Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Don't know what you've got till it's gone.

They must have known it was coming, but the defection of the Sun back to the Tories after 12 years of "supporting" Labour has still quite clearly shook Labour. While the paper's representatives claim that it was yesterday's speech that finally confirmed they could no longer support the party, it's been obvious that the switch has been coming ever since last year's Conservative conference, when it gave David Cameron the sort of positive coverage he must have dreamed of. Since then the paper has been overwhelmingly anti-Labour without necessarily being anti-Brown. Some of the signs have been slight: calling Cameron "prime minister" when he was invited onto the paper's recently launched piss-poor online radio show was one, but the demand for an immediate general election earlier in the year was far less guarded.

The final nail in Brown's coffin was more than likely David Cameron's decision during his speech on quangos to focus almost solely on Ofcom, the regulator which is currently investigating whether Sky has an unfair stranglehold on the pay-TV market. With Cameron's culture secretary making menacing noises towards the BBC, which the Murdochs have all but declared war on due to the fact that their news websites simply can't compete with the far superior corporation offerings, it's clear that the Murdochs can now trust Cameron not to hurt their businesses just as they once trusted Tony Blair not to. That's the first condition of Murdochian support filled; the second is that you're going to win, and few are willing to bet anything other than a Conservative victory come next year.

It's still curious then that the paper has come out so decisively for the Tories when there is still plenty of time for anything to happen. The paper, after all, didn't swap sides until March in 97, when the Labour victory was already in the bag. As unlikely as it currently seems that there could yet be a fourth Labour term, it's not the first time that Murdoch's papers have got it wrong recently: the New York Post endorsed McCain last year. As a comfort, it's unlikely to warm the hearts of the Labour leadership.

More likely to do so is that the Sun is no longer the behemoth that it once was. While gaining the support of the Sun has always been second to gaining the support of Rupert Murdoch, the other major reason why Blair and Alastair Campbell entered into the original pact with the devil was, as Campbell said himself, he was never going to allow the Labour leader's head to be in a light-bulb on the front page on voting day again. While actual support for a political party from a newspaper on voting day has little to no impact whatsoever on the votes cast, it was the constant demonisation, undermining and ridicule which Kinnock was subject to, especially in the tabloid press, that helped to ensure he never became prime minister. The key difference today is that the Sun is no longer the attack dog it once was; while the paper ostensibly supported the Tories up until March 97, Kelvin MacKenzie famously told John Major after Black Wednesday that he had a bucket of shit and that the next morning he was going to pour it all over his head. MacKenzie might still be a columnist, and the likes of Bob Ainsworth might now be the person having a bucket of shit thrown over him repeatedly, but unlike back in 97, the media has now diversified to such an extent that the paper doesn't have the hold it once did. If anything, the paper has overplayed both its hand and its influence: it is still feared and respected mainly because of its former reputation rather than because of what it currently is.

One of the many repeated myths spouted today by those who deal in clich├ęs is that the Sun follows its readers rather than getting its readers to follow it. Perhaps at times they get surprised by the strength of reaction, but this is a newspaper that wraps itself in what it thinks its readers want as defence against criticism, as a reassurance that it's what they want, and finally to tell them that because they're saying they want it, then it must be true. If anything the Sun is probably one of those newspapers which has the least loyal readership: the circulation of the broads, while falling, has not changed hugely since the advent of the internet; the tabloids, with the exception of the Mail and the Daily Star, have seen theirs fall massively. At one point the Sun dropped below the 3 million sales mark, triggering an almost panic-stricken price cut. Even with its lower circulation, the Daily Mail now almost certainly sets the agenda far more often than the Sun does.

This didn't of course stop the love affair between Blair and the paper, which remained to the advantage of both. For Blair, always determined to annoy the left of his party while reaching out to the cherished middle Britain, it served a double purpose. For the paper, it meant exclusives of even the most banal significance: Piers Morgan in his diaries was furious on a number of occasions about the access which the Sun got while the Mirror was shut out, most famously when someone (probably Cherie herself) told Rebekah Wade that the Blairs were having another baby, a story which Morgan believed was to be a Mirror exclusive. It meant obscene cooperation between the two, including policy stitch-ups involving asylum seekers. While New Labour and the Sun's politics may not look close at first examination, both shared, indeed share a contempt for civil liberties and an unaccountable lust for social authoritarianism, even if Blair could never come close to putting the paper's demands into action. On foreign policy, the two were inseparable: the Sun has always believed that might is right, and the fact that Blair dressed up his wars in the language of "liberal interventionism" only made them even more attractive.

Arguably, there have only been two occasions when Labour genuinely needed the support of the Murdoch press. Without the unstinting loyalty of all Murdoch's organs between the Iraq war and up to the end of the Hutton inquiry, there was still a possibility that Blair could have been forced out. In 2005 the paper all but abandoned the party except over Blair's wars. The real reason why remains Murdoch's certainty that the war was going to lead to oil at $20 a barrel, something that has not even come close to reality. The other occasion, is, well, now. Just when the party needs support, it loses it. This was the especially brutal part of the Sun's sudden but long in coming decision, knowing full well that it was not just kicking someone while they were down, it was the equivalent of a desecration of a corpse. Any hope that there might be the slightest boost from Brown's speech has been neutralised. David Cameron really must be delighted with the outcome, and again, this only highlights exactly why he's installed Andy Coulson as his very own Alastair Campbell.

As for the Sun's actual supposed reasons and dossier of "Labour failure", they're mostly so flimsy as to be not even worth bothering with. The dossier puts together often completely irrelevant data, and when it doesn't, it naturally cherry picks the information it relies on. On justice the paper absurdly highlights the cost of legal aid, as if the giving those who can't afford it access to briefs was a bad thing. It highlights the rise in alcohol tax receipts since 97 without pointing out this might be something to do with err, the rise in tax on it and not just increased sales. It compares the spending on police with the rise in deaths by stabbings, without mentioning that last year saw the lowest number of murders since the 80s. It also uses the 2007 figures rather than the 2008 ones, which saw a fall from 270 fatal stabbings to 252. Their data even directly contradicts some of the claims made in the leader, such as here:

But they FAILED on law and order, their mantra "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime" becoming a national joke. Knife murders are soaring.

Their dossier shows that knife murders between 2006 and 2007 soared by, err, 1. In 2005 they were down to 219, then leapt in 2006 to 269, only two more than there were in 2002. As pointed out above, fatal stabbings were down to 252 in 2008, hence proving the editorial completely wrong. The weapon used should be irrelevant: it's that there are murders, not that one particular weapon is used. The idiocy continues:

Smirking criminals routinely walk free in the name of political correctness, while decent people live in a virtual police state of snooping cameras and petty officials empowered to spy and to punish.

The idea that criminals walk free in the name of political correctness is so ludicrous as to be not worth dealing with, while if there is a virtual police state, it was the Sun that helped create it. When has it ever opposed more CCTV cameras or more state powers? Answer: never.

Most disgracefully of all, Labour FAILED our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, leaving them to die through chronic under-funding and the shambolic leadership of dismal Defence Secretaries like Bob Ainsworth.

Again, their dossier shows that spending on defence has risen year on year. The real people who failed our troops in Iraq were those who demanded they be sent in in the first place, but the Sun has never pointed its finger at itself. It wasn't those fighting them that left them to die, but then it also clearly wasn't Baby P's parents that killed him. It was instead the system:

Billions blown employing a useless layer of public service middle-managers like those who condemned Baby P to die.

Everything about this leader is backward looking, trying to turn the country back to halcyon days which never existed. Murdoch, despite his Australian-American citizenship, is a nationalist wherever his newspapers are. Loyal in China, neo-conservative in America and anti-Europe here, he somehow imagines that if only we were to spend more on defence and give the troops what they "need", they'd instantly "win". This doesn't of course apply to anyone else, but this is the kind of outlook we're dealing with. The leader concludes with:

If elected, Cameron must use the same energy and determination with which he reinvigorated the Tory Party to breathe new life into Britain.

That means genuine, radical change to encourage self-improvers, not wasting time on internal party wrangling or pandering to the forces of political correctness. It also means an honesty and transparency of Government that we have not seen for years.

We are still a great people and, put to the test, will respond to the challenges we face.

The Sun believes - and prays - that the Conservative leadership can put the great back into Great Britain.

Sub-Churchillian jingoism which turns the stomach. This is the relationship which Labour is crying and angry about losing today, to such an extent that it seems to have almost made Gordon Brown walk out on an interview. Labour never needed the Sun, but now it doesn't know what it had.

1 comment:

Richard T said...

It would be too much to hope that in its declining months the government would finally undo the deal that Blair did and actually legislate on foreign media ownership. Why should a foreigner dictate politics in this country?

Incidentally in passing what's Irvin (Alka) Seltzer got on the press in this country? It seems that Murdoch's emissary has an open door to every paper to prate his extreme free market views so the UK models the USA?