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: Martin Whitfield
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Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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