Sun on Sunday: a muted debut

Not quite brave new world, not quite News of the World re-badged.

Here it is, then, the first ever Sun on Sunday. Or The Sun Sunday as it's called on the masthead, the word Sunday depicted in red against an arc of yellow, like a beautiful sunrise. (This gives us the rather troublesome abbreviation of "The SS", but I suppose "the SoS" was just as awkward.)

A brave new world, a new dawn... or just the News of the World repurposed into a new format? Well, let's take a look.

I should say before I begin that I'm not a regular Sunday paper buyer. For some people, a Sunday paper is as much a part of the Lord's Day as having petty arguments in Ikea or eating a disappointing Sunday dinner in a horrible carvery. For me, though, Sunday editions are typically heavy on lifestyle garbage and light on news; and, call me a dinosaur, but I do like the news aspect of newspapers.

The Sun Sunday certainly represents newsiness, with the word "exclusive" spotted 12 times on the front and back covers. The vast majority of these "exclusives" are, however, columnists' views rather than breaking news; the real exclusivity for this first issue was is in getting the big names to write for the Sunday Currant, rather than getting big news to fill it.

So what was the big splash to hook in new readers?

There on the front page is Amanda Holden, holding her newborn daughter and telling of the time she nearly died. For many reasons, it's a brilliant story to select as the SS's first: it's a "willing participant" celebrity story rather than one that's been dug up behind the victim's back; it's a positive story rather than knocking someone; it is, above all, a "good tale".

Compared to the other big red-top Sunday splashes -- Jimmy Greaves having a stroke (People), Charles and Camilla "living separate lives" (Star) and Kerry Katona planning to get married (Mirror) -- it's the most interesting, and will appeal to most buyers.

The Scottish Sun on Sunday, meanwhile, went with actual news as opposed to celebrity tales, claiming to reveal the date of the Scottish independence referendum as 18 October 2014. Is it really the "date of destiny" or not? Well, chances are that we'll probably have forgotten about the prediction by then, just as we've always forgotten about every General Election prediction misfire. But you have to admire the story selection, which is spot-on.

On page 3 there are no naked breasts, but to ease the pain for Sunday-morning masturbators, there's a photo of Kelly Rowland with a "handbra" pose, neatly straddling the tits/no tits dilemma for this week. Like the Sun on Saturday, the Sun on Sunday is coy about the breasts it's so proud of the other five days of the week and those oh-so-hilarious captions in which the MODELS talk about POLITICS as if they've got a CLUE about what they're SAYING.

Later on in the paper, subverting the perception of women in the Sun, former page 3 stunnah Katie Price keeps her clothes on (as is her right, one supposes) to address the nation with her views.

Price is someone it's almost impossible for someone like me to criticise without looking like a snob, so I'll try my best not to fall into that bear trap. To summarise, though: she would love to have met Marie Colvin; she admired Whitney Houston; she urges people to support the Paralympics; she says state schools can teach kids a lot and that private education is not necessarily the best way to go for parents who can afford it.

It's quite well written by Price (I'm looking straight to camera, like Harry Hill) but there seems to be something missing, some spark of personality, some spice.

It's the same when I steel myself to read Toby Young's column later in the paper and find it lacklustre: it seems sanitised, bland, unappetising. I'm no fan of Young's but I can see the point of him, or at least the point of him when he writes as he usually writes: he's there to stir things up, create a few ripples and get people talking. His first outing, though, was dull. If he's not there to write like Toby Young, why hire Toby Young?

"Aha," you may say, "You want it both ways, Baxter. You'd criticise the Sun if it came out all guns blazing, and now you're criticising them for being too bland."

And there is probably a grain of truth in that. But there seemed something muted about this first edition, something missing -- some kind of spark of creativity and fun which was what set the Sun apart from its rivals in the first place.

Perhaps the launch was a "safety first" endeavour designed to avoid controversy at all costs; perhaps those evil liberal thought police have won and neutered a much-loved British beacon of democracy and truth; perhaps it was just first-edition nerves. It can't have helped that everyone knew Uncle Rupert was looking over their shoulder while they were putting it together, and didn't want to be the one to make a big mistake.

Let's talk about sport now. Hear me out. The News of the World had by far and away the best Sunday football reporting of any newspaper, due to the sheer amount of resources it poured in and the breadth of coverage, right down the leagues, and that drove a lot of sales. The SOS's back pages are crammed full of interviews, reports and features, including a preview of today's Carling Cup final -- though (perhaps tellingly) no Liverpool voice was available, so the Sun spoke to Jose Mourinho instead.

There was also a rather strangely isolated article about Luis Suarez's family and his racism row stuffed into the main paper -- whether it wasn't considered worthy of the sports section or a cup final preview I don't know, but it seems rather odd where it is.

The 28-page Goals Plus picks up the main bulk of football action, with terrific analysis of Premiership and Championship football, a good shout for League One and League Two, and superbly crafted pages of pictures, graphics and stats.

If I was ever going to buy the SOS, it would be for Goals Plus - and it's daft to ignore that factor when considering why punters pick that paper they choose on a Sunday. There were a couple of teething problems in my copy with the use of fans' tweets at the top of match reports, but those will be ironed out, I'm sure.

So that's what I liked.

What I didn't like so much was on page 9, an initial toe in the water to cheerlead for a new military campaign in the Middle East. "Like it or not, Britain is going to war again," says political editor Tom Newton Dunn, in an opinion piece after an exclusive about plans being drawn up for action against Iran.

The Sunday version of the Sun, as with its versions the other six days of the week, will fall into line when it comes to backing whatever military action this country takes. They won't be alone in that, but it's a statement of intent.

For the 50p introductory price, the SS does represent decent value for money. It's got enough content to keep you happy for a couple of hours on a Sunday if you like that sort of thing, and if you are a football fan, the coverage is probably the best that's out there. It's not a brave new dawn, and it's not quite the News of the World rebadged either; it's just a way of keeping the money rolling in.

If it stays as safe as the launch edition, some readers may drift off to find something with a little more punch, but I suspect the content will mature.

We'll find out a lot more next week. I say "we" but I won't be buying it again; once was quite enough for me. If you like the Sun the rest of the week, though, fill your boots.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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Is there such a thing as responsible betting?

Punters are encouraged to bet responsibly. What a laugh that is. It’s like encouraging drunks to get drunk responsibly, to crash our cars responsibly, murder each other responsibly.

I try not to watch the commercials between matches, or the studio discussions, or anything really, before or after, except for the match itself. And yet there is one person I never manage to escape properly – Ray Winstone. His cracked face, his mesmerising voice, his endlessly repeated spiel follow me across the room as I escape for the lav, the kitchen, the drinks cupboard.

I’m not sure which betting company he is shouting about, there are just so many of them, offering incredible odds and supposedly free bets. In the past six years, since the laws changed, TV betting adverts have increased by 600 per cent, all offering amazingly simple ways to lose money with just one tap on a smartphone.

The one I hate is the ad for BetVictor. The man who has been fronting it, appearing at windows or on roofs, who I assume is Victor, is just so slimy and horrible.

Betting firms are the ultimate football parasites, second in wealth only to kit manufacturers. They have perfected the capitalist’s art of using OPM (Other People’s Money). They’re not directly involved in football – say, in training or managing – yet they make millions off the back of its popularity. Many of the firms are based offshore in Gibraltar.

Football betting is not new. In the Fifties, my job every week at five o’clock was to sit beside my father’s bed, where he lay paralysed with MS, and write down the football results as they were read out on Sports Report. I had not to breathe, make silly remarks or guess the score. By the inflection in the announcer’s voice you could tell if it was an away win.

Earlier in the week I had filled in his Treble Chance on the Littlewoods pools. The “treble” part was because you had three chances: three points if the game you picked was a score draw, two for a goalless draw and one point for a home or away win. You chose eight games and had to reach 24 points, or as near as possible, then you were in the money.

“Not a damn sausage,” my father would say every week, once I’d marked and handed him back his predictions. He never did win a sausage.

Football pools began in the 1920s, the main ones being Littlewoods and Vernons, both based in Liverpool. They gave employment to thousands of bright young women who checked the results and sang in company choirs in their spare time. Each firm spent millions on advertising. In 1935, Littlewoods flew an aeroplane over London with a banner saying: Littlewoods Above All!

Postwar, they blossomed again, taking in £50m a year. The nation stopped at five on a Saturday to hear the scores, whether they were interested in football or not, hoping to get rich. BBC Sports Report began in 1948 with John Webster reading the results. James Alexander Gordon took over in 1974 – a voice soon familiar throughout the land.

These past few decades, football pools have been left behind, old-fashioned, low-tech, replaced by online betting using smartphones. The betting industry has totally rebooted itself. You can bet while the match is still on, trying to predict who will get the next goal, the next corner, the next throw-in. I made the last one up, but in theory you can bet instantly, on anything, at any time.

The soft sell is interesting. With the old football pools, we knew it was a remote flutter, hoping to make some money. Today the ads imply that betting on football somehow enhances the experience, adds to the enjoyment, involves you in the game itself, hence they show lads all together, drinking and laughing and putting on bets.

At the same time, punters are encouraged to do it responsibly. What a laugh that is. It’s like encouraging drunks to get drunk responsibly, to crash our cars responsibly, murder each other responsibly. Responsibly and respect are now two of the most meaningless words in the football language. People have been gambling, in some form, since the beginning, watching two raindrops drip down inside the cave, lying around in Roman bathhouses playing games. All they’ve done is to change the technology. You have to respect that.

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war