Thursday, October 1, 2009

Well, no it was not the Sun wot won it

We all know the story of the 1992 election: everyone thought Labour would win and the Sun announced on the day of the election (having strenuously supported the Tories and Major): "If Kinnock wins today will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights", which would indicate that they were not too sure either. Unlike many of us who realized even before the infamous Sheffield rally that there was no earthly chance of Kinnock going to Number 10. (Full disclosure: I won £10 from a friend.)

For all of that, the day after the election the Sun magniloquently claimed to have been instrumental in the victory they had not really believed in the day before: "It's The Sun Wot Won It".

Then came 1997 and the Conservative-supporting Sun executed a volte-face: it gave its support to Blair and NuLab, thus preening itself yet again on being the main opinion former. Actually, Labour victory, though not the extent of it, was clear to just about everybody who was at all interested in what was going on in the political world.

Yesterday or, rather, the day before since the carefully executed promotion campaign meant that every journalist and every political blogger knew then, the Sun changed sides again. It is now supporting the Conservatives, explaining that "Labour's Lost It". Not only has the Labour government lost its way after 12 long years, it has also lost the Sun's support. Gasp! Shock!

The Boss at EUReferendum has written about the story, discussing at length what Rupert Murdoch might be hoping to get from the putative Conservative government in return for what is seen as crucial support. To listen to gloating ToryBoys of both sexes and to their furious and miserable counterparts on the Labour side, it really is the most important political event and the Camerons may as well start measuring up the carpets and curtains in that flat in Number 10.

As the Boss was writing his posting I was recording an interview on the subject for the BBC Russian Service. The interviewer, a seasoned radio journalist began by saying that, of course, all the newspaper, its proprietor and journalists have done is to sniff the wind and announce that they are supporting the party that is likely to win. (Let's face it, they are not supporting the Tories in Scotland because there the victory is likely to lie with Labour. Maybe. Give or take the SNP, whom the Sun is never going to support.)

The Sun is the most popular newspaper in the country but even so there have been losses in readership and revenue. Putting itself at the front of public opinion would, one assumes, bring some of it back and the newspaper will be seen as the kingmaker. If the Conservatives win, which they are likely to do, it would have once again been the Sun wot done it.

Will this change of support bring the Tories a few more votes? Unlikely. The truth is that in all the years before 1997 while the Sun vociferously supported the Conservatives an extraordinarly large proportion of its readers and of the rest of the population had not realized this was so. It was downmarket, read by the less educated section of the population, therefore it had to be Labour. None of that chain of reasoning is true, not the arguments or the conclusion but it was all accepted by a surprisingly large number of people.

One must admire the sheer professionalism with which the turn-about was done. It was kept under wraps until the day before yesterday. Given that this must have been planned for weeks, that a detailed and glossy four-page insert had to be researched, written and printed without disturbing normal schedules, that the journalistic world is the most gossip-prone in the world, the silence was extraordinary.

Then there was a huge, carefully calculated blitz of all journalists and all bloggers taking the wind out of the Labour Party's sails in the middle of its Conference. By yesterday morning the Sun was not just the most popular newspaper but also the main news item on every other media outlet. Not bad going.

Let us not pretend, however, that this campaign has been dedicated to the promotion of the Conservative Party. There is only one entity being promoted here: the Sun newspaper.

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