Peter Cole: Sorry saga of 'The Sun' and the fantasy world of sport

A naive belief in British sporting superiority is what really caused 'The Sun' to squirm
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In the week when the BBC announced that it was going to apologise more and apologise more quickly,The Sun said sorry for something it did 15 years ago. This was like a sudden arrest in an unsolved crime of several decades ago, or the public rapprochement between the Queen and the Spencer family after years of seething resentment. In The Sun's case, it was about as convincing as that look between Charles Spencer and Her Majesty.

The Sun does not like saying sorry, and seldom does. Still less does it take a whole page to grovel over what it described as the most terrible mistake in its history. This was when it accused Liverpool fans of unspeakable behaviour during the Hillsborough tragedy in April 1989, when 96 spectators died at the Liverpool-Nottingham Forest FA Cup semi-final.

The newspaper's then editor, Kelvin MacKenzie, published a front-page story under the headline "The Truth" - which it wasn't - and the paper has never been forgiven by much of Liverpool. There was a widespread boycott of the paper, and sales have never fully recovered. MacKenzie said four years after Hillsborough that he regretted the story, but it wasn't really an apology. That came - in fulsome, full-page form - just last Wednesday.

Why now? Some context is needed, and it involves sports coverage at the tabloid end of the market.

You will be aware that there was the final of a cricket tournament yesterday. Only three teams made up the contestants, and England failed to make the last two. This was the final stage of the month of serial sporting disappointment. England - from the Euro 2004 football team to the dullest sportsman on earth, Tim Henman - had shown themselves to be natural quarter-finalists, but no more. (Everyone had by now forgotten the rugby World Cup triumph.)

If you are a Latvian or Greg Rusedski, quarter-finalist doesn't sound bad. But the red-tops, particularly in the area of football, sell on dreams. The sleeping sports editor sees a television set. It is last Sunday. In the afternoon, Henman is shaking hands with the Duke of Kent, having destroyed Roger Federer in three sets. A little later the live pictures from Lisbon are still playing as Becks and the lads make their 93rd tour of the ground, holding aloft the trophy they earned in their 5-0 annihilation of France.

But life isn't like that. Last Monday's red-tops and mid-market papers were produced in a state of trauma. It was easier to deal with the Henfailure. There was Maria, sweet 17, and I am afraid it was impossible to read the tabloids without thinking of the drooling in the office as the middle-aged men selected the pictures.

It was harder to deal with the football. Upmarket papers could report the final and discuss Greece's unexpected success. The tabloids just could not bring themselves to put Greece on the back page. They buried it deep inside the paper.

But there had to be football, English football ... and upbeat. All they had to cling to was Wayne Rooney, an 18-year-old Everton forward who, by comparison with Maria, made up for what he lacked in looks with a superior goal-scoring record in Euro 2004. The Sun bought him, and on the Monday that should have belonged to Greece had the "world exclusive" Wayne's own story.

Now, an 18-year-old ordinary lad from Liverpool does not have a lot of life to tell, apart from the odd goal. The Daily Mirror's spoiler, 60 fantastic photos of Wayne in a free magazine, was a more sensible approach, as it needed no words and little life experience.

At the time of the Hillsborough tragedy, Wayne was three and would not have been aware of the disaster or yet able to read The Sun. But Wayne was, as they say, badly advised. He was not told that memories are long on Merseyside and that grudges are enduring. How insensitive could he be, was the local feeling whipped up by the Liverpool Echo - owned by the owners of the Daily Mirror, as The Sun pointed out.

So Greece's triumph was ignored in favour of the slight memoirs of a young footballer of great potential who played for a team eliminated in the quarter-final. But by selling himself to the paper seen as the devil on Merseyside, he lost friends among those who loved him. And the paper, trying through Wayne to win back the people of Liverpool, failed.

An everyday story of the simple yet convoluted morality in planet red-top? Who knows? It really is another world. If England had reached the final, none of these problems would have arisen.

¿ The monthly official circulation figures suggest that fewer people are inclined to emigrate to planet red-top, where the Greeks count for nothing and Big Brother bestrides Olympus. If we compare sales for last month with June a year ago, we find that the Daily Mirror sales are down 5.9 per cent and The Sun's down 4.6 per cent. Put another way, 114,890 fewer Mirrors a day were sold this June than last year, and 160,780 fewer Suns. But they still sold over five million a day between them.

While the popular market declines - and it is doing so even more on Sundays - the middle and quality markets are reasonably stable. Total sales in each of those sectors has varied by less than one per cent since a year ago.

The compact impact has also steadied, with recent losers like The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph, both still broadsheet, holding their sales month on month, as has The Independent. Best performer month on month was The Times, up 1.4 per cent. Best year on year: The Independent, up 18.8 per cent.

Peter Cole is professor of journalism at the University of Sheffield