Off the hook and into the gutter

Ian Aitken

  • Sunrise: The Remarkable Rise and Rise of the Best-Selling Soaraway ‘Sun’ by Larry Lamb
    Macmillan, 260 pp, £7.99, November 1989, ISBN 0 333 51070 4

Most journalists would probably agree that the decisive moment in the postwar history of Fleet Street was the day when Hugh Cudlipp’s IPC publishing conglomerate decided to cut its losses and sell its dismally unsuccessful venture, the Sun, to Rupert Murdoch. No matter what view you take of subsequent developments, that event was the turning-point which determined the shape of Britain’s newspaper industry for the remainder of the century.

One could argue, of course, that the arrival of television was more significant. But apart from the fact that the small screen actually began before the Second World War, the essential feature of that revolutionary event was that it was outside the control of the newspaper barons. Selling the Sun to Mr Murdoch was an internal decision, reached in Fleet Street for domestic Fleet Street reasons.

The immediate consequence of the sale, wholly predictable at the time, was to create a brand new rival for the IPC’s own flagship, the Daily Mirror. It was therefore an odd decision, even if you concede that the longer-term consequences were still invisible to most people. So it is fair to ask why on earth Hugh Cudlipp (now Lord Cudlipp) did something so damaging to his company’s interests.

The explanation is both simple and rational. Cudlipp had no wish whatever to sell the Sun to Murdoch, or indeed to anyone else. But Murdoch was the only bidder, and to turn him down would have entailed closing the newspaper and sacking its staff. Everyone knew this, not least the print unions, who promptly made it clear that they were not prepared to tolerate closure when a potential purchaser was available.

Now in those days, when a print union told you they weren’t prepared to tolerate something, you knew what they meant. In this case, Cudlipp had every reason to believe that it would mean a full-scale strike, probably shutting down the Mirror, the Sunday Mirror, the People, and all the rest of the IPC. In the face of a threat like that, the more speculative menace of an unknown young Australian pip-squeak looked a good deal less immediate. So the deal was done on 26 September 1969, for a giveaway price of under £1 million – about one pound for each of the Sun’s dwindling number of readers.

The Cudlipp Sun finally set on Saturday 15 November 1969, with the last edition of the IPC broadsheet. The Murdoch Sun, a tabloid, rose on Monday, 17 November. Nothing, as Sir Larry Lamb’s cliché-riddled account repeatedly tells us, was ever going to be the same in Fleet Street again. The richest irony, however, was that Cudlipp and the Daily Mirror only shot themselves in the foot. In the long run, it was the London print unions which turned out to have committed suicide.

Perhaps it would be appropriate at this stage to offer this reviewer’s credentials for commenting on Sir Larry and his baby. Though a member of the Guardian’s political staff for just over twenty-five years (and there is no newspaper for which Sir Larry displays greater contempt), I first spent ten highly enjoyable years on Lord Beaverbrook’s Daily Express. Not only did I admire Lord Beaverbrook, I also held him in genuine affection. Worse still, I remain a strong believer in popular newspapers as sources of information for many who would not otherwise buy a newspaper at all. Worst of all, I agree with Sir Larry that producing a really good pop paper often demands even more commitment, enthusiasm and élan than churning out a ‘heavy’.

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