Don't Underestimate the Power of the Media

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Steve at studios

The past 18 months has been intriguing for the media. The Lord Justice Leveson inquiry has seen some of Fleet Street’s most senior figures defend the culture and practices of the profession they love whilst under oath. Journalists have been arrested. Some have been charged. Others have even committed suicide.

People’s trust in the quality of the articles we read, the packages we watch and the soundbites we hear, has ebbed away to the point where there is now widespread cynicism across Britain (perhaps even the world), about the role the press can play in civic life. In short, there has perhaps never been a more uncertain time to be a journalist of any persuasion.

But we shouldn’t confuse the unethical practices of some, (which undoubtedly damage all), with the innate ability of the media to influence local, national and even global perceptions.

We live in the most interdependent world ever. There is a spread of peoples, cultures, cuisines, news and information that traverse borders with seemingly consummate ease on a daily, even hourly basis. And yet despite the advances in global communications, it is still the more traditional forms such as; newspapers, radios and televisions, that have the power to truly change the world. However, new social media is a growing phenomenon and also has the power to shift public opinion simply by the push of a button.

Of course different genres can be used to great effect and photography can be a particularly powerful art form. Who could ever forget the graphic black and white photograph of young children running away from a napalm bomb dropped on their village, one young girl, her skin burnt and her face in agony? A single image that altered the course of the American war in Vietnam.

Hours after the horror of the 9/11 attacks became apparent, the world opened their papers to see images of what has become known as “the falling man”. Images of men and women leaping to certain death from a skyscraper three quarters of a mile in the sky, which left no one in any doubt about the terror of the Twin Tower attacks on September 11th 2001.

Moving imagery is equally as powerful. Television and film have accurately depicted poignant moments of history that left lasting impressions on their wide ranging audiences. The footage of the young dying children and babies in Africa, and their screams of hunger, that led to the biggest outpouring of aid relief to areas like Ethiopia and the formation of Band Aid and Live Aid?

Films such as Blood Diamond which exposed the illegal and almost always merciless practice of diamond smuggling, All the President’s Men which revealed the corruption at the heart of President Nixon’s White House, and Shooting Dogs which depicted the barbaric battle between the Hutu and Tutsi tribes in Rwanda when the world watched but failed to act.

More recently, Youtube video footage of events in the Middle East led to the Arab Spring and the revolution of peoples across the Middle East and North Africa desperate to change the course of their futures. Through the power of video, smuggled images that authorities had hoped to keep secret from the prying eyes of outsiders were suddenly in the public domain and the voices of millions were calling for change.

I don’t wish to paint too glum a picture. The media also has a role to play in reinforcing positive moments in history. On November 4th 2008, as Reverend Jesse Jackson and Oprah Winfrey wiped the tears from their eyes, Barack Obama stepped out on stage in Chicago as the newly elected and first ever African American President of the United States. In the space of just one evening America proved its ability to lead the world in taking giant strides forward for racial equality with photographs and videos beamed around the globe.

But other artforms also have the ability to alter opinion. Chilean mothers dancing in the streets with pictures of their disappeared loved ones in their hands brought to attention symbolised the protest against General Pinochet. At the close of the London Olympic Games, we passed the torch to Brazil in a spectacle of samba and street dancing that is synonymous with Rio’s culture and which ignited people’s passions for what the first ever South American Olympics Games would entail.

Music also has that powerful ability. I know people who first heard of a 27 year injustice through the power of a song. Despite the decade’s of long and arduous campaigning, many had never heard of the fight for the release of a political dissident locked away from the glare of the public gaze, until The Special AKA released their seminal track; Free, Nelson Mandela.

Music is special in the sense that it isn’t visual, but despite the fact that you can’t see anything, the sounds stir individual passions and recollections and which become tantamount with a certain piece of a personal life story. You shut your eyes and are transported back to meaningful events.

People often recount certain songs or bands as conducting the soundtrack of their lives. The power of music for many is all consuming, polarising moods from depression to euphoria, with claims that it is the cause of everything from suicide attempts to the procreation of the species!

I recognised the power of music from a very young age – how can anyone born and bred in Liverpool not? So in 2009 when I was the Lord Mayor of Liverpool I contacted a number of local musicians and people involved in the music industry. The idea was to see whether it would be possible to get people together to record a song to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster.

Within weeks singers, musicians, studios, a producer, engineers, technicians and funding was cobbled together and shortly after, the Fields of Anfield Road CD was released. Everybody gave of their time freely and assisted in everything from the recording session itself, to driving around the North West in their own cars delivering CD to stores.

Everybody involved gained a great appreciation of the different industry roles outside of the physical ‘making of the track’: performing rights, image rights, intellectual property rights, a host of other legalistic issues, releases, manufacturing, distribution, logistics, marketing, promotion, charity regulations, plugging, music video issues and of course managing the myriad of personalities and egos.

In the end we produced a really good product and a memorable song that still sounds great today. The publicity it generated and the new people that it touched may have been one of the reasons that at the memorial service just a few weeks after its release, there were 35,000 plus at Anfield for the 20th anniversary service.

Some people had had their curiosity pricked by the song and the video images that accompanied it and started to look at the real facts about the events 2 decades earlier. Almost as a by-product, (but very welcome), tens of thousands of pounds had been added to the coffers for the families to continue the fight for truth and justice.

And, it was at that memorial service that Andy Burnham was left in no doubt about the strength of feeling from the massed ranks at Anfield. Governments of all persuasions had let us down too many times and the thousand present made clear what they wanted – Justice for the 96.  As I had been responsible for inviting Andy, I spoke with him immediately after the end of the service in the Centenary stand. Andy is a scouser by birth and had always believed that he understood the issue, but the force of the reaction of fans that day had overwhelmed him and he promised he would take a fresh look at things. Andy was as good as his word. He set up the Hillsborough Independent Panel and (as they say) the rest is history.

The HIP report published on 12 September 2012 not only exonerated those that had campaigned for so long, it attributed the lies and the deceit to those really responsible and it vindicated the belief of the people of our City that believed the real heroes on the day were the fans that had been so cruelly blamed for the disaster by those desperately trying to shift the blame.

With Truth now there for all to see (although we have always known it in Liverpool) the next stage in the fight is justice. As the families, survivors and campaigners know though, this battle is an expensive one.

Many believe that, given the first inquests were at best a farce, there should be no costs for the families in their attempt to get an appropriate verdict recorded for the death of their loved one.

We are fighting in Parliament to get the Government to pay for fresh inquests, but to date, have not had any guarantee that this will be the case. If there are any lessons to be learnt for the 23 year campaign, (and there are many), one of them must be that you can never guarantee the outcome of any Government deliberation. Until they say costs will be borne by the state, we must assume that they won’t.

If the families require a legal fund to continue their work, those that assisted in 2009 with the Fields of Anfield Road decided to see whether we could pull together another group of artists to produce a track whose sales could assist with any potential legal costs, (not just associated with the inquests), and any legal battles that might ensue following the release of the HIP report.

In late September the small team of 5 that planned the original recording in 2009 met to discuss options to raise funds and awareness of the ongoing campaign.

Everton Football Club’s decision to play the Hollies’ He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother at the very first game at Goodison Park after the HIP report was published was poignant. It was also the catalyst for music producer Guy Chambers to become involved. Guy spent most of his early childhood in Liverpool and understands the musical history of the City, but above anything else, when it comes to Hillsborough, its significance and the way it resonates far beyond Merseyside’s walls, he “gets it”.

Yet again, the support has grown beyond any of our wildest dreams. He Aint Heavy, He’s My Brother has pulled together the likes of Robbie Williams, Paloma Faith, Rebecca Ferguson, Peter Huyton, Gerry Marsden, Holly Johnson, Mel C and many, many others, with a couple of special guests yet to be announced.

He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother has particular poignancy for some of the families and survivors of Hillsborough. The track was played on the buses and the coaches of fans and players as they travelled back from Hillsborough frantically trying to get hold of friends and loved ones who were also at the game, whilst learning all of the time of the rising death toll

The record was the very last record that James Aspinall bought his mother Margaret before he was so tragically lost on that day. It is also a track that has special meaning to Anne Williams and her family. On that fateful day, Kevin William’s brother carried him to the other end of the pitch, desperately trying to get the medical attention he needed. It was this song that many years later broke the barrier between Anne and her surviving son and which allowed them to once again embrace as a family, wiping away the innocent guilt that he had once felt for not being able to save his young brother.

So the single is almost complete. Once again we have all had to learn lessons. There are literally hundreds of people involved in the myriad of different roles required to make as big an impact as possible in the charts. Everyone involved has given their time for free. There are of course some that will snipe at our efforts, many of whom have done little themselves to raise awareness of the real issues outside of their own circle of friends. This record is not just about raising funds for the potential legal battle ahead, it’s about continuing to take the message to a new audience. Hillsborough cannot be about alienation, it must be about education. We still need to convince many, but we have the truth and momentum on our side. Now the fight for justice is only getting started.

We need to continue to prove to people that Hillsborough matters, that in some way Hillsborough marked the beginning of the rot in public life, where people in positions of power stopped taking responsibility when things went wrong. And that offers us the opportunity to put right one of our country’s greatest wrongs and begin the road to rehabilitation for a city and its people, wrongly besmirched by a police force that operated outside of the law.

The enormity of the task we face has never been lost on me. But one of the most frequent questions I get is; “What can I do to help Steve?” My answer now is very simple. Buy this CD.  Spread the word. Tell your friends and your neighbours and your co-workers to buy it as well. Fill up your families’ stockings with copies of the CD and make sure that we get it to Christmas Number 1.

Can you imagine what the rest of the country will be thinking if (by an extraordinary show of force and support), that HAHHMB gets to Christmas number 1? It will demonstrate that the campaign for Justice for the 96 is as relevant today as it was in 1989 and keep the pressure on the Government.

You can’t actually get a copy of the track until 17th December (to coincide with the Christmas Chart countdown), but to answer the question; “How can I help?” – Pre-order ‘He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother’ from 23rd November 2012 either on-line or at HMV and other good record shops. Let’s get it to number 1.


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