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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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.