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 Sun’s Page 3: here to stay?

This twitter exchange, between the Evening Standard’s Rosamund Urwin and the FT’s Duncan Robinson, just caught my eye.

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Urwin has written a piece detailing her objections. Lots of people agree with her; over 100,000 have now signed the Change.org petition.

The problem, as Robinson notes, is that few – if any – of those people buy the Sun. Nor is it likely that page 3 activists will start buying the tabloid if the daily feature is scrapped. The campaigners – mostly, if not entirely, female, left-wing and with university aspirations or degrees – just aren’t their market.

That’s the conclusion David Dinsmore, the new Sun editor, has reached in any case. He told BBC Radio 5 live on Monday that “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.”

Urwin, if you accept her arguments (which I mostly do), is right about the insidious effects of page 3. But Robinson is also right that the campaign is undermined by its lack of commercial leverage.

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Despite a new editor reaffirming a commitment to page 3, I think they’re two good reasons why itwill probably be gone within a decade.

1. The logic of Dinsmore’s position implies that however much the public detests page 3, the paper’s content is solely a function of its readers’ preferences. But as the public’s revulsion develops and hardens, even whilst Sun readers remain staunch fans, the Sun will start getting hurt. If the public, including elites, start to understand the Sun as essentially smut then it will be taken less seriously as a newspaper: journalists will leave it for rival publications, politicians won’t grant it interviews and its general influence in Westminster will deteriorate. At that point Dinsmore, not to mention Murdoch, may start to reconsider how lucrative page 3 really is.

2. For commercial reasons alone the argument for keeping page 3 has already weakened drastically. When you can now access soft porn on a mobile phone, as and when you wish, the feature is no longer exclusive, sensational or even that tittilating compared to what else is available online. At a guess I’d say the circulation fall from ditching page 3 would be really quite small as a result; Sun readers may enjoy page 3, but for most of them I doubt it’s the main reason they pick up the paper.