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

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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