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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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.

Interview: Andrew Adonis

I interviewed Andrew Adonis earlier this year, shortly before an Oxford Union debate. We were due to meet before the debate but sadly he had to cancel on that and so we spoke on the telephone instead.

He’s a lovely man, so nice in fact that I struggled to say anything rude about him in the interview write-up, which is unusual for me.

He’s in politics for the right reasons, which perhaps is why he never rose high enough in the Labour governments to really command education policy.