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The Sun sinks to a new low

The Sun has returned to doing what it does best: bashing Labour. And, it seems, at any price

It was in the summer of 1995 when, ominously clutching a kettle full of boiling water, Neil Kinnock erupted in fury at Alastair Campbell. The old friends were holidaying in France and the former Labour leader had just learned of Tony Blair's decision to fly to Australia as part of his extensive campaign to win the support of the Sun and its owner, Rupert Murdoch. In his diaries, The Blair Years, Campbell recalls Kinnock saying: "It won't matter if we win as the bankers and stockbrokers have got us already by the f*****g balls. And that is before you take your 30 pieces of silver."

A victim of the Sun throughout his leadership of Labour, Kinnock spoke from the heart. "You imagine what it's like having your
head stuck inside a f*****g light bulb then you tell me how I'm supposed to feel when I see you set off halfway round the world to grease him up," he said, referring to the tabloid's front page on polling day in 1992, which declared that, if Kinnock were to win, the last voter to leave the country should "turn the lights off".

When Campbell protested that he and Blair had given nothing to Murdoch, Kinnock countered prophetically: "You will. And he will take it. You will get his support and then you will get the support of a few racist b*******, and then you'll lose it again the minute that we are in trouble."

An own goal

And so it came to pass. After an awkward 14-year interlude, the Sun has now returned to doing what it does best: bashing Labour. And, it seems, at any price. In giving over the front page to some spelling mistakes made by Gordon Brown in his letter to Jacqui Janes, whose son, Jamie, died after a bomb explosion in Afghanistan on 5 October, the Sun showed no hesitation in exploiting a mother's grief. Even George Pascoe-Watson, until recently the Sun's loyal political editor, has said that the Prime Minister "cares passionately about the care of our troops".

And this much is obvious to anybody who reads the full (mysteriously obtained) transcript of Brown's 13-minute phone conversation with Janes on 8 November. Indeed, Pascoe-Watson implied that the Sun may have misjudged the public mood in its reporting of the events, warning of the "danger that public opinion could go against" the paper.

Certainly, the consensus among the political and media figures who convened for David Cameron's Hugo Young memorial lecture on 10 November was that the Sun had scored an own goal, and even encouraged sympathy towards the vilified leader. Brown, who in 2002 suffered the loss of his ten-day-old baby daughter, Jennifer Jane, was convincing when he explained earlier in the day: "I'm a parent who understands the feelings when something goes terribly, terribly wrong, and I understand how long it takes to handle the grief that we have all experienced."

As for the letter, Alastair Campbell says now: "I have a few of those. I just dug out the one he wrote when my father died. He didn't have to, but he did. It is in the now familiar black felt pen. Some of the words are a bit difficult to read. 'Alastair' with three As looks suspiciously like 'Alistair' with two Is. But it talks about his feelings for his father, and his feelings when he died, and it was a nice gesture at a difficult time for me and my family. Given all the other pressures on a prime minister's time, that meant something. He will be mortified that anyone, least of all the grieving mother of a dead young soldier, might think he would be callous or disregarding of his sacrifice or their suffering. Until a few weeks ago, the Sun would never have thought so either."

Which brings us to the bigger political picture behind the sordid headlines - namely, Murdoch's influence on British politics. Campbell was just doing his job when he forged good relations with the Sun. As shown by the paper's vicious campaign against Brown - which echoes the campaign against Kinnock before him, and which will only get worse over the next six months - it does no harm to have the populist paper onside.

However, as I have argued here before, Blair and Brown went too far in their attempts to ingratiate themselves with Murdoch. Repeatedly, they betrayed their party's agenda and damaged their own political legacies. Blair, who had a supportive phone conversation with Murdoch on the eve of the invasion of Iraq in 2003, even performed a U-turn on his refusal to back a referendum for the then EU constitution, after being threatened with opposition from the Sun and the Times. Even Cameron has learned - after himself promising in the Sun, in 2007, a Europe referendum - that devising policy to please Murdoch is neither practical nor a sign of good judgement.

Lessons learned

To get the full story of Murdoch's influence, I have for years sought to uncover details of his contacts with Labour leaders through the Freedom of Information Act. The reality is that New Labour never needed Murdoch's support: the proprietor is a businessman above all else, and backs who he thinks will win - as he did when the Sun came out for the Tories at the end of the Labour party conference in September. For decades, politicians of all sides have ceded influence to Murdoch unnecessarily because they have failed to see that they could afford to remain true to their instincts, as he'd be forced to back them if they were electorally successful.

In the end, Kinnock was right: Murdoch has abandoned Labour now that it has hit "trouble". The lesson for the party between now and polling day is that it must trust its instincts and be itself. After all, it can be sure the Sun will.

James Macintyre is political correspondent for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 16 November 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Dead End