How Leveson has chilled the Sun
The first Sun on Sunday is proof that elite hysteria about ‘tabloid culture’ is taming and dulling the tabloids.
There they were, in big, bold, finger-blackening print, the words every committed Murdoch-phobe dreaded: ‘A new era has dawned. Welcome to the first Sunday edition of the Sun...’
Given the amount of muesli that must have been sticking in self-styled liberals’ gullets, Hampstead must have been a cacophony of choking on Sunday morning. ‘How could this happen?’, they must have been wondering. After all, thanks to the phone-hacking scandal, it has been open season on tabloids, so-called tabloid culture and, specifically, the man some seem to hold singlehandedly responsible for the woes of the British liberal-left during the past 30 years: Rupert Murdoch. In fact, it has become perfectly acceptable to call redtop journalists ‘sociopaths’, to blame the News of the World or the Sun for the ‘coarsening’ and ‘pollution’ of public life, and to talk blithely of better, more severe press regulation, at least for those outlets ‘we’ don’t agree with.
And yet despite all this, despite an elite-fostered climate so inhospitable to tabloid newspapers, the ‘Murdoch Empire’ has only gone and published a new Sunday newspaper to fill the News of the World-shaped hole. True, the Sun on Sunday is not exactly a new title; it’s really an extension of the already existing six-day Sun. And in Dominic Mohan, it even has the same editor. But still, it seems like a bold move, one in the eye for both snobbish tabloid-bashers and the smug naysayers who believe the newspaper industry is dying on its arse.
But what of the Sun on Sunday itself? Is it the News of the World reborn? A new voice in the publishing firmament? On the evidence of Sunday’s first edition, it’s difficult to tell.
The cover story was a well-done, but inoffensive interview with actress and presenter Amanda Holden about her recent, rather traumatic labour. ‘My heart stopped for 40 seconds’, shouted the headline. Inside, there was a Page 3-style, topless snap of singer and X Factor presenter Kelly Rowland, except she was ostentatiously covering her breasts rather than revealing them. There were news stories on a new income threshold for migrant workers, mooted industrial action on the part of doctors over pensions, and an exclusive on the government’s plans for war with Iran over its rulers’ supposed yearning for nukes. ‘Israel, the US and Europe are right to insist that cannot happen’, ran the accompanying opinion piece.
The columnists were largely entertaining. Katie Price, aka Jordan, indulged in a bit of lighthearted class war over her reasons for sending her kids to the local state school. ‘Just because I can afford it, it doesn’t mean Junior and Princess go to private school in knickerbockers and straw hats.’ Elsewhere, ex-Modern Review editor Toby Young continued this posh-baiting schtick by sticking the boot into the hypocrisy of booze-banning politicians: ‘In the interests of fairness, shouldn’t [the prime minister] also ban the sale of subsidised beer in the House of Commons? Or is it one rule for them and another for the rest of us?’
There was also an intriguing interview with Uruguayan pensioner Lila Piriz. She talked about her grandson, Luis Suarez, or as she called him, ‘mi negrito’ – ‘my little black boy’ – and expressed bewilderment over the racism storm that has engulfed Suarez since he called Man Utd’s Patrice Evra ‘negrito’ last Autumn. ‘This is a normal way of speaking in Uruguay’, she said. ‘It’s like calling a loved one honey, a sweet expression to use for someone.’ Amid the monotonous condemnation of Suarez, and the supposed presence of racism in football, this little interview neatly drew attention to the importance of context when condemning certain words. But more than that, it showed, albeit only for an instance, why the popular press in Britain, so uniform in its treatment of the Suarez affair, is in want of different, critical voices.
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Throughout, the writing, as ever, was a masterclass in concision. This is a largely forgotten merit. You see, any pretentious bugger, the latest Slavoj Zizek opus sloshing around their satchel, can pen reader-averse sentences, in which meaning, suspended high across several badly constructed clauses and subclauses, threatens to topple off the syntagm and down into the depths of incomprehension. But the ability to write crisply and succinctly? Now, that’s a skill. And of course, the Sun, like the News of the World, isn’t just well written, it can be funny, too. The headlines alone, punning and punching, have always been capable of implanting themselves for years in the public consciousness. There wasn’t anything classicly memorable here. But we still had ‘Job plan burgered’ in reference to the decision of Burger King to pull out of the coalition government’s work-experience scheme, and ‘Mandely Belly’ in its piece about Nelson Mandela’s stomach operation.
By the final edition, however, this last headline had been changed to ‘Nelson tum op’. It’s a telling moment. The fear of being seen to be insensitive, or worse still, offensive, had seemingly caused the paper to half-censor itself. And it was this, this sense of a cowed, nervous editorial line, that was most striking about the Sun on Sunday. Even its editorial leader was marked by a profound defensiveness. ‘You will be able to trust our journalists to abide by the values of decency as they gather news’, it pleaded.
There is little getting away from it. The Sun on Sunday read like something palpably chastened, or better still chilled by the anti-Murdoch, anti-tabloid crusade of the past year. This was a product marked by the Leveson Inquiry, an editorial line cowed by the all-out assault on press practices and press freedom. And as a result, it was that little bit blander, that little bit safer, that little bit, well, more boring. There was no big scoop here: no illicit sex ‘romps’ involving politicians, no self-righteous slebs snapped on a camera phone snorting coke. In fact, there was little evidence of the kind of investigative reporting that had always lent the News of the World its appeal and, yes, its value.
So, the Sun on Sunday might well be the mark of a new era dawning. And from this evidence, it looks likely to be a greyer, more conformist one.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.