From the falsified pictures in the Daily Mirror of British soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners to the forged Hitler diaries in The Sunday Times, newspaper history has not been without its errors of judgement.
Editors are not known to express remorse easily. However, the tenth anniversary of the death of Diana has prompted the former News of the World editor Phil Hall to unburden himself. Speaking in the ITV documentary Diana's Last Summer, shown on Wednesday, he said he felt a "huge responsibility" for her death. "My view is that if the paparazzi hadn't been following her, the car wouldn't have been speeding and, you know, the accident may never have happened," said Hall, who was editor from 1995 to 2000.
Such unsolicited apologies are hard to come by. The Sun took 15 years to say sorry over its Hillsborough story in 1989 which, under Kelvin MacKenzie's editorship, had said that Liverpool fans had "picked pockets of victims", "urinated on the brave cops" and "beaten up PCs giving the kiss of life", all published under the headline "The Truth". MacKenzie expressed regret four years later. But it was not until 2004, however, that The Sun printed a full-page apology, in which it admitted that "our carelessness and thoughtlessness following that blackest of days made the grief of families and friends even harder to bear".
Further back, in 1887, The Times published a series of facsimile letters, apparently signed by the Irish parliamentarian Charles Stewart Parnell admitting he had condoned the murder of the British government's permanent under-secretary for Ireland, T H Burke. The letters were a forgery and The Times ate humble pie. When The Sunday Times, nearly a century later, printed the forged Hitler diaries, an apology was not so easily forthcoming. Rupert Murdoch seemed rather pleased. Of it, he said: "Circulation went up and it stayed up."
For every overt apology, there is also regret over the handling of stories which does not make it into print. Here, former Fleet Street editors look back over some of their misjudgements.
The Sun 1981 – 1994
My only regret during my 13 years at the helm of 'The Sun' was that I didn't chin Max Hastings, a piss-poor editor of 'The Daily Telegraph', when he turned his back on me at an establishment lunch which I had been invited to with Rupert Murdoch. Apparently Hastings had no time for a tabloid tosspot like me, So when I offered a handshake to the self-regarding turd, it gave him the opportunity to "snub" me in front of his grand friends including, if memory serves, the Archbishop of somewhere and a smattering of politicians. My instinct was to give him a whack, but my body language must have given me away as I felt a restraining hand on my arm. It was Rupert. I still wish to this day I had shaken him aside and planted the big one on the Hastings chin. That is my sole regret during my time as editor.
Sir Peregrine Worsthorne
The Sunday Telegraph 1986 – 89
There are many stories I regret for not having jazzed up enough. As you know, we were a very high-minded newspaper. One regret I still do have is the profiles. I used that slot in the newspaper, of which I am now ashamed, to write and have said lots of rude things about people who made me irritable and angry including Elspeth Howe and John Julius Norwich. I was using my power as an editor to have nasty things written about them. I upset them very much, Elspeth in particular.
I also regret a libel of Andrew Neil which resulted in a court case and was very painful and embarrassing.
The Sunday Telegraph 1995 – 2005
When I was editor of 'The Sunday Telegraph', I published one or two pieces from outside contributors arguing that the consequence of invading Iraq would be civil war and that the Americans would not be able to cope. I deeply regret that the same wisdom did not infuse our leading articles.
The Sunday Times 1983 – 1994
Who refers me to his autobiography, 'Full Disclosure': "I... made the huge mistake of using David Irving, the Nazi apologist historian, to translate the Goebbels diaries. He was the only expert able to read Goebbels' writing and all the excerpts we published rather refuted Irving's views on Nazi history. But many were understandably appalled we were having anything to do with him and it did the paper damage – a good illustration of the maxim that if you lie down with dogs you get fleas.
Evening Standard 1996 – 2002
All editors regret things. I don't think that we were playing the same game as the 'News of the World' on the Diana thing, but there are lots of things one feels guilty about it. I think anybody who edits a newspaper regrets some things every day. One thing I regret bitterly was to come back from lunch to see we had run a headline that said: "Could it be 50,000 dead?" after 9/11. I remember hanging my head in shame for the paper.
The Sun 1998 – 2003
I wish I had read the Ian McEwan novel 'Amsterdam' before taking the job. The novel is about a newspaper printing pictures of a Foreign Secretary dressed as a woman, about how the publication has consequences and leads to the editor's early death. The issue being: in my experience, everything you do eventually rebounds on you as an individual. If you make a living out of invading people's privacy and ruining their lives, they get over it quickly but you don't. Maybe I am more sensitive than most editors. One thing I really regretted was the Sophie Rhys-Jones topless photo which was a huge error and we apologised. It's a mystery to me now, 10 years later, how we made such a gross, monumental error.Reuse content