Henry Mencken, the US journalist, once said: “Conscience is the inner voice that warns us that someone might be looking.” Two weeks ago The Sun newspaper appeared to have a fit of conscience: it ran a front-page apology for the libel it committed against Liverpool football fans in April 1989, when it had claimed that they had robbed and urinated on the bodies of the victims of the Hillsborough disaster.
The consequence of the Hillsborough debacle has been one of the longest-running and most successful brand boycotts in marketing history. The newspaper is still popularly referred to as “The Scum” on the streets of Liverpool today.
The reason for this was not that The Sun ran the story – the Daily Star ran it too; it was the vicious nature of its attack and the fact that for several days it kept the story running despite overwhelming evidence that it was untrue. The people of Liverpool justifiably saw the attack as a revelation of a deeper, real hatred for them. Although The Sun apologised several days later, the damage had been done.
The funniest aspect of the latest “apology”Ã¢â¬Å¡ was the wimpish attempt by Sun editor Rebekah Wade to blame former editor Kelvin MacKenzie. While MacKenzie was undeniably responsible for the Hillsborough coverage – he personally wrote the most offensive headlines – The Sun’s management at the time took no action against him. In fact, Rupert Murdoch later promoted MacKenzie to Sky Television managing director in 1994.
As with the disaster itself, no one at The Sun was held accountable. Merseysiders correctly interpreted no action being taken as a signal that the newspaper’s management did not regard them as important.
In stark contrast, this year the Daily Mirror could have faced a boycott over the fake pictures of British soldiers beating Iraqi prisoners. Yet it didn’t, because the management acted decisively and demonstrably by sacking Piers Morgan and apologising unreservedly.
But this is much more than an issue about executive responsibility. It gets to the heart of what is actually a branding issue. The reason why MacKenzie was not sacked was because he was merely adhering to his newspaper’s own brand values, as he had been for a number of years. Or, as the Sun might say: “It weren’t MacKenzie wot fucked it up, it woz the brand.”
The Sun’s latest apology was aimed not at Scousers, but at its real heartland: the South-east. It has been rightly interpreted by many in Liverpool as a thinly veiled attempt to advertise the fact that it had secured Wayne Rooney’s autobiography. At the same time, it took a pop at Liverpudlians for sustaining their boycott of the newspaper for 15 years, adding further insult to injury with the cheap claim that the city’s negative reaction to the Sun-Rooney tie-up had been whipped up by the local newspapers owned by commercial rival Trinity Mirror. The direct implication was that the feelings against The Sun were misguided, dubious and insincere.
Hillsborough exposed the myth that The Sun is a “national” newspaper. The “Currant Bun” (the Mockney nickname it gives itself) is the bible of the white-flight belt of Essex, Hertfordshire, Kent and Surrey. Its stock-in-trade is tribalism and a dark-age morality based on kinship and vendetta. But its racist, flag-waving jingoism accurately reflects the values of its core readership.
It has made fanaticism its core brand value: from humiliating Big Brother contestants, celebrities and Swiss referees to rabid rantings against foreigners in general. The Sun has turned this form of mob hatred into its central brand value.
Throughout its history it has demonised defenceless targets: the unemployed and single mothers in the Seventies and Eighties; refugees today. The references to the World Wars during major football tournaments are, in part, responsible for the rise in hooliganism that we saw in Charleroi and more recently in the Algarve. In typical fashion, the very football hooligans it helps to create it later brands as “scum”.
The vicious attack on Liverpudlians was merely a logical extension of its hate-filled South-eastern core brand values. But in spite of these deep-seated brand problems all is not lost. For purely commercial reasons, if not for ones of conscience, The Sun’s management could repair some of the damage on Merseyside.
The families of the 96 victims of the Hillsborough disaster have had no justice. The senior police officers responsible for opening the gates at the Leppings Lane end have escaped justice and the families of the victims have never been compensated.
If Wade campaigned for justice for the Hillsborough 96, she might be able to rebuild the newspaper’s reputation and prove her Liverpool detractors, and Mencken, wrong.
Sean Brierley is a former deputy editor of Marketing Week and author of the Advertising Handbook