Not soaraway any more

No one seems to hold the editor responsible for the <em>Sun</em>'s decline in sales, least of all he

The other day I received two energy-saving light bulbs free with my copy of the Sun. "Help save the world (and £13 into the bargain)", it said. Thank you, Rupert.

I had known the gift was on its way because of something even odder in the paper the previous day: a pull-out "green" section, introduced with a truly baffling pastiche of the famous Sun front page from election day, 1992.

Back then, we had Neil Kinnock's head as a light bulb beside the headline, "If Kinnock wins today will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights". This time it was Gordon Brown's head as a new-style light bulb and the words, "Will the last person in Britain to switch to energy-saving bulbs please turn out the old lights".

What were they suggesting? That global warming is like Kinnock? That Brown is like Kinnock? That changing your light bulbs today is like voting for John Major in 1992? In fact the page said rather less about climate change (however welcome this new recruit to the cause might be) than it did about the state of the Sun.

The nation's favourite paper is news in its own right these days: Rebekah Wade has been editor for five years; she recently gave evidence to a House of Lords committee; printing has moved from Wapping; and, most strikingly, the circulation recently dipped (briefly) below three million, its lowest level since 1974.

The industry consensus is that Wade has been a good editor in tough times, and she certainly cut a confident figure before their lordships, brushing aside suggestions that she manipulated her readers or was Murdoch's puppet, and bragging about her team of journalists and her closeness to the readers.

But there is no getting around that loss of a fifth of the readership in the past decade: the paper that branded itself as "soaraway" soars no more.

Wade blames the free papers, the internet and the decline of the street-corner newsagent. As you might expect, she does not see quality as a problem, and in print the Sun is proud of its scoops ("Amy on crack", "Ashley cheats on Cheryl" and the like). But is it really a good paper, or is there something about it that has been putting off the readers?

In several important respects it is indisputably better than it ever was under Kelvin MacKenzie, the editor who gave it its glory days. The news is better done, with a broader range. The layout is tidier, so it looks smarter. And it is less irresponsible. Unfortunately, as that Gordon Brown light-bulb page demonstrated so vividly, it is also painfully short of flair and wit, and relies so heavily on old tricks that you can't help noticing the absence of new ones.

The punning headlines are as awful as they always were, but the awfulness has become as unfunny as the leader-page cartoons, as in "Clint-on a Roll" (Hillary wins a primary), or repeated references to "Leslie C-Ash" (because of her compensation award).

A picture story begins like this: "Claw blimey! Atomic Kitten Liz McClarnon looks like the cat that got the cream as she poses in tiny white undies." It's like a bad McGill seaside postcard, and no one sends those any more.

Desperation haunts the showbiz pages, as when Eva Longoria is shown pushing a wheeled suitcase rather than pulling it, under the headline "Eva Lawngoria" (it looked like she was pushing a lawnmower, geddit?). And to call Kylie Minogue "the pint-sized pop stunner" is beyond cliché.

Most obviously, the covers lack the sharpness of the earlier era, even when a lot depends on them. A campaign against the EU treaty last autumn began with a Churchillian front page that once again tried to ape MacKenzie, but, like the light-bulb rehash, mangled its message.

The worst of it is that when the humour is so poor, the raw unpleasantness of so much of the other content is more obvious. With its triumphant snaps of celebrities who have put on a few pounds and its endless parade of sour and intolerant columnists, the Sun can be the nasty paper, just as surely as the Tories were once the nasty party.

Maybe I'm a snob - that is how the paper usually dismisses its critics - or maybe I am guilty of rose-tinting the past. It may even be that there simply aren't any new red-top tricks available to replace the weary old ones (the Mirror certainly hasn't found any). Whatever the reason, I'm not surprised the Sun has lost readers.

Now that is worrying

"I find myself worried," the venerable William Rees-Mogg informed us in the Times, "by the figures with whom Mr Obama is compared." He had in mind Martin Luther King, John F Kennedy, Abraham Lincoln and Mahatma Gandhi. All four may have been charismatic and idealistic leaders, Rees-Mogg pointed out, but "what they also had in common is that they were assassinated".

Brian Cathcart is professor of journalism at Kingston University

Brian Cathcart is Director of Hacked Off. He tweets as @BrianCathcart.

This article first appeared in the 04 February 2008 issue of the New Statesman, God