‘The Sun Says’
Paul Laity on the great newspaper’s election campaign
Whether the General Election takes place at the end of this year or the beginning of next, the Conservative Party’s campaign will focus on three issues: taxation, crime and Europe. In this it will be abetted by Britain’s most popular daily newspaper. The Sun, as we know, offers the extreme populist version of right-wing policy and, because of the scale of its readership, is considered by politicians and the media to be an important determinant of voters’ attitudes. TV and radio presenters ask politicians for reactions to the paper’s leader column, ‘The Sun Says’; ministers speaking in the House of Commons use the same phrases as the editorials. ‘Small government’ and law and order have long been crusades of British tabloids, but now Tony Blair, sensitive to popular priorities after Labour’s four successive electoral defeats, also feels that Sun readers need courting. Not for nothing did he travel to Hayman Island, Australia to address News Corporation executives; and not for nothing is he keen frequently to publish articles in the Sun.
Despite evidence of a small swing towards the Conservatives on the part of Labour-supporting Sun readers at the last election, nobody can tell for sure how much political difference the tabloids make. It’s not easy to accept that such a bombardment of opinion – capitalised, emboldened and italicised – fails to make any impact; and only a brave politician ignores a paper read by a quarter of British adults, especially one whose editors make a point of saying how closely in touch the paper is with its readers’ views. The Sun is a club with the readers as members, and the political influence of the readers is underlined: ‘People in high places reckon Sun readers hold the key to who wins the next election. They’re absolutely right. Your votes will be decisive.’ And, famously, the day after the last election: IT’S THE SUN WOT WON IT. One (unnamed) Eurosceptic cabinet member said that when the Sun speaks its mind, it ‘shakes the very foundations’ of the Government; most politicians seem easily to accept that the paper’s populist catechism is a genuine and significant representation of opinion.
This is made all the more plausible by the repeated message of ‘The Sun Says’ that it represents the common people. It’s a sales strategy, of course, but one which has political meaning. Here, in the words of the first leader under Murdoch’s proprietorship, is what the paper stands for: ‘We will never forget YOUR place in the Sun ... We want the Sun to be the people’s newspaper. The Sun is a radical newspaper ... Above all, the Sun is on the side of the people ... We are not going to bow to the Establishment in any of its privileged enclaves. Ever.’ It’s well-known that when Murdoch relaunched the Sun he was, in the words of the former editor Larry Lamb, ‘obsessed’, sometimes ‘to an alarming degree’, with ‘what he chose to call the “English” class system’. (The knighted Lamb began to insist on being addressed as ‘Sir Larry’ in the office; it wasn’t long before he was replaced by the private-school educated, wannabe barrow-boy Kelvin MacKenzie.) Now that Murdoch has 131 other media enterprises to take care of, his personal impact must be negligible, but the old Murdochian personality of the paper remains. To some extent its self-proclaimed ‘radical’ championing of ‘the people’ against privileged élites and unrepresentative government accords with the long tradition of anti-Establishment populism in Britain, from Paine to Priestley. As recent editorials show, the Sun, true to the radical tradition, defends the little man against vested interests: ‘Who deserves a pay rise: A nurse or a judge? There’s no contest is there? So why the hell are underpaid nurses being insulted with a paltry 2 per cent while under-worked M’Lud gets almost 4 per cent ... Why do we continually treat our angels like dirt?’ Health bosses awarding themselves more than twice the pay rise of nurses ‘need a sharp blast with an enema tube’. ‘FAT CAT gas boss Cedric Brown’ and other ‘overpaid bosses’ of privatised utilities have also come under fire: ‘If the pigs put their noses much deeper in the trough, they’ll suffocate.’
The full text of this essay is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.