and several high-profile arrests, and it’s been compared to Watergate in its potential scope and significance.
Which brings us back to Billy Bragg. Billy’s been a political songwriter for a very long time now, and about a quarter century ago he wrote a song about the British tabloids called “It Says Here.” He’d been messing around with an updated version over the last week or so, but kept finding that new developments were overtaking his songwriting, so eventually he wound up putting together something completely new — “Never Buy the Sun.”
“Never Buy the Sun” is a good song, but its title, and its most repeated lyric — Scousers never buy the Sun — depend on a bit of knowledge of British history that most Americans don’t have. Here’s the skinny:
On April 15, 1989, Liverpool’s local football (soccer) team was playing an important game at Hillsborough Stadium, a neutral venue. At the time, Hillsborough — like many British stadiums — had non-reserved seating and high fences between the stands and the playing field. There was a big crowd for that day’s match, and a bottleneck developed at the entrances at the Liverpool end of the field. Large numbers of fans remained outside even after the game began, and when police opened a small gate to eject a fan, some members of the crowd surged forward. In response, the police opened several larger exit gates to serve as an additional entrance, without putting crowd control measures in place to direct foot traffic. As a result, thousands of fans pressed forward into stands that had no room to accommodate them, and those in the front had no ability to leave — or even move — when they began to be crushed by those behind. Ninety-six people were killed in the crush, one of the worst such disasters in British history.
Four days after the Hillsborough Disaster, the Sun newspaper — like the News of the World, a part of Murdoch’s News International empire — ran a front-page story claiming that as events were unfolding, Liverpool fans attacked and urinated on police who were trying to bring events under control, sexually abused the body of a girl who had died in the crush, and picked the pockets of the dead.
These were all lies.
The Sun did not immediately retract its story, and the paper has subsequently veered between apology and justification. Sales of the paper in Liverpool plummeted in the wake of of the incident, and have never — twenty-two years later — recovered. Today Liverpool is one of Britain’s largest cities and the Sun is one of the country’s best-selling newspapers, but only a few thousand copies of the paper are sold in Liverpool each day. Many newsstands won’t even carry it.
In local slang, a person from Liverpool is called a Scouser.
And Scousers never buy the Sun.