The Sun's publication of some remarkably unremarkable pictures of Sophie Rhys-Jones marks the end of the paper's self-imposed period of mourning for Diana. The surprise is that the paper held off so long. After the death of Diana, greeted as it was by the sort of mass reaction reserved for European Cup-winning football teams, the tabloids agreed among themselves to lay off the royals.
The agreement was entirely self-serving. After Earl Spencer's "blood on their hands" speech, where he came within an inch of naming the Sun and News of the World as the architects of Diana's death, for one awful moment the tabloids faced the possibility of the sort of spontaneous consumer boycott which had hit the Sun in the North-west after its insensitive coverage of the Hillsborough disaster. They reacted with fantastically positive coverage of Diana's memory and a new attitude to the royals bordering on 1950s-style grovel.
This turnaround saw off the risk of market meltdown. But the loss of the element of royal intrusion, and particularly sexual material about Diana, cost the tabloids dearly in lost circulation. Hello! magazine and its many imitators had a stranglehold on the "heart-warming" stuff anyway. From day one the temptation was there to break ranks to win back sales. This week the Sun did just that.
Commentators who have put the Sophie Rhys-Jones affair down to a brainstorm or error of judgement on the part of the Sun's editor, David Yelland, even suggesting that he might now be for the chop as a result, are almost certainly wrong. Rupert Murdoch shapes the Sun to an extraordinary extent. Even personalities as famously strong and independent as Kelvin MacKenzie and Larry Lamb lived in fear of Murdoch, consulted him daily and could make no significant editorial decision without his approval. The idea that Yelland, a relative novice who owes his position solely to Murdoch, could have gone out on a limb simply does not wash. If Yelland does leave the paper, it will not be because of any supposed public, political or establishment outrage over the Sophie Rhys-Jones pictures. It will be because he has failed in one of Murdoch's favourite phrases to "cut the mustard", and bring in revenue.
There have been changes to the paper since Yelland took over the editorship. Under MacKenzie it was designed to appeal to "the truck-driver and his wife". That was the model for the 1980s and MacKenzie's claim to fame was that he knew their prejudices, aspirations, interests and sense of humour like the back of his hand. The importance of this market declined through the 1980s. According to national newspaper lore, the success of the Daily Mail, the booming women's magazine market and even the "feminising" of TV output towards all those gardening and home-decorating shows, tracks the steady growth of the female workforce.
TV has played a significant role in the development of the tabloid agenda in more ways than one. The News of the World's Dallaglio story shows just how far the tabloids are dominated not just by the interests and personalities of television, but by the methods of TV journalism. The recent spate of entrapment stories started last year when the Daily Mirror sent two reporters to meet Jack Straw's son William in a pub and, posing as members of the public, buy a small amount of cannabis off him. Stunt- based investigative TV shows such as ITV's The Cook Report have been using the same tactics for years. The effect of the Dallaglio story was to reveal him as a wally, not a villain. The TV equivalent was not so much The Cook Report as You've Been Framed or Beadle's About.
But it is readers that count in newspapers' thinking. Just as important to the Sun are not only the truck-driver and his wife but the secretary and her husband. Thus page three has been toned down, Sun women beefed up, women executives and reporters promoted and football clearly fenced off in its own section.
One theory doing the rounds last week was that this changed and more female audience would react badly to the Sun's decision to break the unwritten agreement to lay off the royals. The story was "out of touch with the sort of huggy-feely Britain Tony Blair has tried to create", according to Mirror editor Piers Morgan. But by Friday the first hard sales information started doing the rounds. The Sun's circulation had leapt by 250,000 copies, bringing in pounds 150,000 extra in sales and ad revenue.
And if the paper can hang on to, say, just half those extra readers by dishing up more of the same it will earn additional net revenues of pounds 20m this year - handy when Mr Murdoch is in need of cash to finance the price-cutting war he has unleashed in the digital TV market. After milking the free TV coverage for a week or more, expect Sun TV commercials, stunts, give-aways, competitions and more manufactured outrage to hang on to those new readers.
Chris Horrie is the co-author of 'Stick it Up Your Punter - the uncut story of the Sun newspaper', published by Simon & Schuster, price pounds 7.99.