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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Want to beat Theresa May? First, accept that she's popular

The difficult truth for the centre and left, and advocates of a new party, is that people don't "vote for the Tories reluctantly".

An election campaign that has been short on laughs has been livened up by a modest proposal by an immodest man: the barrister Jolyon Maugham, who used to write about tax for the New Statesman as well as advising Eds Miliband and Balls, has set out his (now mothballed) plans for a new party called Spring.

The original idea was a 28-day festival (each day would be celebrated with the national costumes, food and drink of one of the European Union’s member states) culiminating in the announcement of the candidacy of Spring’s first parliamentary candidate, one Jolyon Maugham, to stand against Theresa May in her constituency of Maidenhead. He has reluctantly abandoned the plan, because there isn’t the time between now and the election to turn it around.

There are many problems with the idea, but there is one paragraph in particular that leaps out:

“Like Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty, Labour’s left and moderates are bent on one another’s destruction. No one knows what the Lib Dems are for – other than the Lib Dems. And we vote for the Tories reluctantly, lacking an alternative.”

Even within this paragraph there are a number of problems. Say what you like about Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty but it seems hard to suggest that there is not a fairly large difference between the two – regardless of which one you think is which – that might perhaps be worth engaging with. There are fair criticisms of the Liberal Democrats’ uncertain start to this campaign but they have been pretty clear on their platform when they haven’t been playing defence on theological issues.

But the biggest problem is the last sentence: “We vote for the Tories reluctantly, lacking an alternative”. A couple of objections here: the first, I am not sure who the “we” are. Is it disgruntled former Labour members like Maugham who threw their toys out of the pram after Corbyn’s second successive leadership victory? If you are voting for the Tories reluctantly, I have invented a foolproof solution to “voting for the Tories reluctantly” that has worked in every election I’ve voted in so far: it’s to vote against the Tories.  (For what it’s worth, Maugham has said on Twitter that he will vote for the Liberal Democrats in his home constituency.)

I suspect, however, that the “we” Maugham is talking about are the voters. And actually, the difficult truth for the left and centre-left is that people are not voting for Theresa May “reluctantly”: they are doing it with great enthusiasm. They have bought the idea that she is a cautious operator and a safe pair of hands, however illusory that might be. They think that a big vote for the Tories increases the chance of a good Brexit deal, however unlikely that is.

There is not a large bloc of voters who are waiting for a barrister to turn up with a brass band playing Slovenian slow tunes in Maidenhead or anywhere in the country. At present, people are happy with Theresa May as Prime Minister. "Spring" is illustrative of a broader problem on much of the centre-left: they have a compelling diagnosis about what is wrong with Corbyn's leadership. They don't have a solution to any of Labour's problems that predate Corbyn, or have developed under him but not because of him, one of which is the emergence of a Tory leader who is popular and trusted. (David Cameron was trusted but unpopular, Boris Johnson is popular but distrusted.) 

Yes, Labour’s position would be a lot less perilous if they could either turn around Jeremy Corbyn’s popularity ratings or sub him out for a fresh, popular leader. That’s one essential ingredient of getting the Conservatives out of power. But the other, equally important element is understanding why Theresa May is popular – and how that popularity can be diminished and dissipated. 

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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