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Tuesday, April 15, 2008 

The Sun, tabloid journalism and Cameron's Conservatives.

If there's one thing that Gordon Brown can perhaps cling to when everything else appears to be falling apart, it's that Rupert Murdoch is clearly no nearer to making a leap of faith with the Conservatives. Today's Sun leader is hardly enthusiastic about George Osborne's speech yesterday, billed as the Tory bid to seize the initiative, but which seems to have been lost in the maelstrom:

Tell us, George

SHADOW Chancellor George Osborne is a clever politician who talks a good game, but where are the promises?

He tore into Gordon Brown yesterday, claiming the PM’s economic record had collapsed in a “heap of rubble”.

He blamed Labour for hammering hard-working families, fuelling inflation and turning its back on the poor. Rattled ministers know there is some truth in his charges.

Taxes are too high. Spending is out of control. Borrowing is excessive.

It is the Opposition’s job to attack the Government when it gets things wrong.

But if the polls are accurate and the Tories are heading for power, we want to hear precisely what they intend to do about it.

By that "we" you can detect the quivering hand of Murdoch himself.

It can be far too easy though to give Murdoch more power and influence than he actually has, and also to not notice his cautiousness in deciding whom to back. Despite it's self-promotion, it wasn't the Sun "wot won it" in 1992, and its decision to back Blair in 1997 was taken when it was already more than certain that Labour were going to triumph by a landslide. We're still very far from that happening in reverse whenever we next go to the polls, and Murdoch is hardly going to humiliate himself by making his decision too early.

Even with all of that in mind, it has to be remembered that it was Alastair Campbell himself who made clear that it was the image of Neil Kinnock in a light bulb on the Sun's front page that made him and those around him determined to ensure that history would not repeat itself. It's by no means clear yet who Murdoch is going to plump for in the US election, having previously held a fund-raiser for Clinton, even while his Fox News network continues to skewer the Democrats wholesale. It again might be because as yet, with the Democratic contender not yet decided, the whole election is far, far too close to call. McCain doesn't offer anything other than more of the same, but Murdoch has hardly been concerned by the previous 8 years of the Bush administration and its myriad failings, meaning it would be foolish to write off any of them as of yet.

Unlike Blair and also Brown, who not so long ago appeared alongside Murdoch on the same panel in Davos, the Cameroons have yet to put any specific feelers out towards the Murdoch camp. Indeed, when you'd expect them to be aiming to capitalise on Labour's problems and deficiencies, it's not Dave or Osbourne that are appearing in print in the Sun with their policies outlined, but rather Brown himself on the worthy but not especially relevant to the average Sun reader topic of combating malaria. The closest they've perhaps come to hitting the Sun's buttons was Cameron's appearance alongside Helen Newlove, and even that didn't come to close to a promise that the Tories would adopt her and the Sun's agenda for fixing "Broken Britain".

Perhaps this can itself be linked to the Sun's increasing crisis of identity. In its Thatcherite heyday under Kelvin MacKenzie, you certainly knew where it stood, just as you know now where the Daily Mail stands. It employs the crude talk radio hosts Fergus Shanahan and Jon Gaunt as columnists, but its distance from their stance was highlighted during the recent debate over capital punishment, where both supported its reinstatement while the leader line opposed it, despite "99%" of its readers also expressing their enthusiasm for the old black cap. It increasingly seems more at home decrying the latest hate figure from the world of celebrity, whether it be Heather Mills or Paul Burrell than it does attacking a political adversary. Its campaigns against paedophiles, the Human Rights Act and "Broken Britain" aside, the whole paper seems less confrontational and even whisper it, liberal. This is undoubtedly down partly to changing attitudes, and the Sun is nothing if not a barometer of its readers, but the increasing turn away from open propaganda is still surprising to note. The one remaining area where this does remain is in its unwavering support for foreign military adventures, regardless of the costs that the war in Iraq especially has inflicted. The laughable claim when the British army withdrew from Basra that the Mahdi army had been fought into ceasefire has since been proved to be a fantasy, but it didn't stop Tom Newton Dunn, the Sun's defence editor from scooping reporter of the year at the British Press Awards.

Whether the Sun as a brand is in terminal decline is far more difficult to measure. It's increasingly clear that it's only its price cutting in Scotland, London and the south-east that is keeping it above the 3 million sales mark, and its website, despite its attempt to draw in users with its MySun social network, is well behind the Mail's in the ABCe rankings. Rebekah Wade may be a piss-poor editor, but there doesn't seem to be anyone angling her for place, and Murdoch despite embarrassments over her past performance both in and out of the chair doesn't seem worried in the slightest about the paper's overall placing. After all, it continues to deliver a healthy profit, something other papers are increasingly finding difficult to achieve.

As noted previously on this blog, what is increasingly clear is that the most vituperative, slanted, invasive, judgemental and downright unpleasant "journalism" no longer comes from the paper of "Gotcha!" and "THE TRUTH" fame but instead from the supposedly more mild-mannered mid-markets Mail and Express, both of whom seem to attempt to outdo each other in which can demonise immigrants more, invade the privacy of both celebrity and "commoner" alike and state that black is in fact white. Both also coincidentally, despite Brown's wooing of Dacre, are right behind the Conservatives under Cameron, with the Express front page today more or less blaming the fact that it gets dark at night on the Supreme Leader. By those calculations, the Conservatives, despite recruiting ex-News of the World editor Andy Coulson as their spin supremo, are not yet worried by the Sun's failure to come on side. They might start panicking more when the time has further ebbed away, but for now it seems the Conservatives are happy not to be assiduously courting Uncle Rupe and his super soaraway flagship.

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