‘The Sun Wot Won It’?

When has media coverage really influenced politics?

Artillery Row

One has to feel sorry for Boris Johnson. Not only is he still recovering from the after-effects of coronavirus and attempting to deal with his newborn son, but his reaction to the Daily Telegraph’s VE Day front page can only be imagined. The average reader might have expected that the newspaper would publish something sympathetic to the government, given its usual support for it. Perhaps it would even carry an op-ed written by the prime minister, stressing our country’s resilience in the current time of trouble and implicitly emphasising the parallels between him and Winston Churchill. It did not.

Instead, in what can only be described as a provocation of the highest order, it splashed on a statement by Sir Keir Starmer, saying “We owe it to VE Day generation to protect them from virus in care homes.” Over an emotive picture of a 94-year old WWII veteran saluting to mark the occasion behind a window, the main story covered a piece that Starmer had written for the Telegraph in which he stressed that the VE Day generation should be treated with “dignity and respect” and that the country owed “so much to those who protected our country in its darkest hour.” There is no mention of the prime minister until the eighth paragraph, and the casual reader would draw the inference that the government has failed our veterans in a time of need, in a way that the new, patriotically-inclined Labour party would not, complete with its articulate new leader. He is even a knight of the realm.

This represents an extreme volte-face from the Labour party’s previous incarnation under Jeremy Corbyn, a man who gave every impression of despising his own country and who believed that patriotism was, to quote Dr Johnson, “the last refuge of a scoundrel.” One of the innumerable reasons why Labour lost the election last year was that the average working-class voter, especially in the Midlands and Northern communities that made up the so-called “red wall” of traditional Labour voters, no longer believed that “their party” believed in Britain or took any pride in their country. David Cameron may not have had much time to make an impact against Corbyn, but his memorable jeer at PMQs that his opponent should “put on a proper suit, do up his tie and sing the national anthem” resonated for years afterwards in the minds of voters. Three and a half years later, they rejected the politics of negativity in favour of the politics of patriotism, or so they believed.

Yet events happen with frightening speed, and the media have sometimes struggled to keep up with developments in a satisfying or authoritative fashion. For decades, the print newspaper was the main way in which the average Englishman read his news, and his choice of which paper to read influenced his politics and worldview. As Jim Hacker put it in Yes, Prime Minister, “The Daily Mirror is read by people who think they run the country; The Guardian is read by people who think they ought to run the country; The Times is read by the people who actually do run the country; the Daily Mail is read by the wives of the people who run the country; the Financial Times is read by people who own the country; the Morning Star is read by people who think the country ought to be run by another country, and the Daily Telegraph is read by people who think it is.” When asked by Sir Humphrey about the role that the Sun plays, the PM’s private secretary Bernard responds “Sun readers don’t care who runs the country, as long as she’s got big tits.”

Surprisingly little has changed since the mid-Eighties, when the programme was first aired, although perhaps the attitudes of Mirror and Sun readers have. Few would now look at the former paper and think that it was especially different to many of the other tabloids, despite its obviously left-wing sympathies. Its coverage of the government is more overtly critical than the right-wing tabloids, but otherwise its interests remain consistent with the other mass-market papers, content to focus on a mixture of celebrity gossip, outrage at whatever public wrongdoings have been committed and support for high-profile charitable causes, not least the NHS, which somehow seems to have metamorphosed into a charity itself despite being funded by the government.

The Sun, however, is a different beast altogether. As anyone who has seen James Graham’s play about its foundation, Ink, will know, it was acquired by Rupert Murdoch and re-marketed as a lowbrow paper aimed squarely at working-class men who enjoyed the prurience of the topless models on page 3, voted without particular enthusiasm for either party and worked in manual or unskilled occupations.

It was not until Margaret Thatcher’s time as prime minister that the Sun became politically engaged, but its support for the Falklands War and its famous headlines (‘GOTCHA’ on the sinking of the Belgrano) led to a strong Conservative bias that persisted throughout her period in office and through to John Major’s surprising victory in 1992. It claimed credit for the victory (‘IT’S THE SUN WOT WON IT’) because of its simple, hugely effective election day headline: “If Kinnock wins today, will the last person to leave Britain turn off the lights?”

It remains a matter of conjecture as to whether the Sun would have supported John Smith, but when it endorsed Tony Blair and New Labour in March 1997, it was following, rather than influencing, public opinion. Murdoch and the paper’s then-editor, the now largely forgotten Stuart Higgins, had been assiduously courted by Blair and his circle, but then so had all right-wing titles. It was a greater revelation when, once William Hague become leader, the paper, now edited by David Yelland, published a damning photo during party conference season of Hague’s face superimposed on a dead parrot, and the headline alluded to Monty Python by saying “This party is no more…it has ceased to be… this is an ex-party.”

the rise of Starmerism is going to be a very interesting phenomenon to follow in the media over the next few years.

The Sun would not support the Conservatives again until 2009, under David Cameron’s leadership, when it chose to announce its shift during the Labour Party conference. That occasion was marked by a furious Peter Mandelson calling up the paper’s executives to denounce them as a “bunch of c—s,” an explosive outburst that Mandelson would later claim was a mishearing for “a bunch of chumps,” an expression seldom voiced outside the pages of the Beano.

Since then, the Sun has supported the Conservatives solidly, although not without reservations, and most other papers’ allegiances have been predictable. There have, however, been some surprises. It was widely rumoured in 2010 that the Guardian would not go so far as endorsing Cameron and his party, but might offer a considered neutrality in their editorials. While this did not happen (despite Cameron having previously contributed a column to the paper while an MP), it was still an indication of how bored Fleet Street was with a moribund Labour government under the rudderless leadership of Gordon Brown: a man who is now routinely deified as a sage and statesman. O tempora, o mores.

A greater challenge came with Corbyn, whose hard-left politics took him closer to the views of the Morning Star than any of the national newspapers. It became an especial joy to watch the Guardian tying itself up in ideological knots trying to decide whether to support Labour under his leadership or not, given its links with his chief advisor Seumas Milne on the one hand and the antipathy that many of its soft-left writers displayed towards Corbynism. Several publications that might have been expected to endorse Labour in last year’s election, such as the Observer and New Statesman, refused to do so, citing both institutional antisemitism and incompetence. The result was Labour’s greatest electoral defeat since 1935, and a subsequent repudiation of Corbynism with the landslide election of Starmer and his subsequent reshaping of the party.

It is impossible to say what will happen next. Writing in Conservative Home, its editor Paul Goodman counsels against the VE Day Telegraph cover being seen as influential as the centrists of Twitter might wish, noting “twenty-five years ago, its gesture would have rattled Downing Street to its core. Not now. Newspapers are a declining force.” With lockdown still (nominally at least) in force, sales of papers are collapsing, and so a grand gesture like this could be interpreted as a shot across Downing Street’s bows as much as a tacit endorsement of Starmer. It is a reminder that a newspaper so associated with Johnson personally is still capable of exercising editorial independence rather than being a wholly owned subsidiary of the Conservative party.

Yet the rise of Starmerism, as we now must call it, is going to be a very interesting phenomenon to follow in the media over the next few years. There are countless problems and traps that await him, quite apart from whatever happens with Covid-19 – a vast Tory majority, the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s no doubt damning report on Labour’s institutional antisemitism, an inquiry into the recent leak of documents written by those unsympathetic towards Corbynism – and a few well-chosen words and indulgence shown towards him by a press who would like a functioning opposition once again do not mean that he will ever enjoy such sympathetic treatment again.

Nonetheless, it is likely that Boris Johnson, if he does comment on the Telegraph’s front page, might choose to echo the words of Stanley Baldwin when he was attacked during the abdication crisis of 1936 by the usually sympathetic News Chronicle; Baldwin reported that he felt “as if he had been wounded in the house of a friend.” Our prime minister will realise, if he has not already, that those friends in the media that he has will inevitably be fair-weather ones.

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