Two of Britain’s bitterest rivalries—soccer and tabloid newspapers—came together in one news story this week when the Sun, the Rupert Murdoch tab that is the nation’s biggest-selling newspaper, apologized to the people of Liverpool for its coverage of the 1989 Hillsborough soccer-stadium disaster.
As the Guardian reminded its readers, four days after poor crowd control had caused the deaths of 96 Liverpool fans, the Sun ran a front-page story headlined “The Truth,” which claimed that drunken Liverpool fans “viciously attacked rescue workers” as they attempted to revive victims; that “[p]olice officers, firemen and ambulance crews were punched, kicked, and urinated upon” by hooligans in the crowd; and that thugs “rifled the pockets of injured fans” while they were laid out unconscious on the playing field. Britain’s official press watchdog group later declared the accusations “insensitive, provocative and unwarranted.” In the anti-Sun backlash that followed, many Liverpool-area newsstands refused to stock the paper, and sales plummeted in the working-class city.
Why was this old wound reopened? This week, the Sun is running a series of “world exclusive” stories from the life of teenage soccer star Wayne Rooney, England’s hero in the recent Euro 2004 tournament who plays for Everton, a Liverpool-area team. According to the Sun, Rooney has been attacked in the local media for doing a deal with the paper. In a full-page editorial Wednesday, the Sun admittedthat 15 years ago it had “committed the most terrible mistake in its history” by making “grave and untrue allegations about the behaviour of Liverpool fans.” However, the paper said, it was unfair for residents of the city to take their anger out on 18-year-old Rooney, who “was just three years old at the time. … He should not be punished in 2004 for a mistake The Sun made in 1989. Don’t visit our past sins on him.” (The Liverpool Echo mocked the anodyne “revelations” in Rooney’s story, for which the Sun’s parent company, News International, reportedly paid $465,000: “Wayne loves his fiancee, Coleen McLoughlin. She loves him. … Wayne sometimes got cheesed off having to go training every night after school.”)
The Sun blamed the competition, declaring it “depressing” that anti-Rooney (and anti-Sun) sentiment was being “stirred up by the local papers, the Post and the Echo. Who owns the Post and the Echo? None other than Trinity Mirror. The same company that owns the Sun’s rival, the Daily Mirror.” The “misery” being heaped on the young footballer “is a crude effort by them to make commercial gain,” the paper added. On Thursday, the Post denied the allegation, pointing out that the Liverpool papers “remain completely editorially independent of the Mirror and the many other national, regional and local newspapers in the Trinity Mirror stable.”
The Echo was unimpressed by the Sun’s contrition. It declared the Sun’s editorial “nothing less than an attempt, once again, to exploit the Hillsborough dead. Fifteen years ago, it told deliberate lies to sell newspapers. Today, it has published a hypocritical apology—to sell newspapers.” The Echo asked, rather disingenuously, if the Sun’s mea culpa was an apology “or just an outrageously insulting, cynical, sickening, and self-serving rant from a classroom bully-cum-table-turning cry baby?”