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
Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

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