Reaching around 1.6m readers per day, The Sun is one of the most read newspapers in circulation- but also, one of the most controversial. Considering its history, many would ask how it sells any of those 1.6m copies; how many of these are sold in Liverpool, for example. Research (and basic knowledge of recent history) would suggest, very few. The rag was informally boycotted throughout Merseyside following its coverage of the Hillsborough Disaster. In September 2016, a campaign (which gives its name to the title of this article) backing a city-wide ban of the paper gained traction with the city council; Mayor Anderson reportedly said he’d “ban ‘The S*n’ across Merseyside” if he could.
Recently, The Sun and its rather unpleasant history has resurfaced in the news rounds following Liverpool FC’s ban on The Sun from their Anfield grounds. However, the callous, sensationalist and frankly, just plain incorrect reporting of the 1989 tragedy, is just one of The Sun’s many offences in its 52-year history. Among many smear campaigns including, immigrants, miners, the LGBTQ community (primarily during the HIV/AIDS epidemic), Muslims – even Freddie Starr and some poor woman’s hamster; The Sun’s history has been anything but free from outrage.
The problem with influence and inconsistency:
Spanning over half a century, The Sun has seen its fair share of different leaders, general elections and party reincarnations. Its current official alignment is with the Conservative Party (though one could argue its increasingly far-right views could fall under a category closer to UKIP.) Although, this political support has switched and changed with the tide, leader to leader, election to election. The paper claims no clear allegiance, even if currently described as right-wing; it declares itself rather as “radical.”
But why does this matter? The Sun’s editors have also changed over these past 52 years, as have the leadership and aims of each party. The political climate over the past half a century have been anything but halcyon- why would we expect a person, much less a newspaper, keep the same political opinion? The issue with the an ever-changing party line is influence.
‘It’s The Sun Wot Won It’
The infamous phrase, coined by the Tories over the 1992 General Election: ‘It’s the Sun Wot Won It’ rings worryingly true. The paper’s influence in this case was over their headline: “If Kinnock wins today, will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights.”
The following day, the results were in; the election was unexpectedly won by Conservative leader, John Major, over the Labour candidate, Neil Kinnock. After the downfall and effective ousting of Thatcher, the odds were overwhelmingly in Labour’s favour. Kinnock claimed his loss in the election could be attributed to the “misinformation and disinformation” spread by The Sun.
“I make and I seek no excuses, and I express no bitterness when I say that the Conservative-supporting press has enabled the Tory Party to win yet again when the Conservative Party could not have secured victory for itself on the basis of its record, its program or its character.” – Neil Kinnock, 13th April 1992
Many claimed The Sun had overstated its influence,“voters just did not believe Mr Kinnock was fit to run Britain.” However, even some Tories supported Kinnock’s view- namely Thatcher and Lord McAlpine who claimed that the editor, Kelvin MacKenzie, among editors of the Daily Mail and the Daily Express were the “heroes of this campaign.”
The Blair Years: The Sun goes red
The irony is that 5 years later, 6 weeks before the 1997 GE, The Sun had reverted their relentless campaign to turn voters against the Labour Party and were in full support for Tony Blair’s premiership; the headline “The Sun Backs Blair” spread over the covers of their 18th March 1997 issue. Despite the paper’s attacks on New Labour previously and a previous 20 years of Conservative support, they believed Blair was “the breath of fresh air this great country” needed.
The paper in late April 2005 even made a publicity stunt out of their political allegiance for the election. They had remained on the fence, claiming they’d “listen very carefully to Labour and the Tories between now and May 5, to see which party deserves the backing of [their] readers.” However on 20th April, à la the papal election, red smoke was seen coming from the chimney of their London office, indicating their support for Blair. Though, unlike their previous election campaigns, the paper’s support was hardly unwavering. Their headline “One Last Chance” doesn’t exactly echo their Major campaign or even their original campaign for Blair.
Murdoch, she wrote
This dramatic, almost theatrical, deciding of who ‘deserves’ the support of this tabloid almost makes it seem like the paper is ironically aware of its influence. The executive decision must be carefully taken and is no accident, as if the paper’s allegiance is a bellwether. This becomes more worrying when considering who is making this executive decision, as articulated by Roy Greenslade for The Guardian ,
“The paper’s change of allegiance is made more striking by the fact that owner Rupert Murdoch has always taken a direct part in the decision-making at every election.”
Rupert Murdoch: so infamous for his influence in swinging elections, The Independent and AVAAZ have launched campaigns around it, which interestingly enough, the younger Mr Murdoch did not take too kindly to.
Admittedly, the true extent of the rag’s influence may have been exaggerated over the years, but it feels somewhat naive to suggest their impact is non-existent . Arguably, the paper’s political persuasions wield a gross influence over such a large proportion of the population- to the point that they impact democracy. The question is: Do they merely hedge their bets and side with who they think will win? Or, more menacingly, do they intentionally choose the country’s winner? Though the latter may appear to be somewhat dramatic, their political leanings are no accident. The problem with The Sun is not solely their large influence on the a sizeable portion of the population. It is when this influence is paired with the sensationalism and lies found between the pages of the paper. The authority the paper holds means its fabricated articles become accepted facts in which voters have based decisions off of.
The counter-argument to this is a Daily Mail reader who yells “the electorate are individuals, who are capable enough to make decisions for themselves” and then walks away. This statement is entirely true- but there is a difference between capable and ill-informed. People base their voting persuasions off of something: ideology, personality of the PM, unity of the party, policies of the manifesto- which decision would improve life for them, their children, their income, their business. These decisions are however moulded by the information fed from the media; if, much like The Sun, this information is merely smear campaigns or simply isn’t true, this does potentially pose problems for democracy.
‘Ohhh, Jeremy Cor-byn’
Another caveat to the argument is, has it always worked? The most recent election would suggest not; Murdoch reportedly stormed out when the exit poll suggested a hung parliament. Despite The Sun‘s last ditch attempts to demonise Corbyn, they weren’t wholly successful; Labour increased their percentage of the vote more on June 8th than had been done since Attlee. However, perhaps this is as a result to The Sun‘s circulation dropping, not their overall political influence waning, as a YouGov poll has shown, around 60% of The Sun‘s readers still voted Conservative: the ‘winner’ of the election.
The S*n: the history of a rag
The Sun’s aforementioned history of borderline yellow journalism has targeted many over the last half-a-century. Aside from their political inconsistency, the rag has had its a fair share of victims. It has made attempts to condemn their past crimes; most memorably covering their tracks when condemnation against Hillsborough became universally unacceptable. The editor from 1989, Kelvin MacKenzie, offered “profuse apologies to the people of Liverpool for that headline.” Though that particular apology took 2 decades to utter and other aspects of the paper clearly have not changed. The “Zip You Up Before You Go-Go” headline, covering the public arrest and outing of the late George Michael in 1998 isn’t a far cry from the Sun’s February 2017 headline “Naughty But Nurse” needlessly outing a 23 year old NHS nurse who had appeared in gay porn. An article they later deleted after considerable backlash, but did not publicly acknowledge it. Most recently, their true colours have again been exposed in their response to the Grenfell Towers fire in which they allegedly pretended to be a relative of a victim in King’s College hospital to interview them .
At best, the ‘paper’ is just poor, sensationalist journalism, used to sell copies by the million; at worst, it is worryingly powerful and dangerous, showing little common decency, even in times of great disaster. Whether their moral track record, Murdoch or the political power they hold, don’t buy The Sun.
- Political Support, Wikipedia
- ‘It’s The Sun Wot Won It’, Wikipedia
- Kinnock Says He Will Quit as Labor Party Leader, the New York Times
- How did Labour lose in ’92?, the Independent
- Could it be the Sun wot wins it again?, BBC
- Sun sends smoke signal to Labour, BBC
- It’s the Sun wot’s switched sides back to Blair, The Guardian
- The Independent launches election-themed campaign, Campaign
Ads attacking Sun and Mail ‘fear and smear’, The Guardian
James Murdoch ambushes Indy editor, Financial Times
- How Britain voted, YouGov
- The Sun deletes story outing gay NHS nurse, PinkNews
- Journalist pretends to act as relative to Grenfell fire victim, The Guardian