Open Mic guest and Boston Globe columnist Alex Beam joined Margery Eagan and Jared Bowen in Studio Three for his Open Mic segment. Beam talked about his new column, an apologia for an earlier piece he'd written about a tragedy at a British soccer game in 1989.
Questions have been edited and condensed. Beam's responses have been edited where noted (...).
You've admitted to being wrong about a 1989 incident at a soccer match.
Yeah. In 2010 — this is an amazingly stupid piece of timing — [current Boston Globe owner] John Henry bought Liverpool [F.C.], which is a really important soccer team in Great Britain. [It's a] Premiere League soccer team, it's in second place now. He's actually done to Liverpool what he did to the Red Sox — he's actually made them a better team. But he didn't own the Globe then!
Jesus. I thought I would write this really vitriolic column about what a bunch of drunken slobs Liverpool fans were, and how they'd been at the center of this incredible riot in 1989. It was a real wakeup. It was the dawn of Twitter. Twitter had just come to be a force. My editors were so overwhelmed by the hundreds of tweets coming from England — you would get emails, they were being deluged, like I was a bad person — and we immediately just folded. We corrected the story, said, Our guy is wrong. I characterized this disastrous soccer tragedy as a "riot." And then I crawled away for a long time.
But it was reported that the victims were at fault — the cops just dumped on people who were injured or killed.
That is true. I used as my source the first Lord Chief Justice's inquiry, which wasn't really all that flawed. This is a really complex story. That inquiry was thrown out because a policeman [was] purported to have overheard a conversation in the back of his car where the Lord Chief Justice said he was prejudiced, or something like that. I was angry at the paper, I was angry at a lot of things. WGBH actually did a segment on this, on Beat the Press, and concluded that I hadn't made a mistake, and I was very grateful for that.
Anyway, we fast-forward and I find myself with this very nice British journalist earlier this year, and we were doing something kind of spooky together. He said, 'By the way, are you the guy who wrote that Liverpool piece?' And I said yeah. He said, 'I think you really did make a mistake.' Basically, he brought me up to speed on what was happening. (...)
[Recently], The New Republic had David Thompson, their movie reviewer who is British, (...) [do] a lengthy review of this new ESPN documentary about the Hillsborough soccer tragedy. It's called Hillsborough. Thompson found it extremely moving. It's a big, big event in the history of British soccer. I guess I have to roll my eyeballs and say, Well, why am I writing a column about soccer in the Boston Globe? Well, I don't know. There's some local interest because [John] Henry now owns both the Globe and the Liverpool soccer club.
I think there's a huge interest. The investigation into this tragedy found 160 doctored police statements! People were killed.
Ninety-six people were crushed, including children.
It was just horrific.
It cast a huge pall over British soccer because it solidified this idea that the kind of people who showed up at British soccer matches were drunken louts, etc. There's a lot of new footage, all of which I've seen. The crowd does not appear to be particularly drunken. The real problem is that about 10,000 extra people showed up. This doesn't happen much in our country, I don't think. If there's a World Series game and Fenway holds 37,000, [then] 47,000 people don't show up. That's essentially what happened here.
So did all these people who started tweeting at you know what really had happened?
People were speaking from emotion. Deep, visceral hatred from anyone who took the government's side. The new footage, the excellent BBC investigation hadn't yet taken place. That all took place in 2013. The Bishop of Liverpool's investigation only wound up recently. (...) David Thompson says it was simply a class issue, that the working-class people of Liverpool were pissed off at the British upper class. First Margaret Thatcher's government, then Tony Blair's government did these big investigations, and said, Look, it's just a bunch of drunken working people that killed each other.
I sort of found myself siding with the toffs, and I've never had that much insane hostility directed at me. It was bracing, and my editors were braced as well. The Red Sox put out a statement within hours of that column, saying, We completely disassociate ourselves (...) with this column appearing in the Boston Globe. At that time — this gets really tricky — The New York Times did own parts of the Boston Globe and NESN, so they were in fact in a joint business arrangement with the Boston Red Sox. Everybody took shelter, I guess.
So bottom line is, we should all see this documentary, and Alex Beam made a mistake.
To hear the entire interview with Beam, click the audio link below.