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Τετάρτη, 17 Ιουλίου, 2024

Will The Sun newspaper endorse Keir Starmer’s Labour Party?

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5 days ago

By Katie Razzall, @katierazz, Culture and Media Editor

Sir Keir Starmer and the UK newspaper empire belonging to the Murdoch family enjoy some previous.

Back in 2014, Sir Keir was England and Wales’s chief prosecutor in the run-up to the trial of senior News International staff accused of phone hacking.

Ten years on, could the Murdoch empire be about to tell readers of its Sun newspaper to vote for Sir Keir to be prime minister? And if they do, does it matter?

“Nightmare on Downing Street” was how the paper referred to the prospect of Jeremy Corbyn winning the 2019 election. The mood at the paper in 2024 feels different.

In a recent interview with the Sun on Sunday, the Labour leader made what the paper called a landmark pledge: “Read my lips – I will bring immigration numbers down.” The paper said the promise “parks Labour tanks firmly on Tory lawns”.

In 1997, Stuart Higgins was editor of the Sun. His paper had worshipped Margaret Thatcher but ahead of the election that year, it decided time was up on her successor John Major and the paper backed Labour, with the front page screaming: “The Sun backs Blair”. It backed them again in 2001 and 2005 before switching to the Tories ahead of the 2010 election.

The Sun has only ever backed the party who go on to get the most MPs at every election, going as far back as Margaret Thatcher’s first victory in 1979.

Higgins sniffs change now too, for Labour. “In a couple of weeks it will be, I think, probably a cautious endorsement. There won’t be the great fanfare of a clever old Sun headline,” he says.

The Sun / News Licensing

At the time, the Sun took credit for delivering John Major’s 1992 election victory

“There’s not going to be, ‘We’re only here for the Keir’ or ‘Keir we go’ or ‘Stormer Starmer’,” he tells me.

“It’s going to be a lot more subtle, caveated support that is basically going to be saying, ‘we will get behind you, but we’re going to be watching you very, very carefully because we’re not really wholeheartedly behind you. But we recognise that the country is fed up with the Tories, and in the same way as 97, the country needs a breath of fresh air and perhaps needs to give Keir Starmer and the Labour Party a chance.'”

This is not 1997. Back then the Sun sold four million copies a day, and it believed that a quarter of the working age population were reading it.

As leader of the opposition in 1995, Tony Blair flew to Australia to address a Murdoch empire conference. This time around there hasn’t been quite the same courtship, although Sir Keir did attend the Sun’s Who Cares Wins awards.

One suggestion is that the Labour leader is not as bothered by the endorsement of the Sun as some in his team. But according to Stuart Higgins: “There are distinctive discussions and significant discussions going on.”

Rupert Murdoch decided the Sun would support Labour ahead of the 1997 election

The journalist and former Labour adviser Tom Baldwin has spoken at length to Sir Keir for his biography of the Labour leader, Keir Starmer: The Biography. He suggests that his main priority has been to avoid the kind of “campaign of vilification” that the Sun unleashed on his predecessors Gordon Brown, Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn.

“Although the Sun doesn’t matter as much as it did – and sometimes thinks it still does – no-one really wants to be caught in its crosshairs,” says Mr Baldwin, who was a senior adviser when Mr Miliband took on Rupert Murdoch over phone hacking.

“If Starmer can get an endorsement that would be a bonus. But, unlike Tony Blair 30 years ago, he hasn’t flown halfway across the world to bend his knee to Rupert for an endorsement.”

The relationship between Sir Keir and the Murdoch empire has been much pored over. There have been suggestions that the two have cut a deal by watering down Labour’s support for press regulation, but Tom Baldwin says that this is a lower priority for the Labour leader than issues such as social media regulation and securing funding for the BBC.

Rupert Murdoch officially stepped down from News Corp last year, leaving his son Lachlan as sole chair. The current CEO of the empire’s UK arm News UK is Rebekah Brooks. She was among those prosecuted for intercepting voicemails before being acquitted.

Da Yelland succeeded Stuart Higgins as the Sun’s editor. “I was always of the view that the current team at News UK would find it impossible to back Keir Starmer because of what happened,” Mr Yelland tells me.

He believes “long memories” is one of the reasons why the Sun’s endorsement will be “half-hearted”.

The Sun claimed prosecutors had unfairly charged its newspapers

Phone hacking aside, the Sun and Sir Keir are not an obvious fit. The Labour leader may talk of bringing down immigration but he and the Sun’s political editor Harry Cole and veteran columnist Trevor Kavanagh are some distance apart politically.

But in our increasingly fragmented media landscape, how much does an endorsement by the Sun (or any newspaper) actually matter?

Newspaper circulation is a fraction of what it once was and that offers up a “more healthy” media environment, Andrew Neil, the journalist and Spectator Group chairman, told me on BBC Radio 4’s Media Show recently. The era of the Sun and the Mirror as really powerful forces in the land has gone, he says.

Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s former spokesman and a former Daily Mirror political editor, says the papers are less important than they were, due to a combination of falling sales and aging readership. But he believes that the news cycle means the press’ influence on the broadcast media “remains important”.

Katie Perrior, who was spokeswoman for Theresa May in Downing Street, agrees. When the broadcasters are planning the day’s headlines, “they’re still taking some of those from our national newspapers that drop at 10pm the night before”.

The political parties do still care a great deal about broadcast. Despite a fall from the heights of previous decades, BBC News at Six still brings in an average 3.7 million viewers a night.

But audience behaviours have shifted. The BBC’s UK news app enjoys the kind of reach the Sun enjoyed in the glory days – the app reaches around seven million phones when it sends out a news alert. And the parties now spend hundreds of thousands of pounds on their digital campaigns – this time around, the talk is of it being the first Tiktok election.

In 1992 when John Major’s Conservatives beat Neil Kinnock’s Labour, the Sun proclaimed “It’s the Sun Wot Won It”, a famous – and much debated since – headline.

Rebekah Brooks was cleared of phone hacking in 2014. She is now the CEO of News UK

Had the paper’s portrayal of the Labour leader (including the eve-of-poll headline “If Kinnock wins today will the last person to leave Britain turn out the lights”) swung it for the Tories? Did the Sun really have that much influence?

Rupert Murdoch, the Sun’s owner, later said that headline had been “tasteless and wrong”. He told the Leveson Inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the press that, “We don’t have that sort of power.”

Some muttered that he would say that, wouldn’t he, but even in 1992, some polls in the last week of the campaign had already pointed to a swing away from Labour. The Sun had simply spotted which way the wind was blowing, the argument went.

The Sun doesn’t make its daily print readership public now but it’s believed to be around 600,000. It says it reaches nearly seven million people every day through a combination of digital and print.

The paper told us: “Sun readers are always at the heart of British elections and so naturally leaders of all parties are always eager to hear their views on the issues that matter to them and their families.”

It also says that the “live grilling” its readers will be able to give both Rishi Sunak and Sir Keir before the election is unique to traditional print titles. Its Never Mind The Ballots: Election Showdown will be hosted by Harry Cole and broadcast on the paper’s website, YouTube and social channels.

Given that, perhaps it isn’t that surprising that the question of who the Sun newspaper supports in an election is still viewed as totemic and prompts coverage far wider than is perhaps justified.

If the Sun does back Sir Keir, Ms Perrior says that endorsement is not worth what it once was but is “still worth having”.

“He’s trying to say ‘we are not the Labour Party that you worry about with your taxes or with your healthcare or with your national security’ and therefore an endorsement from the Sun really rubber stamps that, and says to the public or to their readers, that they believe that he can be trusted and he can be given the keys to Number 10.

“But, of course, the Sun also has YouTube channels that are broadcasting lots of s. So it’s not just the Sun in terms of the newspaper. They have different outlets now that they are continually pushing those political messages.”

In 1997, when the paper backed Mr Blair, Mr Higgins told the BBC that he and the senior team had initially resisted when Rupert Murdoch dropped his “absolute bombshell”.

“Mr Murdoch said in no uncertain words that he detected a wind of change in the country and that we were going to switch horses.”

Mr Higgins says the Sun always wants to be on the side of its readers but also “on the side of winners”.

Mr Campbell agrees. “They backed us because they knew we were going to win. That may be about to happen again and that, more than anything, is what will drive their judgement.”

He doesn’t think Sir Keir needs to worry too much about the papers. “The right-wing papers will be worrying that their readers will think they are totally out of touch if they argue the Tories deserve another term. Let them sweat! And meanwhile speak to the country as a whole,” he says.

Sir Keir Starmer was head of the Crown Prosecution Services when charges were brought against senior News International executives

Unlike the Sun, the Telegraph has come out early for the Conservatives this time round.

But, with the polls putting the Tories way behind and with Nigel Farage’s entry into the race, there’s a certain amount of hedging going on too.

The Mail gave Rachel Reeves, the Shadow Chancellor, space to lay out her financial plans.

Nigel Farage has featured on the front pages a lot.

Stuart Higgins says he’s been told there’s a “massive postbag at the Sun supporting Farage”. But he doesn’t believe that will sway the decision over who to endorse because Reform are not going to win the election.

“The Sun wants to be on the winning side,” he says.

“At the end of the day, Murdoch is biased towards whoever is in power and Starmer has probably worked out that the best way to get the Sun’s support is by showing he’s a winner,” says Tom Baldwin.

So if the Sun does back Sir Keir’s Labour, it will likely be a dalliance of mutual convenience rather than anything more visceral.

The Sun’s “live grilling” marks a significant moment in the newspaper industry’s attempts to reinvent itself for the digital age. As CEO of News UK Rebekah Brooks will no doubt be keen to see how big an audience it attracts.

Were she to decide to watch it unfold in person from behind the camera, then when the filming stops she and Sir Keir might even get a chance to exchange a few words and reflect on times gone by.

It will, after all, come 10 years to the day since Rebekah Brooks left court a free woman following her own most famous of grillings, the one brought about at the behest of the organisation Sir Keir had been leading.

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