1980s >> 1984 >> no-961-september-1984

Under the Sun

It is not easy to reconcile today’s Sun newspaper (for such it purports to be) with its origins as a strike-sheet — a straight trade union print-out intended to promote the immediate aims of organised labour within the capitalist system. It was later to mature into the Daily Herald. although not without considerable help from the TUC and the encouragement of that doughty pillar of the British establishment, Ernest Bevin. Even so, the Herald experienced a somewhat bumpy ride and in 1929 it was taken over by Odham’s. Employing a gallery of illustrious names (H.G. Wells and Edgar Wallace among them) it flourished for a time, but this success was not to survive long after the War. The editorial and other material, controlled by the dead hand of the TUC, was manifestly driving readers away. Even when the TUC agreed to stand aside, sales and advertising revenue continued to fall.

Enter Cecil King and Hugh Cudlipp of the Daily Mirror empire; the year, 1961. King at first attempted to resuscitate the Herald in its old form and under its old masthead. He soon realised that something more radical was indicated, hence the emergence of the Sun — not yet the Sun of today but nonetheless a cheap and nasty tabloid. In September 1964, then, there appeared on the news-stands “a newspaper born of the age we live in”. Simon Jenkins, in his book Newspapers: The Power and the Money asserts that the idea was to attract “O” and “A” level school leavers, together with the “young, wealthier, more dynamic, more female”.

But the dynamic, young, wealthy females, no doubt clutching their “O” and “A” level certificates, evidently decided to spend elsewhere, for it rapidly became clear that the newspaper born of the age we live in was fast heading for an earlier one — that of the Styx. Within three years it was losing £175,000 a year. Capitalist operators such as Cecil King are not normally noted for losing sight of their true interests, so when the Mirror group put their ailing offspring on the market the prime bidder, a grasping and implacably ruthless millionaire, Rupert Murdoch, must have cracked a flagon or two of vintage champers by way of self-congratulation. For he had spotted what King and Cudlipp had missed — a large, undereducated readership which could be poached from the Daily Mirror.

So it was that in 1969 Rupert Murdoch set about promoting the Sun as an unashamedly vulgar, politically shrill gossip-sheet openly appealing to all that is least attractive. Is it not the humorist H.L. Mencken who is credited with the remark “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American people”? Murdoch had already enjoyed a sound apprenticeship in the Antipodes where his predatory exploits in the tangled thickets of the Australian press and TV had become legendary. His first toehold in Fleet Street was to be his acquisition of the News of the World. The Sun followed, but not without a struggle with Robert Maxwell of Pergamon Press, who had made promises of constitutional support for Labour, continuation of title, and insistence that he would run the paper on a non-profitmaking basis. The board of IPC were unimpressed.

Murdoch moved the Sun onto his Bouverie Street presses and, as indicated, set about reducing an already cheap and nasty product to what has to be an all-time journalistic low. As Simon Jenkins (op. cit.) has observed, the Sun was translated into a “lurid tabloid making a special feature of naked ladies on page three”. To put it a little less delicately. Murdoch was pitching for the bum and tits brigade. And of course his ideas proved profitably sound. The Sun’s sales rocketed, threatening even the paramountcy of its erstwhile stable-mate, the Mirror. In fact, the Mirror shortly followed Murdoch’s example, at least on page three, but not before that paper’s management had conducted something of a soul-search over whether or not to display nipples. But then, something had to be done to defend a paper which had enjoyed a seemingly unassailable daily sales record of five million. The fact remained, however, that Murdoch revealed a completely new and richly rewarding corner of the market. He has been busily exploiting it ever since.

It is interesting and instructive to speculate as to why these fairly recent innovations materialised. The Sun’s readership had not, after all, been simply spirited up by Murdoch. The truth is that it is necessary to take account of wide-ranging structural changes which had taken place in the field of media communication as a whole, chief among them television. Jenkins sees a steady but remorseless decline in what he terms the “middle ground tabloid readership” spread over the last twenty-five years, and he places the responsibility squarely on television. In doing so he recognises that cheesecake remains the monopoly of the tabloids (“but should TV enter this particular field, would the tabloids go for porn?” he asks).

Anyway, a turgid mix of “racy stories, naked girls and punch sports presentation” saw the Sun’s sales climb from one million copies daily to over three in four years. The Daily Sketch had been forced into closure and the Mirror was obliged to re-think its position. As we have seen, Murdoch had already secured a firm foothold in Fleet Street with his acquisition of the News of the World. In retrospect this can have been no mere purchase of the first newspaper that offered itself. Murdoch must have sensed the weaknesses in the British tabloid press like a shark scenting a wounded swimmer. The News of the World, despite its tradition of squalid, cheque-book journalism, provided him not so much with experience of low-grade journalism — Murdoch had little to learn in that quarter — but with premises and, crucially, presses. The failing Sun having virtually dropped into his lap. Murdoch also inherited a tamed labour-force which, having stared disaster in the face under the old management, proved only too ready to negotiate with him. Murdoch secured manning reductions of up to 25 per cent. Even in the usually militant machine rooms he had no difficulty in obtaining all he needed from NATSOPA and the NGA.

The result has been that the News of the World and the Sun have been producing substantial profits ever since. Not that there haven’t been a few darker clouds. Murdoch has experienced trouble in the machine room over increasing print-runs, a problem which affected the delicate production balance among other print-workers in Fleet Street. In 1973 Murdoch was paid out for his own competitive greed when other newspaper proprietors refused to stand by him in a joint effort to defeat militant print-workers. Characteristically, Murdoch later (1978) did a unilateral deal with his own workers, this time in New York.

In the meantime, with the aid of his utterly obliging and sycophantically dependent editor Larry Lamb (who, despite everything, may still be heard proclaiming himself a “socialist”), Murdoch drove the Sun ever further rightward. It became even more strident, vulgar and unprincipled, matching the equally strident and unprincipled trumpetings of Thatcher, whose loyal servant it had evidently become. (Remember the Sun’s Falklands war-cry: “The paper that supports our boys”?)

In other respects the paper became quite simply a megaphone for its proprietor and the wealthy establishment of which he is a member. It quickly became apparent that the Sun would stop at nothing. It made — and makes — a special point of traducing left-wing politicians and the more articulate and militant trade union figures. Indeed, any working class political activity is fair game.

So how. then, do we sum up the Sun? In essence it is no different from any other newspaper in that it exists primarily in order to make a profit for the capitalist who owns and controls it. It also serves as a medium through which that capitalist can try to sell his political line to millions of otherwise un- or underinformed workers and their families. He does this, not honestly and openly, but by dangling before his readers a superficially juicy yet essentially nauseating bait of all that is cheap, nasty, salacious, trivial and spuriously sensational. Hugh Cudlipp has described Murdoch’s Sun as “a Woolworth edition of the Marks and Spencer Daily Mirror“, (Walking on the Water).

Perhaps we can leave the last word with George Crabbe (1784) and his poem The Newspaper (as quoted by the Royal Commission on the Press, 1977):

So moral essays in his front appear
But all is carnal business in the rear.

Richard Cooper