Who’s afraid of the Sun rising on a Sunday?
Rupert Murdoch’s new tabloid has already been branded a ‘creature from the swamp’ – let’s hope it is the News of the World with knobs on.
Who wants to see the Sun rise on Sunday? Well, according to the tabloid newspaper, thousands of its readers have expressed their delight at Rupert Murdoch’s announcement that the Sun is to become a seven-day publication from next weekend. The marketing men and newsagents are also reportedly happy. After all, since Murdoch closed down the News of the World last year in response to the phone-hacking scandal, around half of that bestselling tabloid’s readers have simply disappeared from the Sunday market rather than switching to a rival rag.
Others, however, appear not quite so pleased at the dawn of the Sun on Sunday. There have been howls of outrage across the internet at the very idea of replacing the much-maligned News of the World. Murdoch has been attacked for his ‘arrogance’ and ‘cynicism’ in daring to publish another Sunday tabloid, especially ‘so soon’ after the assisted suicide of the NotW and with the various phone-hacking inquiries still dragging on.
The decision to bring forward the launch of the Sun on Sunday has been condemned in terms that suggest News International (NI) is effectively dancing on the grave of Milly Dowler and insulting the other victims of hacking by daring to pursue its business of publishing newspapers. Labour MP Chris Bryant captured the shriller critics’ mood, denouncing the decision as ‘ludicrously premature’ and accusing the ‘cynical’ Murdoch of ‘using the phone-hacking scandal to get rid of News of the World staff and save himself money by running a seven-day Sun’. Bryant concluded that ‘Last week NI said it was “draining the swamp”. What creature will come forth from the swamp that we would want to see on our streets?’
This is extraordinary stuff. Any addition to the news media should be welcomed by those of an open mind. In an age of shrinking newspaper sales when the press is perpetually in crisis, the decision to launch a new paper seems like rare good news. Yet before its first edition has even appeared, the Sun on Sunday has been branded a creature from the swamp, the news of its arrival greeted as if NI had announced it would be hacking the phones of millions of British readers rather than offering them something to read on a grey Sunday.
This response reveals the motives behind many of the Leveson groupies now howling against the tabloid press. It demonstrates that the real impetus driving the Leveson Inquiry/Inquisition is not about the hacking of Milly Dowler’s or anybody else’s phone messages. It is about using those case files to beat the tabloids, preferably to death. To turn that Labour MP’s remarks around, some crusaders are ‘using the phone-hacking scandal to get rid’ not only of the News of the World but of the Sun and the rest if they had their way.
The illiberal, intolerant attack on press freedom is laid bare in the objection that simply to publish a new tabloid Sunday newspaper is somehow out of order. That is the atmosphere in which Lord Justice Leveson is conducting his trial of the tabloids, not merely inquiring into phone-hacking but sitting in judgement on the entire ‘ethics and culture’ of the UK press.
Of course, many of the tabloid-bashers will insist that they support press freedom and do not wish to see newspapers close. They merely want the tabloids to repent of their sins and behave like Good Newspapers. If anything, this disingenuous strand of anti-tabloid opinion is even more objectionable.
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There are those in the media who have been cheerleading the celebrity-fronted attack on the tabloids from the start of the phone-hacking scandal. Yet they have grown slightly uncomfortable as the consequences of this crusade begin to become clear. Yes, they say, tabloids are wicked – but we did not want one of them to close down with the loss of hundreds of jobs! Yes, they object, we agreed that many tabloid journalists are like paedophiles – but we did not mean that all those Sun journalists should be arrested in dawn police raids like, well, sex offenders! The naivety of these supposedly liberal media types is only outdone by the arrogance with which they feel free to tell the tabloid press how they should behave.
Take Charlie Brooker of the Guardian, who last week on Channel 4 indulged in a 120-second rhyming rant against the Sun, sounding like an allegedly liberal journalist’s version of Orwell’s two-minute hate. Yet Brooker wrote on Monday to express the pious hope that the expanding Sun might now use its new dawn to ‘reinvent’ itself. Brooker assured his readers that he had never shared the ‘hand-rubbing relish with which some predicted the death of the Sun’. Instead he believes in ‘reform, not capital punishment’ since ‘only a monopolist wants to shut the other side up’.
In this spirit, the critic advised the Sun that it ‘needs to rehabilitate itself’. Thus the paper must become less stridently ‘bullying’ and more ‘fun’ – like Twitter. (He appears to have forgotten the non-bullying, fun ‘twitch-hunts’ which virulent tweeters have launched against tabloid journalists in the recent past.) And, of course, in order to pass the Brooker test of proper newspapers the Sun will have to get rid of Page 3 and its ‘pointless helping of naked breasts’.
It seems that the Sun on Sunday can be tolerated, just so long as it agrees to turn itself into a tame tabloid that will not offend the sensibilities of more serious folk. Perhaps NI should think about publishing a tabloid version of the Observer with ‘zany’ jokes and no tits. For ‘reform’, read conform. The monopolists of today do not want to shut up the opposition, merely to redefine press freedom so that all must toe their boring conformist line under the phoney banners of liberalism.
On the contrary, we should hope that the Sun on Sunday ignores all of these strictures and comes out fighting as something like the News of the World with knobs on. The UK media needs more pluralism and diversity, not more of the same monopoly worldview as expressed in the shrill one-note denunciations of the tabloids. And it needs the sort of news-making investigative journalism which that deceased Sunday tabloid still invested in, while others retreat into lazily reprinting leaks and PR puff.
There must be a fear, however, that the Sun on Sunday will not be that bold. Far from being a sign of ‘arrogance’, the hasty announcement of its launch looked more like a defensive attempt by News Corp management to regain the initiative after the shameful episode of its committee handing over the details of sources to the police, thus facilitating the arrest of those Sun journalists. As Brendan O’Neill has observed in his column on spiked plus, this threatened an implosion of the Sun. Rupert Murdoch flew in to manage the crisis, and announced the Sunday edition apparently ahead of schedule in an attempt to placate angry staff and demonstrate the corporation’s commitment to the paper. Against this troubled background it is to be hoped that those managing the new paper avoid the temptation to play safe or fight shy of causing further offence in the current censorious climate.
The Sun on Sunday seems unlikely to inform my worldview any more than the News of the World did. I have spent a lot of words criticising the Sun’s politics over the past 30 years. But more important than any of that today is the belief that a free press means being free to publish what and when you want to. The freedom of expression is not divisible, and not to be rationed out to ‘respectable’ outlets only. Nor is press freedom ‘reformable’ so that it conforms to your idea of what is right.
In defending freedom for the tabloids as well as the rest of the media, I have referred before to Karl Marx’s point on press freedom that ‘You cannot pluck the rose without its thorns!’. And what would be the point of tabloids without thorns?
Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked.