Trevor Kavanagh on the Sun’s influence two decades after it ‘Won It’

It may once have been ‘the Sun wot won it’ but in this year’s general election campaign, the Rupert Murdoch-owned tabloid’s support for the Conservatives is unlikely to prove decisive.

That’s the takeaway I got from a Media Society event at the Groucho Club last week with Trevor Kavanagh, the political editor of the Sun from 1983-2005.

Two decades ago the Sun said that its support for Conservative Prime Minister John Major in 1992 had swung the outcome of that year’s election, which pollsters expected the opposition Labour party to win.

The newspaper, which then had a print circulation of almost 4 million, told its readers that if Labour’s then-leader Stephen Kinnock won, “will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights?” Two days later, with Major back in 10 Downing Street, the paper published a front page proclaiming “It’s the Sun Wot Won It”.
The Sun, April 1992 Now the Sun sells roughly half as many copies, though it remains the U.K.’s most popular newspaper.

“The difference between then and now is we don’t have the circulation we once had,” Kavanagh said.

But the paper still holds huge influence because “Sun readers tend to move more,” said Kavanagh, who first met Murdoch as a young reporter in Sydney, Australia, and still talks to him about British politics.

Contrast that with readers of other Tory-supporting titles including the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph, who more reliably vote for the Conservatives.

Particularly in an election where neck-and-neck polls show neither party winning a majority, the Sun’s swinging readers – and therefore the Sun itself – still matters. And it doesn’t pull any punches.

“Labour’s sham manifesto is an insult to voters’ intelligence,” the Sun judged in an April 14 editorial the day after Labour launched its manifesto. “If your motivation is that Miliband will run the economy more sensibly than David Cameron, you should google psychiatrists in your area as soon as possible,” the editorial said.

60 per cent of the UK’s national newspaper market leans towards the Conservatives, an analysis of British newspaper coverage by the Press Gazette suggests. Just 12 percent favour Labour or the Liberal Democrats.

Rupert Murdoch, worth about $13 billion, later described the Sun’s ‘wot won it’ claim as “tasteless and wrong” in testimony to the Leveson inquiry in 2012.

“We don’t have that sort of power,” Murdoch said. The inquiry, set up in 2011 to consider press ethics in the wake of phone hacking allegations, represented a turning point for Labour’s relationship with the News International titles, which endorsed Tony Blair before each of his three election victories.

Miliband broke ranks with other front-bench politicians, pushing the scandal – which engulfed Andy Coulson, the No. 10 communications chief – onto the political agenda.

In a Channel 4/Sky television interview last month Miliband said his criticism of Murdoch showed he was “tough enough” to be prime minister. “Thanks for 2 mentions,” Murdoch replied on twitter “Only met [you] once for all of 2 minutes when you embarrassed me with over the top flattery.”

This academic paper from the late 90s takes a look at some of these issues in more depth. Personally, I don’t think newspapers do much direct persuading any more – if they ever did.

But in so-called “agenda setting”, influencing what topics politicians, broadcasters and people in general talk about, their influence is probably still larger than any other column in public life.

Update, May 1: The British Election Study has this bar chart graph breaking down the political allegiances of newspaper readers.
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Just a joke? Louis Trup is battering OUSU machine politics

He won by a landslide.

I wrote this for Cherwell a couple of days before about what Trup’s campaign tells us about the changing nature of student politics.

The Old Quad of Brasenose is a fairly odd place to be in this week. On either side of it this OUSU election’s two most interesting campaigns can be found.

Jane4Change, the centre-left establishment slate, have set up an improvised headquarters at the top of one staircase in the spacious room of James Blythe, who’s running for a sabbatical position.

It feels like what you imagine the hub of a student political campaign would be like: there are kettles, empty crisp packets and leaflets strewn across the floor. Anxious candidates can be found tapping away on their mobiles, coordinating two dozen or so supporters who are busily knocking on doors and distributing campaign literature.

In a room at the bottom of another Brasenose staircase sits Louis Trup, the famous ‘joke candidate’ for OUSU President. He wears shorts, sandals and psychedelic Himalayan knitwear. His campaign employs no leaflets, laptops or spreadsheets – just smartphones. There is no knocking on doors. Trup doesn’t need to; his message, which oscillates between crazy and sensible, has effortlessly been pushed onto our facebook and twitter feeds.

On the one hand you have an efficient and organised campaign that’s been whirring away since Trinity term. On the other you have a third-year geographer (and his mates) who saw an opportunity a couple of weeks ago to stir things up. It is the latter strategy, if you use the admittedly simplistic measure of facebook likes, that bizarrely seems to be working: Jane4Change – 479; LJTrup4ousu4change – 538.

So, is this a case of the old-style OUSU machine politics breaking down against online and social-media based campaigning?

Sort of. To be fair to the Jane4Change campaign they’ve put a lot of effort into social media and promoting their candidates online. Before they had to abandon a suspiciously excellent website the slate had a far better online offering than Alex Bartram’s Team Alex or Nathan Akehurst’s ReclaimOUSU. But what the campaign has failed to understand about social media is that, used best, it shouldn’t simply be a medium through to hurl out set-piece candidate pitches and unexciting blog posts. It should distribute content that normal people participate in and consequently want to share.

If Louis Trup emerges victorious on Thursday evening (unlikely, but plausible) it’ll be because his campaign did understand that fact. It produced a campaign video that wasn’t just 4 minutes of excellent procrastination but, through inviting (coercing?) other students to join in made it instantly shareable. At hustings he sung songs, varying the lyrics between colleges to match their distinct quirks. It hasn’t hurt either that his campaign’s status updates have been witty and hilarious – two features not commonly associated with student politics.

In fact Trup has benefitted from old-fashioned advantages too. First, he’s something of a socialite with a wide circle of friends at various colleges. Second, he’s had plenty of uncritical coverage from student media, though the coverage in these pastures has thankfully been more even-handed. And third, his message is compelling – ridiculous and possibly dangerous, sure – but compelling nonetheless.

Of course facebook likes and retweets aren’t votes. One Jane4Change campaigner told me today that the people enthused by Louis Trup online won’t, by and large, end up voting. Maybe he’s right.

The worry for Jane Cahill – and indeed Bartram and Akehurst as well – is that colourful candidates like Trup break the effectiveness of her team’s enthusiastic slating. Students may well log on and vote in support of their local OUSU hack, say. What they have less of a reason to do is to follow through on their friend’s recommendation to vote Cahill, Bartram or Akehurst. Behind the security of a computer screen, and with the vague mental image of a funny sandal-clad loon, the temptation is to fuck it and vote Trup.

Cherwell: The top 10 best things about going home

A hastily-written, slightly humorous and entirely serious list of the wonderful joys of escaping Oxford life. Reproduced from Cherwell

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10. Clean bed sheets! That fateful decision in 7th week to hold off on the laundry ‘since I’ll be home next week anyway’ will by 8th week be inflicting nasty repercussions. Your clothes smell. Your sheets smell. And you smell. Turning those socks inside out just won’t do the trick.

9. No early morning fire alarms. Unless there’s a fire.

8. The local café doesn’t serve anything with soya milk. They’ve never even heard of it. The coffee is strong and the sandwiches actually have filling. You don’t leave feeling peckish. Pret A Manger this is not.

7. Fighting against your younger siblings over what to watch on TV is much easier than attempting to prize the remote off the rugby players in the JCR staring gormlessly at the female presenter on Sky Sports News.

6. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are whenever you want them.

5. You feel clever again. Never mind that you scraped a 2.2 in collections and spent most of term amalgamating Wikipedia articles and SparkNotes into your essays. To friends and family back home, you’re seriously smart. People listen up when you air an opinion during Question Time and when a situation demands mental arithmetic, all eyes land of you expectantly.

4. Getting away from friends. You miss people, right? Well not really, not for the first couple of weeks at least. In fact it’s a relief to get away. Thrown together immediately and intimately, by 8th week your neighbour is starting to irritate you with his bathroom habits and the guy/gal you had flirted with meaninglessly is starting to hang around like a bad smell. Home = solitude.

3. Your cup of tea doesn’t taste like pond water. The North-West has famously soft water, making for a smashing brew, but regardless of where ‘home’ is, the water has got to be better than the cloudy, chemically-molested rubbish that the taps chunder out in Oxford.

2. Books hanging around on windowsills and table tops include: Mary Berry’s Baking Bible, Bear Grylls’ Born Survivor and an overly worn copy of Fifty Shades of Grey. NOT Nicomachean EthicsThe Faerie Queene or the Oxford Handbook of Quantitative Methods.

1. You can sleep during the day without hating yourself afterwards. Back home spontaneous naps are entirely legit. If you wake up and still feel a bit drowsy then you can sleep some more without having to check the time. Bliss.

How the NUS ‘No Platform’ policy turned into press censorship

In the week that the Leveson Report (recommending statutory – albeit arms-length – regulation of the press) was published, I’ve written in Cherwell about the Leeds Student Union’s attempt to muzzle its student paper, the Leeds Student. The NUS ‘No Platform’ policy is now having a chilling effect on the freedom of the student press. Quick shout out to my cousin Joe (pictured) who is Sports Editor on the LS; it is through him I first heard about this disconcerting development. 

Update: apparently the NUS motion – which was put to a referendum – has been resoundingly voted down: 1448 against vs. 399 for. Hurrah!

Just occasionally it’s important to look at the world outside this lovely little bubble in Oxfordshire. Bear with me for 5 minutes: as students – not as the apathetic apprentices to the Establishment we are often caricatured as – we should all be getting very upset about this week’s Leeds Student Union motion to censor their student press, specifically the excellent Leeds Student newspaper.

Most people will be familiar with the NUS ‘No Platform’ policy. If not, quickly swot up. Since its institution in the 90s No Platform has been continuously reinterpreted to encroach on more and more areas of student life. The status of student newspapers, the vast majority of which (including the Oxford Student, though not Cherwell) are supported by their student unions, has always been ambiguous but that old hang up students have about ‘free speech’ has for many years kept the student press editorially independent. Until now. After the Leeds Student published an interview with BNP leader Nick Griffin the student union has brought forward a motion to formally extend No Platform to the student press, preventing the LS from publishing stories about Griffin, or George Galloway, presumably unless the tone is suitably derogatory.

Image: Joe Bookbinder

The interview is very short, and generally unremarkable. Towards the end Griffin says some pretty unpleasant things about gay people. After the transcript there is a staunch defence of publishing the article. ‘Nick Griffin is an elected MEP, and three years ago in Leeds, a BNP candidate was also elected to the European Parliament. Whilst the views of this party may be unsavoury to say the least, whether we like it or not, they have sufficient local support to return elected members into political office.’ I happen to agree with that; in my view the best way to deal with extremists is not to marginalise them, but to let them undo themselves under the full glare of the public eye. Does anyone seriously believe that Griffin’s appearance of Question Time in 2009 had anything but a crushing effect on the BNP? Since then the party has performed absymally at local and national elections, it has suffered a leadership crisis and lost an MEP.

But you don’t have to agree with me to detest the Leeds Union motion. Because the real question is who decides? It seems that plenty of Leeds students disagreed with the Griffin interview – that’s not surprising – but, seemingly lacking any sense of irony, by seeking to infringe on the editorial independence of the LS the student union has itself embraced Griffin’s fascistic nonsense. As part of Cherwell’s editorial team I suppose I should be very excited by the student union’s attempt to castrate its newspaper. Embarrassingly, the LS has been winning more national awards than Cherwell in recent years. We would love to see a competitor emasculated by censorship.

Except not really, because it sets a dodgy precedent for other student unions around the country to fiddle with their own papers. Incidentally the Oxford Student published an interview with Griffin earlier this year and, as far as I know, they didn’t suffer any repercussions. The problem comes when assumptions lose their potency. Pre-Leveson, that assumption with regards to the press – national, regional and student – had always been that free speech is sacred. And though the student rags are small beer next to the national publications, we should be in no doubt that the culture change Leveson has provoked will empower the NUS at the expense of the student press in the same way that it will empower government at the expense of the nationals.

Should Leeds Student Union approve next week’s motion, I would suggest their obvious course of action would be to stuff ’em and go independent. It works for Cherwell and Varsity, in Cambridge. Whether it’s financially viable is a question beyond my pay grade, but even if going independent involved significant downsizing the LS should ask itself: who would want to read a paper that patronises its readership by censoring offensive content?

And whilst I’m loath to make this obvious disclaimer, sadly I feel compelled to lest I be labelled a BNP-sympathiser by some rabid demonstrator. So listen: I don’t like fascists either. I find their ideology repugnant and wholly illogical. So confident am I in that assertion that I’m going to trust my peers to draw that conclusion for themselves. This very much echos the Leeds Student’s defence of the article: ‘We are not here to police what students read; we know that students are intelligent enough to make up their own minds.’ Quite right. But what if they aren’t? Hell, the price you pay for a free society is that there might occasionally be some uglies knocking about. Get over it.

A final thought; it is no doubt the leftish constituent of the NUS that is pushing No Platform down our throats. How tragic it is, given the debt free societies owe to the progressive Left, that a movement with such a noble history should now turn its energies to stifling the printed word. How hollow and insecure the Left must be for it to shy away from the debates it once dominated. Perhaps the Left should stop doing Nick Griffin’s job for him.

Cherwell: ‘OUSU is doomed to dullness’

Here’s my piece reproduced from last week’s Cherwell about Oxford University Student Union (OUSU), in light of tomorrow’s election:

On Tuesday polls open for the OUSU elections. Rafts of candidates are standing for coveted positions in the student union, and we’re all invited to help pick which smiley-faced do-gooders go Imagewhere. But even though it only takes about 40 seconds to go online and vote, most of us (82% last year) won’t bother.

To the extent that OUSU rests in our consciousness at all it is associated with three things: incessant emails, free condoms and David J. Townsend, in that order. Nothing much can change that, though perhaps if David J. Townsend just let us call him ‘Dave’ we might cultivate more of a cuddly affinity to the place.

This year’s contenders for President are promising to change that. Izzy Westbury’s tagline, ‘refreshOUSU’ has a certain ring to it, but it’s not at all realistic – and she knows it. The truth is that the fierce apathy students will once again show is entirely rational. That is because we are not one student body, but several (46 to be precise). Oxford is not a homogeneous mass with the student union at its centre; rather, to borrow a phrase from Edmund Burke, it consists in ‘little platoons’. It is in the confines of college – that lovely space where social and academic life are messily integrated – where most of our problems arise and are then solved.

The collegiate Oxford system dooms OUSU to irrelevance. OUSU is to students what the EU is to the British. We’re totally ignorant of what happens there, though vaguely suspicious that some kind of black magic is going on, and treat enthusiasts with a mix of amusement and condescension. To push the analogy explicitly, we don’t want to be ruled (represented) from Brussles (Worcester Road – OUSU HQ) because ‘we already have our own Parliament (JCR) thank you very much!’

It doesn’t help that Oxford is replete with clubs, societies and journals that suck away energy from the official student union. Proud institutions like the Oxford Union and OUDS who long pre-date OUSU dominate university life. Consequently OUSU is a shell. It functions in the shadows, rarely coming into contact with students (the one exception is RAG, its charity arm).

This is not to say that we don’t need OUSU. Indeed its foundation is instructive in why we do need it. In 1961, the University Proctors banned the then-weekly magazine Isis from publishing reviews of lectures. Students resisted, but lacked a body through which to represent themselves to the university. OUSU was born out of that need, and it continues to fight our corner today. But it will always fail to capture of imagination or, save extraordinary circumstances, touch our lives.