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’.

These remarks should account for the fact that this reviewer sees two possible ways of assessing Rupert Murdoch’s takeover of the IPC Sun. One is apocalyptic, blaming the Murdoch Sun for most of what has gone wrong since. The other is triumphalist, awarding it the credit for rescuing the newspaper industry from the morass of trade-union restrictive practices which was gradually killing it.

Taking the apocalyptic version first, I have to say that I more than half endorse it. For the advent of the Murdoch Sun, under the fiercely competitive editorship of Larry Lamb, altered almost overnight the ground rules under which pop papers operated. There had been naked girls before, but not as a regular diet on a specific page each day. In general, toplessness was OK as long as it wasn’t too explicit. You could even see the outline of the occasional nipple, under a tightly stretched wet tee-shirt. But the new, soaraway Sun made nipples part of the British Way of Life, and Page Three part of the English language.

Some might see this as by no means unhealthy. After all, most of us have had congress with a nipple or two, even if only in our very young days. But there was a further element to the Murdoch-Lamb revolution. The paper started to publish guides to sexual activity, and increasingly aimed them towards teenage girls. It was one of these instruction manuals, headlined something like ‘How to take off your clothes for your boyfriend’, which finally led my wife to declare that ‘that disgusting rag’ was never to enter our house again. We had, at the time, two teenage daughters.

But it wasn’t just the sex. It was also the violent crudity of the political writing, and the nastiness of the way in which individuals caught up in major news stories were treated. The fact that it worked made matters worse. For it taught the Daily Mirror a lesson. Once that lesson had been learned, the slide had begun.

Sir Larry, needless to say, denies all this. He claims that the Sun under his nine-year editorship was a jolly, fresh-smelling, all-in-fun sort of paper in which the sex was educative as well as enjoyable, the politics were better-informed than those of its sister paper, the Times, and nothing was ever printed which he thought unfair. He hints strongly that matters may not have been quite so squeaky-clean since he ceased to be editor, and even expresses a few doubts (more of this anon) about the way things are now going. But the idea that he and ‘Rupe’ started the slide towards perdition is dismissed as the jealousy of lesser hacks.

Mind you, no explanation is offered for the manifest fact that most British newspapers are, from the top of the market to the bottom, noticeably worse in almost every respect than they were before the Prince of Darkness secured his foothold in Fleet Street. According to Sir Larry, it might just be a coincidence that the once-great Times became a propaganda sheet for Thatcherism rather than a somewhat right-of-centre journal of record. As for Conrad Black’s Daily Telegraph, much of it now looks more like the Beaverbrook Daily Express than the Hartwell Telegraph. The revamped Guardian resembles, in many ways, a smart magazine.

These changes have been accompanied by a sharp deterioration in plain, old-fashioned journalistic standards. Interviews are made up, quotes are invented, the personal lives of quite little people are invaded along with those of the more vulnerable great. So much so that there is now almost irresistible pressure for new laws to provide the misrepresented with a right of reply, and to offer individuals a right to privacy. In the absence of these things, libel juries have begun to award the victims of newspaper malice and irresponsibility increasingly ludicrous levels of damages by way of punishment.

None of this had anything to do with Sir Larry. Oh no, he was just running a newspaper which somehow or other managed to pole-vault from the bottom of the Fleet Street heap to the top in the space of seven or eight years, all on the basis of his journalistic skill and that of the team he recruited around him. Why, he even vetoed one or two lovely nude pictures of whatsername, the famous model, in case they were regarded as OTT. And the women executives on his staff-all splendid feminists, of course – always had the ultimate veto on the Page Three girls. It was all done by sheer, dedicated professionalism, with nothing sleazy allowed. Alas, even our modern Marines wouldn’t swallow that one. After all, they read the Sun.

Let us now turn to the second interpretation of the Murdoch-Lamb story – the triumphalist one. According to this version, the success of the soaraway Sun laid the foundations for a wholly beneficial revolution in the British newspaper trade by demonstrating that it was possible to shake off the stranglehold of the print unions and begin to bring newspaper costs back into the realms of reality. But for the Sun’s success it is highly unlikely that the great Wapping conspiracy, which whisked the Murdoch titles out of union-dominated Fleet Street and established them behind barbed wire in a new, union-free environment, would ever have been undertaken. And but for this coup, it can be argued, it would not have been possible to launch new titles like the Independent and the Sunday Correspondent, or to re-organise established papers.

I have already said that I more than half subscribe to the apocalyptic version. I now have to say that I more than three-quarters subscribe to the triumphalist version. Few people who have been around Fleet Street as long as I have can retain a shred of nostalgia for the old London print unions. That they were destroyed by Rupert Murdoch may be a matter for regret. That they have been destroyed is a matter for celebration.

By far the best bit of Sir Larry’s curiously limp book – it fails utterly either to reflect Lamb’s own bouncy personality or to communicate much of the excitement of newspapers – is the chapter dealing with the unions. Here, at least, he manages to convey the sheer, exhausting frustration experienced by newspaper executives who had to deal nightly with the blackmailing piracy of the print unions. As he points out, the Sun achieved its success in spite of the endless sabotage of grotesquely overpaid ‘craftsmen’, many of whose alleged skills could have been taught to the office doorman in a couple of days. He recites a long catalogue of nightmare experiences, familiar to most of the inhabitants of the pre-Wapping Fleet Street.

My own experience began with my first ‘national’ newspaper, the now-defunct Reynolds News. When I arrived at its offices off Gray’s Inn Road on my first day I discovered to my surprise that the lift didn’t work. When I shyly asked why, I was told that it hadn’t worked since the day the building opened. There had been a demarcation dispute between two unions over who should operate it, and neither would allow mere journalists to press the buttons. But that was just inconvenience: there was also the matter of the paper’s ultra-modern machines, capable of printing zillions of copies an hour with fewer operatives than before. Needless to say, it didn’t work out like that. These Rolls-Royce machines ran at less than capacity, and with the same level of manning as before.

You could argue, I suppose, that the union harassment of the Sun was a reaction to its increasingly Thatcherite politics. Indeed, quite a lot of Sir Larry’s complaints concern demands for a right of reply, or direct refusals to print certain articles. But the print unions were just as ready to sabotage leftish papers as their right-wing competitors. Reynolds News was a leftish, Co-op-owned Sunday paper, but that didn’t cut any ice with the unions. They helped destroy it, just as they helped to destroy the News Chronicle. In the end, they also helped to launch the Murdoch Sun by assisting in the debilitation of the pro-Labour Daily Herald. Even the impoverished, leftish Guardian was the victim of their piracy, together with the internecine warfare which accompanied it, though the scale of it was perhaps a little less than that experienced by Larry Lamb. It is quite clear from Sir Larry’s account that it was this experience which determined Murdoch to take on the unions and break their hold on Fleet Street at the first opportunity. If one is squeamish, as we Guardian wets always are, one can whimper a bit about the way he went about it. But he did it, and it is undeniable that the entire newspaper industry has benefited.

So where does that leave the balance sheet for Rupert and Larry? It is a delicate judgment to weigh a push into the gutter against a general boost to the financial viability of most newspapers. My own inclination is to give the soaraway Sun the thumbs down, since the push into the gutter looks like being permanent, whereas a confrontation with the unions would have happened eventually, even without Rupert. The only trouble with that analysis, however, is that one can’t be sure how many existing newspapers might have gone under before the confrontation took place.

So is it a draw? I hope not, for I don’t much care for Mr Murdoch’s style. How can anyone admire a man who willingly gave up his nationality simply in order to win the right to buy a foreign TV network? Larry Lamb clearly has his reservations about his former boss, too. This isn’t entirely surprising, since it is plain that his departure from the Sun was ... well, involuntary, if not quite the sack. He seems to have been outraged by the eventual appointment of his protégé, the present editor, Kelvin MacKenzie. As Sir Larry cautiously hints, it is Mr MacKenzie’s stewardship which has been responsible for some of the sleazier events in the history of the newspaper he created. Such as that loathsome headline celebrating the death of a couple of hundred Argentinian sailors: ‘Gotcha!’

Sir Larry now confesses to a few doubts about whether the newspaper he took to the top of the circulation table has proved to be a good thing or a bad thing. Touchingly, he is worried about too much sex, too many invasions of privacy, too frequent inventions of facts and quotes. But he thinks the Press Council is a wimpish institution. He would have supported two recent but unsuccessful Private Members’ Bills to establish a right of reply and a right to privacy – if only they hadn’t been so badly drafted. He would, it seems, probably support better-drafted ones. And the funny thing is that Rupert Murdoch himself seems to be coming to a rather similar view. He now believes in the need for a religious revival in this country, with the soaraway Sun at the sharp end, and perhaps a subliminal crucifix flashed up by Sky Television every now and again. Poor Kelvin, is all I can say. If I were him, I’d be watching my back, lest the next ‘Gotcha’ means him.