Born of the age we live in

John Lanchester

  • Stick it up your punter! The Rise and Fall of the ‘Sun’ by Peter Chippindale and Chris Horrie
    Heinemann, 372 pp, £14.99, November 1990, ISBN 0 434 12624 1
  • All played out: The True Story of Italia ’90 by Pete Davies
    Heinemann, 471 pp, £14.99, October 1990, ISBN 0 434 17908 6
  • Gazza! A Biography by Robin McGibbon
    Penguin, 204 pp, £3.99, October 1990, ISBN 0 14 014868 X

Rupert Murdoch bought the Sun in April 1969. The newspaper was an avatar of the Daily Herald, a Labour paper – the biggest-selling daily in Britain during the Thirties – that had fallen on hard times. In 1961 the International Publishing Corporation had bought the loss-making Herald as part of a deal involving the acquisition of several lucrative magazine titles. Hugh Cudlipp, chairman of IPC, had given the unions a guarantee to keep the paper going for seven years, and to keep it supporting the Labour movement; at the same time, the paper was not allowed to compete with the existing IPC title, the Daily Mirror. With these albatrosses tied around its neck, it’s not surprising that the paper’s circulation declined, notwithstanding its 1964 relaunch as the Sun, complete with the new Wilson-era slogan: ‘Born of the age we live in!’ When IPC finally decided to sell the Sun the circulation had fallen from 1.5m to 650,000 copies. After the print unions refused to discuss Robert Maxwell’s offer for the paper, Murdoch stepped in. ‘I am constantly amazed at the ease with which I entered British newspapers,’ he later said.

Stick it up your punter! tells that story, and the story of what happened afterwards: a story which social and political historians of 20th-century Britain will not find it easy to ignore. Murdoch appointed as editor of the Sun Sir (as he then wasn’t) Larry Lamb, the Yorkshire-born Northern Editor of the Daily Mail. Between them Lamb and Murdoch devised a newspaper which filled the gap created by what they saw as the increasingly stuffy and out-of-touch nature of the Daily Mirror. Their re-imagined Sun hit the streets as a tabloid newspaper for the first time on 17 November 1969, featuring as its biggest splash an extract from Jacqueline Susann’s new book, The Love Machine. ‘Mr Murdoch has not invented sex,’ the Times sniffed after the first issue, ‘but he does show a remarkable enthusiasm for its benefits to circulation.’

That was understatement. In fact, sex was absolutely central to Lamb’s idea of what he wanted to do with the Sun – central to the notion of the kind of young reader, bored with propriety and circumlocution, whom he wanted to attract. Features, articles and bogus stories on the subject of sex fountained forth from the pages of the paper: the second issue carried the first ever British newspaper picture of a model with exposed breasts, nipples and all; the third carried, on the front page, the howling headline, ‘MEN ARE BETTER LOVERS IN THE MORNING – OFFICIAL’. Lamb hired a team of female journalists, the ‘Pacesetters’, to write sexy features, like the one about Casanova Girls, which featured an interview with a 21-year-old woman who had had 789 lovers. ‘Prince Philip, Mary Whitehouse, Lord Hailsham and Brigid Brophy were all quoted on what they thought about the subject.’ The only sex-related subject not permitted in the paper was homosexuality. Murdoch was against it: ‘Do you really think the readers are interested in poofters?’

The Pacesetters stuck pictures of male nudes up on what became known as the ‘Willie Wall’; the Sun began to run its regular pornographic ‘Page Three’ photograph in November 1970. Pictures would go from the picture desk to the photographic department to be retouched, ‘with scribbled instructions to “remove mole” or “make jawline firmer”, with Shrimsley’ – the news editor – ‘adding on one memorable occasion “make nipples less fantastic.” ’ During the last few months, in a development Evelyn Waugh would have hesitated to invent, the Sun’s proprietor has reportedly undergone a religous conversion, and so Page Three isn’t there any more – it’s been moved to page seven, where God presumably minds it much less.

Television was another big ingredient in the Sun’s success. While the quality papers – the ‘Unpopulars’, as Lamb called them – were reacting to television’s ability to report news by producing an increasing amount of background data, ‘Insight’ pieces and so on, the middle and lower end of the market had seen television as a threat and largely ignored it. Lamb thought that a mistake, and instead took the opposite line of saturating his readers with stories about TV, on the grounds that, quite simply, it was what people were most interested in. In the first hundred days of Lamb’s editorship, the Sun’s circulation went from 650,000 to 1.5m copies. By the time Lamb was eased out, in 1981, the paper was selling over three and three-quarter million copies.

Murdoch had Lamb replaced as editor because he seems to have felt that he was losing his touch. (‘My door is always open’, Sir Larry – knighted in the wake of Mrs Thatcher’s 1979 election victory – would tell hacks. ‘I only keep it closed because I’ve got air conditioning.’) The same charges could not be levelled at the new editor, Kelvin Mackenzie, a foul-mouthed, hyper-energetic 34-year-old South Londoner who was, at the time of his appointment, the Night Editor of the Daily Express. Irked by his being poached, the Express insisted on Mackenzie’s working out the remaining weeks of his contract, and so for a period he was night-editing one paper while editing the other, hurtling backwards and forwards between the two offices. The Sun would go to press at seven o’clock:

Then he would hurtle off back to the Express, with its much later first-edition time of 10 p.m., crying in imitation of Flash Gordon as he rushed out of the door: ‘I’ve only got four hours to save the Daily Express!’ ... The first copies of the Sun would then be brought, ink still wet on their pages. He would look through them virtually keeping an open phone line to the Sun, denouncing the paper as rubbish, and cursing the subs for not following his orders to the letter. Grabbing the phone he would shout instructions like: ‘Page seven is absolute fucking crap. Throw it in the bin and start again.’ Sometimes there would be pandemonium around him as the Express subs, thinking the abusive orders were directed at them, scuttled off to make the changes. ‘Not you, you useless cunts!’ Mackenzie would then explode, ‘I’m talking to the other load of useless cunts on the other fucking paper!’

Mackenzie dominates Stick it up your punter!: bursting into the news room to announce a story with the cry ‘Ferret up your trouser leg!’; stating his belief that Rupert Murdoch ‘achieves more in half an hour than any other human being achieves in a whole day’; administering purple-faced, vein-distended half-hour-long bollockings on almost any pretext; creating front-page headlines like ‘FREDDIE STARR ATE MY HAMSTER’; protesting his reasonableness, during negotiations about the move to Wapping, with the remark that ‘If I bend over any further I’ll be in Gay News.’ One of Mackenzie’s ploys is his execution of a ‘reverse ferret’, a last-minute substitution of a big story by an even bigger one. When Myra Hindley obtained an injunction preventing the newspaper from running a story about her, Mackenzie executed a reverse ferret by withdrawing the piece and replacing it with the headline ‘EVIL MYRA GAGS THE SUN’.

Under Mackenzie, the Sun has become the purveyor of a kind of dark vaudeville, an always prurient and frequently malign parody of a newspaper. (Chippindale and Horrie turn up a good anecdote about one of the most celebrated examples of this malignity, the use of the single-word headline ‘GOTCHA’ about the sinking of the General Belgrano. Mackenzie delightedly leapt on the word when someone used it in the newsroom – ‘Wend, you’re a genius,’ he cried – but started to get cold feet about the heading as more news arrived about the sinking. ‘I’ve had to change it all because there’s a report that there may be 1200 Argies dead,’ he told Murdoch. ‘I wouldn’t have pulled it if I were you,’ replied the proprietor of the Times Literary Supplement. ‘Seemed like a bloody good headline to me.’) The vaudeville does have a serious side, however – or perhaps it would be better to say that, in addition to its much-exercised power casually to wreck people’s lives, the Sun also has a set of serious intentions. The intentions are political.

Although the Sun had at one point toyed with supporting Wilson – and although a Larry Lamb headline from 1970, ‘MAGGIE THATCHER – MILK SNATCHER’, had caused its victim intense pain – by 1975 the Sun had moved firmly into position behind the new leader of the Conservative Party. (During the 1974 General Election, the paper had declared: ‘WE’RE SICK OF THE TED & HAROLD SHOW.’) Mrs Thatcher started dropping into the Sun’s offices with her advisers Geoffrey Howe and Nicholas Ridley: she would accept a glass of whisky from Lamb and shamelessly flatter him – ‘What do you think, Larry?’ Lamb responded by concocting two of the most politically effective headlines on record: ‘THE WINTER OF DISCONTENT’ was followed by ‘CRISIS? WHAT CRISIS?’ If Shakespeare co-wrote the first heading, the second was entirely Lamb’s own work: Jim Callaghan never spoke the words the caption so adroitly and damagingly gave the impression of attributing to him.

Although one can’t quite accuse the Sun of having a hidden agenda, the political thinking behind all this wasn’t entirely as straightforward as it might seem. While the Mail and Express were solidly Conservative in their politics, that fact at the same time limited their campaigning importance for the Tories: those papers’ readers were going to vote for them anyway, whereas the Sun was being read by a large number of people whose affinities had traditionally but unimpassionedly been with the Labour Party. Chippindale and Horrie quote Lord Blake on these voters: ‘fairly young, slightly inclined to Labour, largely belonging to the skilled working class, primarily concerned with problems of housing, coloured immigration and the economy (prices and costs) rather than the condition of old-age pensioners’. These people, in advertising terminology C2s, were crucial because research showed them to be geographically concentrated in a way given great importance by the present electoral system. The nation’s C2s lived in about eighty constituencies, many of them marginal, most of them in the South and Midlands.

It’s constantly asserted that what the Sun says doesn’t matter, since hardly anybody believes it. (Consider the grotesque recent headline on the subject of Michael Heseltine’s political advisers: ‘THE ADULTERER, THE BUNGLER AND THE JOKER’.) This misses the point. Say that only one person in ten gives any credence to the Sun’s urgings: while the paper is being read by about twelve million people a day (four million purchasers, three readers per copy, according to one survey) that still leaves an audience of over a million – and that million, surely, is likeliest to be drawn from the C2s at whose fears, prejudices and recreations the paper so assiduously targets itself. In short, under our system of voting, a paper like the Sun doesn’t need to have much impact in order to have a great deal of impact.

In the 1979 General Election, the Sun committed itself entirely to Mrs Thatcher. There was a 9 per cent swing to Mrs Thatcher among C2s (the national swing was 5.1 per cent): Mrs Thatcher won 51 out of the 80 target C2 constituencies, and secured a Parliamentary majority of 57. Larry Lamb was knighted in Mrs Thatcher’s first New Year’s Honours List, and when Rupert Murdoch bought the Times and Sunday Times in 1981, a proposal to refer the acquisition to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission was defeated on a three-line whip. Perhaps one can infer something about Murdoch’s personal closeness and political importance to Mrs Thatcher from an Observer report about the seating plan at the banquet to commemorate her ten years as prime minister. One hundred and twenty guests were arranged at six tables. At the top table sat Mrs Thatcher herself, a collection of Tory peers and their wives, and only two commoners: Mr and Mrs Rupert Murdoch.

Amazing though the events in Stick it up your punter! are, however, recent developments have surpassed them. First – one day before she had to denounce the Sun in Parliament for its ‘Adulterer’ cover – came the paper’s 21st birthday, and a congratulatory message from Mrs Thatcher:

Your 21st anniversary offers tremendous encouragement to a prime minister 11½ years into office. The Sun has become a great British institution. If it can come up fresh and bubbling every day for 21 years, then so can I. And I shall do so.

Ten days after that encomium was published, Michael Heseltine’s challenge forced Mrs Thatcher’s resignation, with the Prime Minister missing a first-round victory by just four votes. Perhaps revulsion at the Sun’s cavortings precipitated a two-vote swing from Mrs Thatcher to her opponent? What a wonderful piece of thematic symmetry, if the paper that did so much to help her finally and inadvertently helped do her in.

Pete Davies’s lively book, All played out, shows part of the high price our polity is paying for the behaviour of newspapers like the Sun. The book tells the story of the England football team’s campaign to win the 1990 World Cup; to write it, Davies gained a very impressive degree of access to the players and the manager, not only for the duration of the Cup but also during the nine or so months preceding. One of the most striking things in All played out is the amount of anger among players at the brutal, hysterical treatment they routinely receive from the tabloids – treatment that goes hand in hand with the tabloids handing them vast sums of cash in order to write exclusive stories. The players frequently take the cash, while continuing to despise not only the people who pay them, but also the press in general. Davies, who is for the most part firmly and commendably on the side of the players, is hard on them for this. He is also hard on football journalists, who have returned the compliment when the time came to review All played out – their reaction a rich mixture of insiderly dismissiveness and citizenly affront at the invasion of their privacy.

One exception to the general willingness to ‘take money off people you hate’ is Steve McMahon, the fierce Liverpool and England midfield player. At one point the Sun offers McMahon a very large sum of money for an exclusive story. The sum is a poisoned chalice, because the Sun is not a neutral subject in Liverpool: in the wake of the Hillsborough disaster, the paper had run – under the giant headline ‘THE TRUTH’ – a story claiming that the events had been the fault of drunk Liverpool fans, who had also distinguished themselves by picking the pockets of the dead and urinating on ambulance workers. That entirely untrue story had earned the Sun a very great deal of obloquy on Merseyside, and had cost it a loss in circulation of 200,000 copies – which translates as a loss to Murdoch of around £10m per annum, and makes ‘THE TRUTH’ front page probably the most expensive mistake in the history of British journalism. McMahon turned down the huge Sun offer, with the explanation: ‘My Dad’d kill me. Everyone in Liverpool would kill me. I’d kill me.’

That conversation took place on the day after McMahon, coming on as a substitute, had made the mistake which allowed Ireland to earn a draw with England in Cagliari. When McMahon came to talk to Davies – and great credit to him for doing so, so soon after such a terrible moment in his career – he brought Paul Gascoigne along with him. This three-way exchange is a scoop for Davies, not least because of Gascoigne’s otherwise intractable hostility to the press: a few months before, Davies had interviewed Chris Waddle while Gascoigne sat beside them, throwing grapes at Waddle and repeatedly announcing, every time the conversation came round to him: ‘I’ve got nothing to say.’ Incidentally, the moving solicitude Gascoigne and McMahon showed for each other’s feelings in Cagliari was given an interesting gloss the other day when Tottenham played Liverpool, and McMahon twice attempted to rearrange Gascoigne’s physiognomy with his elbow.

The portrait of Gascoigne which emerges from Davies’s book – the portrait of a confused, vulnerable young man who is also somehow strangely armoured by his vulnerability – is substantially confirmed by Robin McGibbon’s biography of the footballer. (It was this book which gave a judge the opportunity to ask whether Gascoigne played ‘rugby or association football’; His Honour also seemed to think that the English version of La Gazza Ladra is The Sicilian Ladder.) McGibbon’s book is interesting on the poverty and parental illnesses which dominated Gascoigne’s straitened North-Eastern childhood, and interesting also on the patterns of truculent, rebellious sensitivity which have characterised his relation with all types of authority: otherwise, Gazza! is pretty routine stuff. Unlike its subject. The new England manager recently omitted Gascoigne from the national side for an important game against the Republic of Ireland. The omission was praised by many pundits, often with the same breath they were using to point out that the player chosen to replace Gascoigne, Gordan Cowans, had had no impact whatsoever on the match.

Ah well, at least he was picked during the World Cup. Davies is good on Gascoigne’s impact on the tournament and on much else. Bobby Robson turns in a brilliant comic cameo as himself, with an especially lyrical passage about Terry Butcher:

We have very white hot nights, the tension is white hot, the hysteria, the volatile, hostile atmosphere away from home – you can come up and feel it and you think, fucking hell ... You have to have players who can walk out of the dressing-room and meet that and not crumble. You need players who love it, like Butcher, he’ll look at it and say: ‘Just the ticket.’ He’s a player who’ll fight the battle right from the tunnel. He’ll say: ‘Right, let’s get into this fucking lot.’ He’ll say that. Big man, big man – he’s half-won the battle for you before you’re out on the pitch.

Butcher himself also strikes one as interestingly excitable, demonstrating an alarming degree of identification with his adopted club, the (highly Protestant) Glasgow Rangers: he tells Davies that he won’t listen to the pop group U2 on the grounds that ‘that’s Southern Irish music, rebel music.’ Chris Waddle comes across as a very likeable and thoughtful player, sceptical of his ability ever completely to conquer the French language (‘I’ll never speak perfect’); John Barnes is also co-operative; Gary Lineker is the nicest person in the world. But you already knew that. There are one or two moments in All played out when Davies’s blokily street-wise rhetoric starts to grate, but that’s hardly surprising in a book of this length written at what must have been considerable speed. There certainly won’t be a better book written about what was, after all, the most engrossing cultural event of 1990.