Was it The Sun wot won it?

| July 6, 2024

It is common wisdom that the right-wing British tabloids, The Sun, Mail and Express, and ‘qualities’, The Times and Telegraph, make the political weather in that country.  This belief looks shaky after the massive win of the Labour Party in the July 4 election.

For decades the Murdoch and Rothermere press have exerted particular influence on governments and oppositions.  They largely weathered the turmoil of the Leveson Inquiry following the closure of Murdoch’s News of the World in a phone hacking scandal that, nonetheless, continues to reverberate around British politics and media.

Of greater threat has been the sharp decline of profitable physical newspapers, led by mass circulation tabloids, creating a financial hole only partially filled by lurid, gossipy digital publications like the MailOnline and its infamous ‘sidebar of shame’.

The front pages of the daily newspapers on election eve all registered the stubborn persistence of a huge Labour lead in the polls.  The Labour-supporting tabloid Mirror unequivocally endorsed that Party, while the Left-leaning Guardian was predictably positive about the prospects of Labour and its leader Keir Starmer.  The Times begrudgingly registered the prospect of a big Labour win and featured an election night drinking game devised by one of its journalists as a distraction.

But the rest of the Tory press was in campaigning mode to the bitter end.  The Express advised its elderly readership to ‘VOTE TORY’ against the backdrop of the national flag, while the Telegraph, with a similar age but a higher class profile, warned homeowners of a ‘council tax raid under Labour’.

No resistance to Labour, though, went further than the Daily Mail, which warned that a vote for the far-Right Reform Party under Nigel Farage would split the anti-immigration vote and advantage Labour under Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral system.  Sidestepping the irony that the Mail had lavishly praised Farage in the past, it offered a constituency-by-constituency tactical voting guide to stop a Labour ‘supermajority’ or even any kind of majority.

It was The Sun, however, that offered the most idiosyncratic position.  The backdrop in this case was a football stadium, no doubt a teasing ploy for fans following the England team in the current UEFA European Football Championship.

The newspaper that loudly assails ‘woke’ sportspeople, especially English footballers, for expressing their political views, likened the country to its football team in declaring that it’s ‘TIME FOR A NEW MANAGER’.

Clarifying that it did not mean England’s much-criticised Gareth Southgate, whose measured Dear England essay inspired an award-winning West End play, The Sun referred its readers to page 10, where it almost buried its endorsement of Labour among sundry other statements.

Despite such obvious ambivalence, it is not unprecedented for Murdoch papers to recommend voting Labour, as it did when the party was led by Tony Blair.  But it does so only when satisfied that a Labour win is a foregone conclusion and the new government will not engage in radical progressive reform, especially of the media.

The Sun’s endorsement attracts close interest after it boastfully claimed credit for the defeat of Labour under Neil Kinnock in 1992 and for influencing the outcomes of other British elections.

The final notable front page, the scurrilous Daily Star’s, bid farewell to the Conservatives using disparaging names like ‘sociopaths, scumbags and bellends’ against the backdrop of an empty theatre stage save for a pair of clown shoes.  For some voters it made curious sense.

What general lesson can be drawn from these sometimes-bizarre attempts by British newspapers to attract and persuade readers just before an election?

As in Australia, it demonstrates the decline or, at the very least, the influence of the mainstream press, especially that owned by the Murdoch family.  While the tabloids can still be brutally effective, such as in the dying days of the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd Labor government, it is probably more so when helping to bring down an already wounded beast.

There are many more cases of campaigning newspaper failures, such as the Sydney Telegraph’s repeated attempts to end the political career of Sydney Mayor Clover Moore or, back in the UK, the right-wing press’s constant criticism of London’s Labour Mayor Sadiq Khan.

It also shows how the British media landscape is witnessing the subsidence of newspaper culture and the continuing importance of public service media.  Despite relentless attacks by Conservative governments and newspapers on the BBC, research in which I have been involved showed unequivocally that the public sector is a crucial resource for an informed citizenry.

The BBC has been criticised on another front: that it has been intimidated by, and even capitulated to, loud right-wing populist voices espousing, for example, anti-European Union, migrant-hostile, pro-Brexit rhetoric.  It might even be suggested that the rise of former Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson, like that of ex-US President Donald Trump, was partially facilitated by the ‘respectable’ media’s fascination with their disarmingly oddball styles.

Now public service broadcasters also face competition from right-wing television channels GB News and the streamed Murdoch-owned Talk, which describe themselves as news organisations but, like Murdoch’s ‘Sky After Dark’ in Australia, provide lashings of angry opinion.  The BBC’s media regulator, Ofcom, is reluctant to rein in their excesses.

More hopefully, the rise of informed public and private political podcasting has created new spaces for detailed debate and information exchange alongside expanding online news sites.

Finally, of course, there is the vast engine of social media that operates separately from and in tandem with mainstream media.  This multiverse of memes, fakes, TikTok videos and posted social network rants is far distant from traditional, sober treatments of social policy prescriptions and contending political philosophies.

In Britain in 2024, a determinedly disciplined Labour electoral strategy managed to overcome fear-mongering Tories, stunt-seeking Social Democrats and the recycled racist Brexit-era posturing of Reform.  When votes are next cast in Britain in 2029, the media’s capacity to change the political weather will no doubt be subject to its own climate change.



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