Empire of the Sun

If the Murdoch tabloid dies, I reserve the right not to mourn.

The arrest yesterday of Sun journalists over suspected payments to police and public officials doesn't mean anything, least of all the closure of the Sun. Those arrested are innocent until proven guilty, and have committed no crime, so we ought to be fair to them.

True, the Sun hasn't been spectacularly fair in the past to people such as Barry George, Robert Murat or Christopher Jefferies, who were all wrongly linked to serious crimes they hadn't committed. They weren't very fair either to brothers Mohammed Abul Kahar and Abul Koyair when the pair were arrested (and later released without charge) over a chemical bomb plot which the Sun reported as "imminent" according to its sources. But that doesn't mean that the employees of the Sun shouldn't be subjected to the fairness that their newspaper hasn't always shown in the past.

Is the Sun in serious danger of going the same way as the News of the World? It's too early to say, of course, but it's always fun to speculate, so let's imagine a world in which the Sun is doomed. If the Sun did set (yes, I went there) on Britain's most popular paper, it could be seen as a disaster, as was the Screws' closure some months ago. We could sit around mourning the loss of popular tabloid journalism, fearing that the futurewithout a pair of tits on page 3 and Hagar The Horrible might be something slightly more monochrome, less fun, more dull. That's a concern, I suppose, though I don't think those talented journos who work for the Sun will fade into obscurity, and if there really is a market for this kind of thing -and there appears to be, given its massive popularity - then people will be willing to stump up for it.

But look at how things have stayed exactly the same since the NOTW collapsed under the weight of its own wrongdoing. It's not as if there's
something missing that we couldn't find anywhere else. Perhaps a couple of celebrities have got away with a bit of shagging in a Travelodge that they might have had exposed beforehand; perhaps some other issue of more vital public interest has not come to light, which would have been exposed thanks to the dogged determination of the Screws' investigative reporters. We'll never really know for sure.

It's easy to depict a world in which the mung-bean-weaving flip-flopping Guardianista buzzkills have brought about the closure of a much-loved titan of journalism which in a way has weakened our ability to hold democracy to account with a free press. Inviting narrative though that might be for some people, that's not really the case. If the Screws hadn't done things that were unethical and wrong, they wouldn't have offended their core readership and toxified their brand, and they'd still be around: that's the top and bottom of it, and let's not pretend otherwise.

It's easy, too, to think that this is in some way a revenge by politicians against journalists, that those lily-livered liberals who rejoice over the demise of their tabloid tormentors are playing into the hands of the authorities, who have arrested more journalists this year than Robert Mugabe and who are clamping down on dissent. Also inviting, but also wrong - and besides, the Sun for example is such a roll-over-and-tickle-my-tummy faithfulsupporter of this government and its projects that it's hardly providing a huge challenge to the powers that be.

A more likely scenario, perhaps, is that an ageing Rupert Murdoch, who has plenty of other projects to keep him and his empire busy that don't involve seeing his employees ending up in police stations, might think that enough is enough, and try to sell the profitable but toxic Sun on to some other buyer. Why bother with these constant problems? It was the most humbling day of his life to date to appear before the DCMS committee, but perhaps there are more humbling days to come.

In the meantime, there isn't any glee to be had at the potential redundancy of journalists, though that doesn't mean the world would automatically be a better place with the Sun in it, nor that people don't have every right to recall the unethical and unfair behaviour of that newspaper, among others out there. As a (largely) redundant former journalist myself, I know what it's like to find a job in the media nowadays: not a whole heap of fun. If you don't mind, though, I think I may reserve the right to not mourn the demise of the Sun, if it did happen - though I don't think it will.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
Photo: Getty
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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

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