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.

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