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.
Screen Shot 2015-05-01 at 23.50.19

Roy Jenkins

I’ve just finished Roy Jenkins: A Well-Rounded Life. It’s a hefty tome but an easy read, provided you find the intricacies of post-war politics and Establishment culture interesting.

For a figure whose career stretched comfortably into the Blair years the most striking thought I am left with is how dated the era feels. The leisurely claret-sodden lunches, even at the height of Jenkins’ ministerial career; the litany of affairs accepted, without comment, by an obliging press; and Jenkins’ stark defence of elitism and Establishment values within a left-liberal movement that, today at least, is ostensibly hostile to them.

(In fact it sat uncomfortably with many of his contemporaries too; Jenkins’ soft left politics combined with the ‘aristocratic embrace’ in his social life led to accusations of ‘MacDonaldism’ throughout his career*)

Are we better off, today, with fewer libertines in public life? I doubt it.

For a theme that John Campbell, the author, is keen to remind the reader of is Jenkins’ remarkable capacity for work. Jenkins once remarked of “Churchill’s extraordinary combination of an almost puritan work ethic with a great capacity for pleasure.”**

The insight that Jenkins, who wrote 22 books, makes vis-a-vis Churchill, his last major biographical subject, rings with some truth. ‘Work hard, play hard’ is a sound mantra not simply because a varied life has value, but because a serious commitment to each vocation enhances the something-ness of both.

I also enjoyed the chapters detailing the story of the SDP, which succeeded in briefly capturing the progressive imagination but also split the left in the 1980s. To avoid splitting the right, ushering in a generation of left-wing governments, UKIP sympathisers might do well to read up.

Though conflicts over tactics and personality only emerged later, the SDP, I learned, was divided on a fundamental question of strategy from the beginning.

On the one hand it could seek to usurp and replace the hard left Labour party. On the other – and this was the sort of movement Jenkins favoured – it could position itself as a progressive centre party, drawing support from across the political spectrum and cooperating closely, potentially to the point of amalgamation, with the resurgent Liberals under David Steel. In the end it succeeded in doing neither.

Campbell suggests that the Falklands conflict drew momentum away from the SDP in the crucial months leading up to the 1983 election. In fact there’s a good case to be made that political folklore is mistaken in identifying the Falklands as the decisive factor in 1983. In any case Britain’s FPTP electoral system prevented the SDP-Liberal Alliance from making the breakthrough that, given the share of the popular vote received, it deserved.

The most interesting question of all in this vein centres on whether the SDP ushered in, or delayed, New Labour. Certainly Blair’s politics were close to those of Jenkins, though the latter lived out his final years increasingly frustrated that Blair had failed to ‘make the political weather’ on electoral system reform and the common European currency. My view, for what it’s worth, is that New Labour’s rise can be traced to the SDP moment – but only through the oblique, destructive method of helping keep ‘old’ Labour out of office for so long.

*   Campbell, Roy Jenkins: A Well-Rounded Life, 116
** Guildhall lecture, quoted in The Independent, 16.11.01. Cited by Campbell, Roy Jenkins: A Well-Rounded Life, 729.

Contributions to The Times Diary


8th May, 2014: Ukip, a song and dance act

10th December, 2013: Come clean, says Belle de Jour

20th November, 2013: Michael Palin the woodsman

15th November, 2013: Eric Pickles: ‘I wore white tie once. I looked like Oddjob’

16th October, 2013: I contributed this item about George Galloway’s gorgeous (and lucrative) house sale.

15th October, 2013: I contributed this item about the Eric Pickles road trip.

September 18th, 2013A small piece in The Times Diary last week about, of all things, Tom Daley’s swimming trunks.

The auction was raising money for The Mercury Phoenix Trust, an HIV charity set up shortly after the death of Freddie Mercury of Queen. Smashing event; I even saw Al Murray do a short gig. Despite the predictability of his routine it always cracks me up.

4th September, 2013: George Osborne’s fear of snow.

Most people think the Daily Mail should apologise. But which people?

The Sunday Times commissioned a YouGov poll for this long-form feature about the fallout from the Mail/Miliband spat, prompted by a fairly unsubstantiated headline in this Mail piece 9 days ago. The Guardian picked it up today for non-Times subscribers). The YouGov polling is given in full on their website.

The polling shows, to quote the ST editorial:

[that] 72% of the public think the newspaper’s description of Ralph Miliband as “the man who hated Britain” was unacceptable and 69% believe the Mail should apologise. A majority of Mail readers, 57%, think it should apologise for its headline.

I have only one observation on this, which is that it is the 57% figure – not the 69% one – that matters.

The Mail has miscalculated here in regard to its reputation with readers (I was about to write ‘to its commercial interests’, but I can’t believe Mail readers will stop buying as a result). The Mail has found itself not only on the wrong side of public opinion, a position it can and has weathered, but on the wrong side of its readers, a mistake that an editor can surely only make once.

However the Mail/Mili dispute (I really don’t want to christen it with the suffix ‘gate’) is probably a rare example of a newspaper judging its readership incorrectly. British newspapers are general-interest but they do not cater to a general audience. Most are fiercely partisan and have a fairly homogeneous readership that they know well. They largely don’t care what non-readers think provided that readers are happy.

This point is key, I think, to understanding the unyielding attitude that newspapers have against public opinion. Take the well-organised and marketed ‘No More Page 3’ campaign, which I blogged about over the summer. It commands public sympathy but has totally failed to get through to the only constituency that matters – Sun readers.

David Dinsmore, the Sun editor, understands that. He told the BBC:

”We did a survey last year and found that two thirds of our readers wanted to keep Page 3. What you find is people who are against Page 3 have never read the Sun and would never read the Sun.”

Few, if any, ‘No More Page 3’ campaigners and supporters buy the Sun. Nor is it likely that they will start if the feature is scrapped. The Sun’s market isn’t The Guardian’s (young, feminist, left-wing and university-educated).

Criticism of a newspaper in short, is futile unless it originates or appeals to those who read and buy it.

What is Tony Blair up to?

The interventions by the former prime minister have been so persistent in the last 10 days – a column in The Times, then The Sunday Times, and an appearance on Radio 4 this morning – as to be conspicuous.

Why is Blair throwing himself about the ring like this? He’s healthy, wealthy and, by virtue of his absences more than his interventions, is turning into more of an ‘elder statesman’ figure rather than the divisive leader he left office as in 2007.

The answer, I think, is that Blair has intervened because of both calculation and conviction. He’s a sincere interventionist, locking him into a rich tradition of liberal internationalism. But he also knows that if he can help the interventionists win the argument about Syria – an argument that is being made in moralistic terms – then the decision to intervene in Iraq may be looked on more favourably in generations hence.

Iraq wasn’t presented as a liberal project at the time; it was a straightforward case of facing down a threat to national security, a threat, it later emerged, that never existed. But if the internationalist principle prevails over Syria, then Iraq might – Blair hopes – fit into a similar narrative when historians write up the period in years hence.

Did Michael Gove ever really leave the Oxford Union?

Only a former Oxford Union hack could in the same sentence describe a political opponent as both “charming, intelligent, eloquent” and “uncertain, irresolute, weak”.

The tactic, as George Eaton puts it, consists in flattering one’s opponents into submission before sticking the knife in.

It’s a classic ploy used by members of the Oxford Union, the prestigious Oxford University debating society of which Gove was once President, to ridicule an interlocutor whilst appearing sincere and dispassionate to the audience.

I’ve been an Oxford Union member for two years and have seen the trick pulled too many times to count. To seasoned observers it’s boring and patronising at best, and slimy and disingenuous at worst. But it works.

In weighing up Miliband’s credentials, Gove creates the impression of balance by listing the Labour leader’s positive as well as negative attributes. In fact he gives the impression of doing more than that: six positive adjectives – charming, intelligent, eloquent, thoughtful, generous and chivalrous – against just three negative ones.

Of course Gove isn’t being fair at all. The compliments all allude to Miliband’s ‘Buddha-like qualities’ which, in the public eye, aren’t really qualities at all. Not against Cameron’s supposed strengths of certainty, resoluteness and strength which, Gove would have us believe, Miliband doesn’t possess.

But it’s not easy to spot the guise. Instead Gove’s apparent equanimity succeeds in depoliticising and legitimising the crushing conclusion that follows: that when asked “who governs Labour, his answer would appear to be, increasingly: the unions.”

Incidentally, Boris Johnson, another former Union President, repeatedly pulls the same trick of patronising a rival – David Cameron – while outwardly appearing warm and friendly. Johnson is the only politician with the nerve, and status, to get away with calling the Prime Minister ‘Dave’, which Johnson – who never forfeiting the status afforded by being two years above Cameron at Eton and then Oxford – regularly does in public.

If Gove really is “the politest man in politics”, then he is also the least authentic. A little of veteran Labour MP Dennis Skinner’s bad manners – accusing George Osborne of snorting cocaine (2005) and calling Jim Prior, then secretary of state for employment, the “minister of unemployment” (1980) – would help him recoup some much-needed authenticity.

Understanding Navalny

I was enjoying a quiet day at home until news of the royal baby’s imminent arrival started taking off on twitter, which is my usual vehicle for serial procrastination during profoundly unproductive days.

I’ve found an interesting refuge from the baby chat, though: the trial, conviction, and (temporary) release of opposition activist Alexey Navalny in Russia.

Navalny, succinctly profiled here by the BBC, made a name for himself exposing state and corporate corruption. He has provocatively called United Russia, the ruling regime, “the party of crooks and thieves” and has political aspirations; he hopes to run in the Moscow mayoral election in September.

The Putin-era judicial system metes out justice selectively to the Russian president’s political opponents, “using the courts against political opponents“, as Mikhail Gorbachev describes it. Navalny has farcically been convicted of embezzlement by a judge who has not delivered a single acquittal in his past 130 cases, displaying a “remarkable faith” in Russian state prosecutors, as the Sunday Times’ Mark Franchetti put it.

Alexey Navalny

Alexey Navalny

However Western politicians and journalists should be careful to avoid a lazy understanding of the Russian opposition. The temptation is to assume that our own concerns with the Putin regime – its thuggishness and intolerance towards opponents, at home and abroad – are the same as those of the domestic opposition.

But they are not. Navalny excites the West because he is a genuinely popular figure, with rising name recognition and sympathy, powered by capturing the social media generation. But this isn’t Obama ’08: Navalny’s politics are complicated and don’t fit easily into the liberal dissident stereotype assigned to him by the British press, notably the Guardian.

Of the three high-profile Putin-era victims – Khodorkovsky, Magnitsky and Navalny – only one  (Magnitsky) can in any sense be described as liberal. And he’s dead.

Khodorkovsky, as a friend from a Russian family points out, belonged to a tiny oligarchical elite that privatised the profits and the power of the nascent Russian state whilst society crumbled around them. His politics were, and remain, obscure: to read his recent Guardian op-ed you’d think he was a dissident liberal, a position that sits uncomfortably with the role of the oligarchs in marshalling the mass media to promote Yeltsin’s fledgling re-election bid in 1996.

Navalny is not wealthy, nor does he pursue wealth. But he represents the third wave of post-Soviet Russian nationalism (the first and second embodied by Yeltsin and Putin respectively). He has spoken at far-right rallies and has adopted a hostile attitude to immigrants who aren’t “native inhabitants” of Russia. As Miriam Elder, the Guardian’s Moscow correspondent, put it, “Navalny is far from perfect politically, very far” – that is, from a Western point of view.

But the truth is that other opposition figures such as Kasparov, who through my Dad’s chess connections I was fortunate enough to meet last year, stand little chance in Russian politics, hobbled by their cosmopolitan, Western lifestyle and outlook.

Navalny will not avoid prison. As the retrial of Khodorkovsky demonstrates, he may not even emerge from it when the 5 year sentence ends in 2013. But when Navalny becomes a free man again he will have a choice to make: draw on the support of wealthy, but unpopular, backers such as Khodorkovsky and Prokhorov, or unite an opposition that is distinctly Russian and excludes the big money.

In any case I suspect he won’t be in a position to make that choice for some time.

Why is Generation Y more right-wing?

There’s been a lot of chatter about the so-called ‘Generation Y’ recently.

The term describes the 18-33 demographic (those born in the 1980s onwards) that is allegedly more liberal, in the classical sense, than previous generations. The change is reflected in the increase in Tory affiliation, from 10% of those Gen Y folk polled in 1997 to 20% today.

Ipsos Mori pollster Bobby Duffy, who led the research, suggests “They believe people need to take greater personal responsibility rather than looking to the state – perhaps reflecting the fact that they have had less support themselves than other recent generations.”

I think that’s right. A welfare state depends on a spirit of trust and reciprocity existing between its recipients. ‘I owe it to pay him a pension because he subsidised my university tuition’ etc.

But what if your university tuition, or housing, or childcare costs, are no longer billed, in part, to someone else. You become less prepared to foot other people’s bills, right, especially groups like the unemployed who are unlikely to have been able to return the favour in the past, present or future.

It’s important to remember that the welfare state grew out of and was designed on a system of social insurance. You pay in, and you get out. That’s long since stopped being the reality, but what the polling represents, I think, is that the public’s understanding of welfare remains largely informed by the principle of insurance, not redistribution.