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The true reflection of modern Britain

`The Sun cannot be blamed for the ills that beset modern Britain, such as xenophobia, intolerance and general yobbishness'
TO CELEBRATE its 30th birthday yesterday, The Sun chose as its front page headline Dick Emery's catch-phrase: "Ooohh you are awful!... but I like you" - a fairly exact parody of sentiments expressed by Tony Blair in a congratulatory article inside. As I recall it, Emery's character, dressed in drag, would often follow up the phrase by wielding her handbag in a swift right-hook to her victim's upper body.

By contrast, The Sun's favoured weapon has always been the knee in the groin; and Blair, for all his matey bonhomie ("I'll be honest. I don't think I'm the most dangerous man in Britain") has not been spared the treatment. Having been bold enough to suggest in his article that The Sun's hostility to his predecessor, Neil Kinnock, might have been... well, a bit over the top, he found its leader-writer in no mood to repent.

"If Blair reckons The Sun has been unfair and cruel to Neil Kinnock then he must be off his rocker," was the paper's sober comment, before going on to devote most of its editorial to being gratuitously unfair and cruel to the poor man once again.

This is the image of itself that The Sun has always liked best, the cheeky chappie who knows what he thinks and kowtows to nobody, not even to the highest in the land. Blair's article reinforced that perception, as did the columnist Richard Littlejohn, on the facing page: "We will continue to hold our political masters up to scrutiny, call them to account and cut them down to size when it needs to be done." Just below him, Baroness Thatcher commended the paper's gallantry in supporting her bold assault on some of the nation's cherished values: "When the fainthearts faltered and the Wets wilted, The Sun did neither."

Yet its derring-do on the battlefield of Westminster is not what most of us think of first when we ponder the influence of The Sun in its first 30 years. Its choice of which party to back at elections is based on no consistent principle except its assessment of who is likely to win - and therefore whom it would be most useful for its proprietor Rupert Murdoch to befriend, should he be seeking future regulatory favours.

The paper's announcement in March 1997 that it was backing Blair was a blatant case of jumping on to a bandwagon that was already on an inexorable roll. For sure, the Labour leadership welcomed the support, because it can never be a bad thing for a political party to have the biggest-selling daily paper on its side. But Tony Blair was going to win the election whatever position The Sun took, and they both knew it.

Nor is there much evidence of holding politicians up to scrutiny in the 16-page supplement that came with yesterday's edition, devoted mainly to reproducing 70 of what it sees as its best front pages. Three of those headlines from the last five years capture the essence of The Sun as it really is, rather than as it would like us to imagine it to be. From last month: "Mile-High Mandy got randy on brandy"; from last year, reporting George Michael's arrest in a public toilet: "Zip me up before you go go"; and from January 1995: "Happy Noose Year! Joy as House of Horror killer Fred West hangs himself in jail".

A couple of front-page headlines, both just two words long, were notably missing from the top-70 compendium. One was "The Truth", published in April 1989, a few days after the fatal disaster at Hillsborough football stadium. The story beneath it blamed Liverpool fans for the trouble that had led to the incident. Infuriated Merseysiders instituted a boycott that had a significant impact on the paper's circulation. Despite a grovelling apology from the then editor, Kelvin MacKenzie, it took a long time for sales to recover.

The second missing headline was "Sorry Elton", over a story in December 1988 that The Sun had paid pounds 1m to Elton John in an out-of-court settlement after making scandalous and false allegations about his private life. Again, MacKenzie was contrite. Interviewed the following year for the official booklet marking the paper's 20th birthday, he donned his hair shirt and pondered the lesson of it all: "In a way we deserved to suffer. If you pay people like rent boys or prostitutes, who live by deceit and criminality, you should be wary about believing them" - a maxim that ought to be embroidered on samplers and hung on the wall of every tabloid editor's office.

Humility, though, was not MacKenzie's habitual response to criticism. The Elton John fiasco came at a time when the press, led by The Sun and its stablemate the News of the World, was intruding ever more blatantly into the personal lives of celebrities and members of the Royal Family - and even sometimes of people who were not public figures at all. In 1987 MacKenzie refused to apologise for the headline: "Queen's cousin locked in madhouse". When, in 1982, the Queen protested about a snatched picture of the pregnant Diana, Princess of Wales in a bikini, the paper printed it again the following day.

One of the last acts of the old Press Council, before it was replaced by the Press Complaints Commission in 1990, was to censure The Sun for referring to homosexuals as "poofs" and "poofters". MacKenzie responded in a defiant editorial, saying the readers of the paper used those words themselves, and "what is good enough for them is good enough for us".

This kind of yobbish triumphalism, coupled with the introduction of bare- chested women on Page Three, persuades many critics that The Sun has, almost single-handedly, been responsible for a general decline in manners, standards and behaviour in the 30 years since it was bought for a song by Rupert Murdoch from Hugh Cudlipp's Mirror Group.

Yet newspapers do not create the social climate of the time; they merely reflect it. Nakedness on stage (Hair) and on the pages of glossy fashion magazines was becoming accepted by the end of the Sixties. The ludicrous trial of Lady Chatterley's Lover had helped to expose the falseness of any distinction between nudity and eroticism for art's sake, and the publication of arousing pictures for the lewd entertainment of horny-handed tabloid readers.

Similarly, the habit of grovelling before authority and respecting time- honoured institutions had been discredited by two world wars and the radical social reforms that followed them. As early as the Fifties, Hugh Cudlipp's Daily Mirror had been championing the small man - personified by its cartoon character Andy Capp - against the toffs, and, in tune with public opinion, had criticised the Royal Family for preventing Princess Margaret from marrying the man she loved. But by the late Sixties, the Mirror was losing its post-war spark and becoming more than a little prim - allowing The Sun to make immediate inroads into its circulation and to overtake it by 1976.

By now, Richard Littlejohn's declaration yesterday that The Sun is at its best "sticking up for its readers against the self-important and over- mighty" itself seems a mite out of date. And that may be why the revived Mirror has been closing the circulation gap between the two.

Rupert Murdoch and The Sun cannot be blamed for the ills that beset modern Britain. Triumphalism, xenophobia, intolerance, scandal-mongering, road rage and general yobbishness existed before 1969.

As the 1989 commemorative booklet put it: "The Sun is not written for... eggheads who enjoy delicate debate. Its whole style is based on telling readers what they think." Including, it seems, Tony Blair.