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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What does it mean for Ukip if it loses in Stoke-on-Trent Central?

The party’s prospects are in question if it fails to win over the “Brexit capital” in Thursday's by-election.

“The Only Way Is Up!” blasted through a hall in Stoke-on-Trent Central on a damp Monday evening earlier this month. It was the end of a public Ukip meeting, in which Nigel Farage and his successor and by-election candidate Paul Nuttall made their rallying cries to an audience of around 650 supporters.

But even then, a fortnight ago, the note of triumph in the dance classic was tinged with uncertainty. “We’ve won the war, but we’ve yet to win the peace,” Farage admitted to the sympathetic crowd. And while this message is supposed to make Ukip’s fight relevant even in the context of Brexit-bound Britain, it betrays the party’s problem: the battle that was its raison d'être is over.

Failing fortunes

Since then, the party has had more to contend with. Its candidate in the Labour seat has been caught lying about having “close personal friends” killed at the Hillsborough disaster. This comes on top of a number of other false claims, and an investigation into whether he falsely registered his home address as being in the constituency.

After these scandals – and a campaign seemingly unable to turn out apathetic voters (which I covered a couple of weeks ago) – Ukip’s chances in the West Midlands seat look worse than expected.

Initially the main challenger to Labour, Ukip is now being predicted for third or even fourth place in the seat, behind a Tory party that essentially stood aside to give Nuttall room, and to focus on a concurrent by-election campaign in Copeland.

It’s in Labour’s interest for the campaign to continue looking like a close Labour-Ukip fight, in order to keep hold of tactical voters. But both the Conservative and Lib Dem campaigns are feeling more buoyant.

“We are relatively confident that Ukip are not going to win, and that is quite a change,” the Lib Dem campaign coordinator Ed Fordham told me. “That has actually relieved lots of voters of the emotional risk of letting in what they perceive to be an unpleasant, far-right option . . . and voting for who they would like to represent them.”

One local activist chirped: “It will hopefully be a terrible result for Ukip.”

So what will it mean for Ukip if it loses?

Great expectations

Ukip has a lot riding on this seat. Farage called the by-election “absolutely fundamental” to Ukip’s future. Its new leader, Nuttall, took the risk of running as the party’s candidate there – riding his reputation on the by-election.

This created a lot of hype about Ukip’s chances, which the party has privately been trying to play down ever since. Even before the scandal surrounding Nuttall, he was emphasising that the seat had only been Ukip’s 72nd target, and told me he had taken a gamble by running for it. “The way it’s being written up as if this is the one – it wasn’t,” he insisted.

But Stoke-on-Trent, where 69 per cent voted Leave, has been labelled the “Brexit capital”. According to political scientist Rob Ford, the author of Revolt on the Right who has been studying Labour’s most Ukip-vulnerable seats: “It should be a pretty favourable seat for them, pretty favourable demographics, pretty favourable [negative] attitudes about the EU, very high Brexit vote there and so on.”

In other words, if Ukip can’t win here, against a weak Labour party, where can it win?

Struggle for seats

Brexit is central to Ukip’s by-election campaign. The party has highlighted Labour’s splits over Europe, pointed out the Labour candidate Gareth Snell’s Remainer credentials, and warned that the government needs to be held to account when negotiating Britain’s exit.

But Ford believes this rhetoric is unlikely to work, since the Tories are already pursuing a “hard” Brexit focused on immigration control. “A difficulty for Paul Nuttall and Ukip is that people are going to say: why would we vote for you when we’re getting what we want from the government? What’s the point right now?” he said. “I can have all the Brexity stuff, all the immigration control stuff, but with none of the incompetence and serial lying about Hillsborough – I think I’ll take that!”

So if rerunning the EU referendum doesn’t work, even in such a Brexit-heavy seat, this means trouble for Ukip elsewhere in the country. A Ukip councillor in a top Ukip target seat with similar demographics to Stoke believes it’s “crisis time” for the party.

“It is very sad to say, but Ukip has lost its way,” they told me. “It’s still a strong party, but after losing Nigel, it’s lost a little of its oomph. The new gentleman [Nuttall] has been silly with the comments he’s made. That’s a big worry in some regards. You need to be a people person. It’s a serious situation at the minute.”

If Ukip can’t prove it can win parliamentary seats – even in favourable by-elections – then it will be difficult to prove its authority as a political party come the general election.

Leadership lament

Should Nuttall lose, Ukip’s leadership will come into question. Again. During a tumultuous time late last year, when the favourite Steven Woolfe left the party after a physical altercation, and Diane James quit the leadership after 18 days, commentators asked if Ukip was anything without Farage.

When Nuttall eventually took over, the same voices warned of his threat to Labour – citing his northern and working-class roots. It’s likely this narrative will change, and Farage’s golden touch pondered again, if Nuttall fails to win.

But rather than panic about its national leader, Ukip must look carefully at those who commit to the party in local campaigns. On the ground in Stoke, running Nuttall as a candidate instead of a local Ukipper is seen as a mistake.

“I don’t know why they did that,” one local activist for an opposing party commented. “If they’d run Mick Harold, they would’ve won. He’s a Stokie.”

Harold, the deputy chair of Staffordshire County Committee, and chair of Ukip’s Stoke-on-Trent Central/North branch, won 22.7 per cent of the vote for Ukip in the constituency in 2015. He insists that he stands by his decision to step aside for Nuttall, but does highlight that Ukip should increase its vote share.

“If we’re increasing our percentage share of the vote, we’re still moving forward and that’s how we’ve got to look at it,” he told me. “I got 22.7 per cent in 2015. I would think this time we’re going to certainly get somewhere around the 30 per cent mark.”

Would it have been more likely to achieve this with Harold as candidate? “Whatever happens, happens, we’ve just got to move forward,” he replied. “If you’ve made a mistake, you move on from it.”

I have heard similar misgivings from local activists in other parts of the country – people who have achieved impressive results in local elections and the general election, but haven’t had much thanks from the national party. “We need to get professionalised now,” one such campaigner said. “Because we’ve got grassroots people who are not career politicians [doing all the hard work].” They say their local party is fed up with leadership being dictated by “personal grudges” at the top of the party.

***

As I’ve written before, I don’t think this is the end of Ukip. Once Brexit starts to bite, and it’s clear immigrants are still needed to fill jobs, there will be resentment enough to make space for them again. But losing Stoke will highlight the challenges – of purpose, leadership and local organisation – that the party will need to overcome for its next stand.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.