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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The ethics of stinging

The Sunday Mirror reports today that Brooks Newmark, a Conservative minister, has resigned from the government after exchanging sexually explicit messages with a fictitious Tory activist.

An unidentified freelance male reporter (Alex Wickham, perhaps, by the looks of his twitter feed last night) assumed the profile of a young, blonde female activist, ‘Sophie Wittams’, and interacted with Newmark over several months. Ultimately, “during ­flirtatious chats and photo exchanges, [Newmark] sent a graphic snap exposing himself while wearing a pair of paisley pyjamas,” the Mirror reported gleefully.

According to a Buzzfeed report the freelance reporter had gone on something of a fishing expedition, sending tweets to several Conservative MPs. Newmark was the only one who took the bait.

Newmark behaved like an idiot, clearly. The U.S.-born politician will have followed the Anthony Weiner saga carefully enough to know that sexting has a nasty habit of precipitating ugly falls from grace.

….but, is this good journalism? ‘Stings’ are controversial because the journalists involved don’t simply uncover bad behaviour; they actively invite and facilitate it.

Often we judge that such activist reporting is necessary because it exposes worrying corruption or criminal behaviour. Recent stings include the Sunday Times (£) teasing Tim Yeo MP into agreeing to a sort of cash-for-influence arrangement. More controversially, The Sun on Sunday last year helped Tulisa Contostavlos fall into “cocaine deal shame”.

The key ethical question when it comes to stings, as Roy Gleenslade wrote in a blog post last year, is this: ‘is there enough prima facie evidence of wrongdoing by a person to warrant a sophisticated sting operation?’

The answer here is surely ‘no’.

But Lloyd Embley, editor-in-chief of the Mirror titles, has a riposte: the public interest defence.

How persuasive is that? The message the Mirror wants readers to buy is that Newmark’s sexting somehow conflicts with his laudable role in the Women2Win campaign group. That’s a tough case to make, to put it lightly.

A cruel passage in the Mirror’s exposé, I think, is further down. Newmark’s resignation, we are told, “comes as Westminster faces angry calls to crackdown on a culture of lechery and sexism in the wake of several sex scandals including accusations made against Lib Dem Lord Rennard by female party members.”

We aren’t told why Newmark’s messages represent sexist or lecherous behaviour.

Update: Roy Greenslade and Zoe Williams have both written pieces in the Guardian which are worth linking to

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.