‘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.’

Disdain for the royal ne plus ultra of Britain’s class hierarchy has long been characteristic of the Sun. Relying on interest in the royals to sustain a bewildering amount of copy (CHARLES WON’T PAY FOR DIANA’S BRIEFS; WHO GRABBED FERGIE’S BAUBLES?) the paper blends gratifying scorn with a full appreciation of their entertainment value (HAVE YOU HEARD THE LATEST IN THE SOAP OPERA?) Over the past few months the Sun has questioned the future of an unchanging monarchy: ‘the water is up to the Royal Family’s knees and rising ... The magic has worn off ... There is a role for the monarchy in the 21st century. But it must have a serious rethink about its privileged and pampered lifestyle.’ Following successive royal débâcles, ‘the people have had their eyes opened.’

Overpaid judges, fat cat bosses and the Royal Family are not the only villains in the Sun’s real people v. toffs radicalism. A favourite target is the ‘cosy circle’ of luvvies and ‘well-heeled lefties’ who have undue influence in deciding the distribution of public resources: ‘Lottery-players were told that their money would go to “good causes” ... these have included £78 million to the Royal Opera House, £30 million to Sadler’s Wells dance company, £13 million to buy the Churchill Papers.’ Luvvies obsessed with ‘the arts’ and ‘old buildings’ spend the people’s money, which should be going to ‘recognised charities and medical research’ – for the Sun the Millennium Exhibition will be a billion pounds wastefully spent. Prosperous lefties are always good for a spot of jaunty venom, especially when they can be seen as part of the ‘potty Politically Correct brigade’: ‘Rupert Bear is good clean fun. Wrong say the politically correct thought police. Rupert Bear is a racist, offensive character who is poisoning young minds ... Move over Rupert ... there’s more candidates for Nutwood.’

The editors’ first priority is to make all 30 pages of the paper appeal to the punters, but their most important political object is to help the Tories move further to the right. They are having some success. The populist Eurosceptic wing of the party uses the language of the Sun to challenge Major and seems to have the younger generation of Conservatives on its side; Major, in response, has himself resorted to populism; New Labour seems paralysed by the belief that the Right’s position on crime, tax and Europe is the popular one.

‘The Sun Says’ recently described law and order as ‘the big issue’. Political correctness, again, is to blame: ‘teachers are so keen to be politically correct that they are afraid to lay down what’s right or wrong in case they’re branded sexist or racist.’ The result of ‘trendy’, ‘Sixties’ teaching methods has been the destruction of ‘civilised behaviour and respect for other people and their property’ and the spawning of ‘yobs’, ‘thugs’ and ‘weirdos’ – key players in the tabloids’ populist theatre. The paper’s solution is ‘Howard’s way’ – more police, longer sentences and moral discipline. In December John Major was asked (and it is a constant refrain): ‘WHY do criminals get more help than their victims? WHY do you starve the police of cash and resources? Each and every one of us is waiting for your reply. Because it could be OUR families next.’ Assuaging his hard-line critics, Major, speaking in the Commons, echoed ‘The Sun Says’ and, not for the last time, taunted Labour with being the friend of the criminal. Not to be outdone, the Shadow Home Secretary, Jack Straw, has responded with attacks on squeegee merchants and beggars. And now the Tories have announced their latest law and order initiative: a war against ‘yob culture’.

At the same time as it calls for a stronger state to solve the problem of ‘Our Sick Society’, the Sun demands that ‘the people’ be liberated from the interfering, alienating and tax-guzzling welfare state. Over the past thirty years, the language of populist ‘radicalism’ has been hijacked by the Right: in the Seventies and Eighties the Left was identified with a statism which most people saw as inefficient and bureaucratic and some saw as actively corrupt. Murdoch’s most successful paper has been a key player in the populist presentation of anti-statism. The Sun identifies lower taxes with individual prosperity and pleasure. In the run-up to the 1992 election it conducted a virulent campaign against John Smith’s prospective budget which, the paper claimed, would hit ‘policemen ... nurses and skilled manual workers’. The message was simple: a high-taxing Labour government would make Britain a more miserable place; on polling day, in place of a Page-Three Girl, the Sun pictured a ‘former flab-o-gram girl’ as a warning of ‘the shape of things to come under a killjoy Labour Government’. What they wanted was more of what the Tories had given them in their 1988 Budget – LOTSA LOVELY LOLLY. The doctrine remains: give money back to ‘the people’. The Sun constantly accuses Kenneth Clarke of timidity in his fiscal policy – the Chancellor’s November Budget was ‘as inspiring as a cod kipper’; and by attempting to push Major to the right using the rhetoric of the people’s hatred of being ‘shackled’ by the state it has contributed to the closing down of economic policy-making where tax increases are a political untouchable for New Labour as well as the Tories.

On no subject does the Sun claim to be more in tune with ‘the people’ than on Europe, and in relation to no other subject has it dished out more abuse to moderate Tories. The paper’s high jinks over Brussels are shaped by a combination of anti-bureaucratic Poujadism and hysterical xenophobia. As they present it, the free British people have to fight off the interfering European superstate, and ‘the people’ is plastered across almost every Euro-story. In February, Michael Portillo was praised for reminding Chancellor Kohl that the nation state was far from a thing of the past: ‘OUR nation is very important to the people of the United Kingdom. We’ve given away enough to Europe already.’ Kohl is ‘just interested in creating a ... superstate with Germany at its head’. But ‘Britain won’t be bullied. Germany should know that by now.’ ‘Let Kohl hear the people’s voice.’ The Sun opposes the ‘imposition’ on Britain of the social chapter and the ‘handing over’ of control of immigration, asylum and terrorism – ‘Our ability to make our own laws is at stake’; federalism would be ‘a nightmare for the people’.

The BSE crisis has been Little Englandism’s greatest moment. On St George’s Day, the editorial started on page one and took up a complete inside page, with the headline ‘Beware the EU dragon.’ If Europe doesn’t want our beef, the Sun said, then fair enough: ‘we don’t particularly want its garlic, horsemeat or sauerkraut.’ Readers were invited to phone in and give a yes or no answer to the question of a single European currency. This ‘EU the jury’ poll featured the familiar image of Kitchener recruiting readers to do their duty: several thousand did that day, and the Sun told us ‘the people’ had spoken. Ian Lang, President of the Board of Trade, played straight into the paper’s hands: ‘the extreme populist view always has its day in the Sun,’ he declared, which, decoded, meant ‘the Government doesn’t give a toss what you think.’ The current editor, Stuart Higgins, is a champion of Sir James Goldsmith’s campaign for a referendum on Europe, the only true expression of the people’s will.

Along with other Tory papers, the Sun goaded Major into taking a tougher line on the British beef ban, and, when he did, the paper celebrated: MAJOR SHOWS BULLS AT LAST; ‘He tells EU: it’s war.’ ‘There’s been nothing like it since the Falklands,’ crowed Norman Tebbit on his weekly page. Much anti-foreigner fun was had in Wapping: burn German flags, quote Churchill to German tourists. Major was portrayed in Beefeater costume; the paper offered posters, car suckers, free beefburgers. ‘Steer we go steer we go’ headlined a story by ‘Billy Beef’ telling how the Sun had adopted a prime bullock called Sunny as its mascot to ‘moo-ve into the front line of the Cattle of Britain’. It’s difficult to be outraged by this kind of thing. What is dispiriting is that the raging of the Tory tabloids must have been a factor in New Labour’s support for the Government’s position on the beef ban.

In fact, any influence the Sun has in setting the agenda and tone of political debate is based on a series of illusions. Though politicians seem to take notice of Sun leaders, an editorial in the Sun is practically a contradiction in terms. Westminster politics take up very little space in the paper and surveys demonstrate that the vast majority of its readers ignore the 350-word editorial which usually includes political comment. Whereas 48 per cent of readers ‘specially choose’ to read the TV pages, only 5 per cent turn to ‘The Sun Says’. There can’t be many of its readers who want to know about the constitutional implications of the Scott Report. They want: 900 BABIES TIED DOWN WITH VELCROSE FOR TV AD; COP CHEERED AS WE BONKED IN POLICE WAGON; PREGNANT PATSY DUMPS LIAM; and I LIKE MY SAUSAGE BIG AND OFTEN SAYS ULRIKA. ‘Readers don’t give a fuck about politics,’ according to Kelvin MacKenzie. Certainly, the Sun’s Thatcherite agenda seems to have little effect on the half of its readers which votes Labour. There’s a wonderful irony about the fact that while the vast majority of Sun readers are not influenced by or interested in the politics of its editorials and buy the paper as a bit of light relief, the fact that journalists and politicians pay the leaders so much attention gives what ‘The Sun Says’ considerable clout at Westminster. The joke is on us.

Broadsheet editorials announce a point of view; ‘The Sun Says’ presents itself as the voice of the people, a mere conduit of popular opinion. Are the highly-paid Sun journalists in Wapping magical diviners of public opinion? In a circular process which is at the heart of populism, the editors decide what the views of ‘the people’ are, then produce a paper which reflects these views: the nation is reduced to an office in Docklands. Populism can be defined as the claim to support the interests of the people. The Sun claims so insistently that it represents the man in the street, it is taken to do so. So skilful is the journalism involved in making this happen it’s almost disappointing that MacKenzie and ‘Higgy’ are, by all accounts, true believers in the politics presented in the paper.

It would be idiocy to pretend that the Sun’s populist politics are wholly manufactured. The paper taps into real aspirations and pokes a stick at existing prejudices. But when it claims to represent ‘the voice of the people’ it means that portion of the population that is white, employed, house-owning, tax-paying, law-abiding, heterosexual, nationalist and Eurosceptic. The idea that this is the vast majority of the British populace is a fabulous invention, a masterly Sun-stroke. Only ten years ago, the paper’s journalists were allegedly instructed to address their pieces to ‘the bloke you see in the pub – the right old fascist who wants to send the wogs back’. In its exclusion of minorities, the syntax of ‘the people’ and ‘common sense’ becomes coercive. The Sun’s populist demonology is more that of Powell than Paine; it’s the antagonism of the roughly respectable for the supposedly parasitic.

The Sun describes itself as anti-Establishment but all that means is that it sometimes takes the piss; it sets up its views as those of ‘the people’ but really speaks for a make-believe Essex Man, a Tebbitian St George riding valiant on his trusty – rusty – steed; and its supercharged nationalism helps to finance a worldwide media empire owned by a foreigner. Nothing in ‘Howard’s way’ of tackling crime is likely to erode the power of the Establishment. It plays on readers’ fears of being the victims of crime – along with everyone’s fascination with courtroom sensation – in order to strengthen the assumption that crime is the product of moral choice (i.e. the responsibility of ‘evil’ people). The Brixton riots ‘weren’t really about race ... They were about criminal thuggery.’ As for taxation, the Sun looks to the Lottery as the answer to all extra public expenditure: ‘Where does the money come from if not from taxpayers?’ Well, quite. It is presumably the free choice of buying a ticket – and, of course, fantasy riches – which makes the Lottery a better means of raising revenue than taxes, though the real difference between the two is that, in the case of the Lottery, ‘the people’ foot more of the bill. Of course, the Lottery is big business for the Sun, which organises 40,000 syndicates and runs numerous spin-off stories (WHY I ADORE MY NEW LOTTERY BOOBS). It is in relation to Europe, however, that the Sun’s populist devices are more likely to backfire: the logical end of Blitz-burlesque and incessant xenophobia is British withdrawal from the EU – demonstrably not the will of the people.

Much has been said over the past year about the Tory tabloids’ disillusion with John Major and their flirtation with Tony Blair. But neutrality or merely qualified support for Major at the next election would be an attempt to fashion a nationalist/populist Conservative Party further from the centre. Major may be feted by the Sun at the moment, but it isn’t likely to last, unless he makes a habit of sucking up to the far right. After the Tories lost 600 councillors in the recent local elections the paper announced JOHN’S GONE but shed no tears. Though it praises Blair – for having no qualms about stealing Thatcher’s low-tax clothes, and for presenting the prospect of competence and authority in contrast to the ‘helpless, hopeless’ Major Government – the Sun’s main concern is that the Conservative Party has moved ‘too far to the left’: ‘The trouble-makers call themselves One Nation Tories. That is another way of saying soft on spending, soft on borrowing, soft on welfare. Mrs Thatcher called them the wets. Under Major, they are a deluge.’ In reaction to claims that Murdoch was favourable towards Blair, the Sun has been eager to emphasise the consistency of its position. This it did in a full-page editorial on 17 January:

Some claim the Sun has shilly-shallied and changed our tune in the past few years. They are talking rubbish ... Consider what we said just after the last Election. ‘We believe in YOUR freedom to live the way YOU choose, not under orders from interfering, overblown Government ... To buy YOUR own home ... To pay less tax, so YOU earn and spend it in a way YOU think fit ... That was our view then, it is our view today and it will be our view on Election day.

The future of the Eurosceptic right-wing of the Conservative Party is intriguingly unclear in the event of a Labour victory, but at least it will have the Sun on its side, and so can always claim to stand for what the people wants. So far as Blair supports the paper’s anti-tax, tough-on-crime, hostile-to-Europe programme it will support him; but he will have to adapt to the Sun’s policies, not vice versa. Desperate to win though he is, it’s to be hoped that Blair will remember how few Sun readers bother with its editorials and decide that the tabloids don’t need to be appeased: there’s nothing wrong with being popular, just don’t pay too much attention to ‘the people’.