The Leveson inquiry probes. . .why the Sun is such a great newspaper

The inquiry is supposed to delve into the nastier side of tabloid journalism - but Dominic Mohan got

It was a gentle ride for Dominic Mohan, editor of the Sun, at Leveson yesterday. There were no searching questions, no awkward moments, no difficulties to speak of.

The most optimistic way of viewing the session was that it was a way of lulling other serving editors into a false sense of security before their appearances before the inquiry. Whatever the reasons, Mohan came out of it all very well. He had time to emphasise the positive contribution made by the Sun through its charitable and educational endeavours, as well as explain how the Sun was a bastion of quality journalism.

At times, Mohan slipped into well rehearsed corporate speak, turning it into an advertisement for the virtues of his newspaper -- as you'd expect he would. If you read the coverage in today's Sun you might be forgiven for thinking that the Leveson inquiry is attempting to find out why the 'super soaraway' is such a bloody great newspaper, rather than delving into the nastier side of tabloid journalism.

Stories involving anonymous sources required four separate signatures, he explained. The Sun was in constant contact with the PCC, he said. Nothing "prevented" the Sun from telling the story of Anthony Worrall Thompson being convicted of shoplifting, he said. Rupert Murdoch was a"journalist at heart" but never interfered, he insisted. An interesting choice of verb, "interfere", but there was only gentle probing.

"I've seen mistakes over the years and I've learned from them," said Mohan, quoting the example of Charlotte Church's complaint about her pregnancy being reported before she had reached 12 weeks (the PCC upheld an adjudication about the story). "As a result I have obviously not printed stories about females under 12 weeks pregnant. Last year we had a story about Dannii Minogue and they told me she was under 12 weeks and I decided not to run it."

The Mirror, though, did run it, and were censured by the PCC, despite the information already being in the "public domain" thanks to a report in the Sydney Morning Herald. If Mohan gave the impression of a newspaper that stood strong against the temptation to print such stories, that bubble was punctured only a little when he was later presented with a Sun story from 4 November last year, where the paper speculated about whether the Duchess of Cambridge may or may not have been pregnant.

"It looks like a piece of speculation about the DOC's dietary requirements," said Mohan. Which it is, although there wasn't much speculation of that nature going on. Under the headline "Something you're nut telling us, Kate?" the story wonders aloud why the Duchess might have turned down the chance to eat peanut paste while on an official engagement.

The tale is illustrated by one of those "onlookers" who so conveniently pop up at times like this, saying exactly the kind of speculative thing that fits the narrative of the story perfectly, so perfectly that you'd be hard pressed to make up a better quote. The anonymous "onlooker" -- possibly wanting their identity to be concealed for fear of reprisals from the Royal family -- was quoted as saying: "The Duchess does not have a nut allergy, nor is it like her to appear rude. The only explanation is that she is pregnant and has been told -- like many expectant mothers -- to avoid nuts."

Is there really a piece of paper somewhere in a filing cabinet at Wapping with four signatures on it, saying who that "onlooker" is? Perhaps that was an opportunity missed by Leveson, to get the Sun's editor to discuss these anonymous "friends", "sources", "onlookers" and "eyewitnesses" who pop up all the time in tabloid tales -- not just to fluff out a relatively harmless story with a startlingly perfect quote, but in more serious contexts too.

But there were no big hits, no big quotes, no errors from all this. It was the kind of dull, un-newsworthy encounter that Mohan must have been hoping for, to keep himself out of the headlines and avoid putting the Sun in the spotlight. So far, it doesn't appear that editors will be getting a rough ride at Leveson -- not yet, at least.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.