Andy Burnham shook my hand ahead of our interview with a grip firmer than most other politicians I’ve met. He has an easy charm and had no difficulty finding common ground as we discussed two of my favourite topics – mid-90s indie music and the prospect of my football team, AFC Bournemouth, managing to stay in the Premier League.
He also seemed more open and relaxed in his own skin than a lot of MPs, but perhaps more notably carried with him none of the pomposity of many senior politicians. The prospective Labour leader strikes me as a decent, principled man – which is perhaps unsurprising, given his assiduous work with Hillsborough families to bring about the inquiry that they so deserved.
Burnham is a proud Liverpudlian who was directly affected by that awful day in Sheffield in 1989. An Everton fan, he was at the other FA Cup semi-final but returned to Liverpool to speak to his traumatised friends who witnessed first-hand the horror that took place in Sheffield Wednesday’s stadium. He speaks with genuine emotion about his memories of the time.
He has since worked tirelessly alongside the bereaved families on the Justice for the 96 campaign, understandably forging a close bond. And so it would hardly be surprising if he felt a lingering resentment towards the paper that falsely accused Liverpool fans of carrying out terrible acts as the disaster unfolded.
As part of an hour long interview with Burnham on FUBAR Radio, to be aired on Tuesday from 10am, I asked him whether the failure at the last election of his friend and potential predecessor Ed Milliband was due in part to his unhealthy relationship with the Mail and the Sun – who monstered him on an almost daily basis in run-up to Polling Day. Burnham didn’t seem, explicitly at least, to acknowledge it.
As a former tabloid journalist myself, and one who remains heavily involved in that world, I told him in no uncertain terms that staying on the right side of the Sun is crucial if you are to have any chance of political success. He may not say it out loud, but Burnham knows it too.
Which is why it must be all the more concerning for him that, not only is the Sun not on his side, it is actively attacking him after he turned down an interview request. Last week it took pot-shot after pot-shot, even holding up Burnham’s travel expenses as an example of how he was a ‘tightwad’.
Of all the questions I asked in wide-ranging interview that covered the leadership race and his plans should he win, the Iraq War (“my biggest regret in politics”) and his devotion to Everton (“I will never miss a match – even if I am Prime Minister”), The Sun highlighted his failure to identify which soap legend had their funeral this week, as a knock to his ‘man of the people’ record.
I don’t think him not watching Corrie reveals an awful lot – Burnham may of course be an EastEnders man. But what the Sun’s reaction to him not knowing about Deidre does show, as he aims to win the Labour leadership race, and then become Prime Minster, is that his principles and relationship with the press could be his downfall. Let’s not forget that Tony Blair – who for years played the Sun brilliantly– campaigned to Free the Weatherfield One, when Deirdre was behind bars back in 1998.
Many of the bereaved Hillsborough families, and probably the friends Burnham is proud to say he still regularly drinks with back home on Merseyside, would happily see ‘The Scum’ consigned to history like its sister paper the News of the World, and its owner Rupert Murdoch damned to hell for eternity.
And that leaves Burnham in a rather sticky situation. Because he cannot escape the brutal truth that, if he wants to win back the many thousands of its former voters who abandoned Labour in favour of Ukip in May, he will inevitably need some support from the Sun.
On air Burnham puts a brave face on his recent treatment at the hands of the redtop, making conciliatory noises about the importance of “talking to everyone” while at the same time not doing anything to upset the families of the JFT96 campaign while the inquiry is on-going.
But in private, as we talked before about the tough week he had faced, it is clear he has been stung by the coverage and seems conflicted. Until Labour finally elects its next leader in September, the Sun’s knocking coverage is probably not too big a problem for Burnham. But if he does win the leadership race, it is a conflict he will somehow need to overcome.
It’s questionable whether it’s “The Sun Wot Won It”, as the paper has a history of backing the winning horse. And it is of course possible to succeed in the face of opposition in the press.
But unless Burnham can navigate an acceptable compromise with the Hillsborough families he is deeply loyal to and the Sun, his messages about championing the NHS and delivering a fairer austerity plan may never get a fair hearing in Britain’s biggest newspaper.
Tom Latchem is a journalist and broadcaster who presents the Tuesday morning show on FUBAR Radio. Listen to the interview on the station on Tuesday from 10am.