Readers of the unofficial history of the paper, Stick it up your Punter! by Peter Chippendale and Chris Horrie, may recall one of its more vivid vignettes. It involved a confrontation between Kelvin MacKenzie, editor of the paper during that most uncouth of eras, Thatcher's Eighties, and the then political editor, Walter Terry.
"Forget all this crap about politicians - who's interested, eh? You only write this bollocks so you can look good with all your fucking mates in Westminster. You are not writing it for the readers - the readers don't give a fuck about politics. The readers, eh, Walter? Know who they are? Pay your fucking wages, eh? Why don't you get a story for them, eh? One with people they've heard of for a change?"
He could not complain thus of Trevor Kavanagh, who last week was named Journalist of the Year in the British Press Awards for a series of old- fashioned scoops which involved no less a cast of characters than the Queen and Charles and Diana, people Sun readers have indubitably heard of. Old-fashioned because they produced headlines full of facts: Queen strips Di of HRH Title ... Charles and Di to divorce today ... Queen: I'll pay my own way ... 1p off tax today - by contrast to sexist, racist and jingoistic abuse or surreal nonsense of the previous era with its Gotcha! ... Freddie Starr ate my hamster ... It's the Sun wot won it blend of fact and venomous fantasy.
Wot The Sun claimed it had won, famously, was the last election for the Tories, by delivering the crucial C2 vote. Key marginals went to the Tories thanks to the paper, it said. Small matter that the seats with the most significant swing to Labour were also those with biggest Sun circulation.
In those days, the stories that were labelled "Sun Exclusive" were usually those it had shamelessly pinched from the first edition of other papers. But Kavanagh's scoops this year were the envy of the parliamentary lobby.
It has not been the only significant change. Compare the way it treated the previous Labour leader, Neil Kinnock, with the way it covers Tony Blair. The front page of the final edition before the last election pictured Kinnock's head in a light-bulb accompanied by the legend: Will the last person out of the country please turn off the lights. By contrast, the new Labour leader's last conference speech was headlined: A breath of fresh Blair.
"It's not The Sun that's changed," says Kavanagh. "It's the Labour Party. They've moved in our direction, and a long way. Kinnock was unelectable. With Blair, the electorate have a real choice."
It has been a long journey for the paper from the unquestioning support for the Tories in the Thatcher years to the more maverick approach in commentating on the man whose first offence was only that he wasn't Mrs T. Major, however gradually, chalked up a series of other offences, to the extent that it is hard to conceive after The Sun's leader following the last by-election - A Kick in the Wirrals - that it could ever back him in the coming vote. In part, that is rooted in Rupert Murdoch's ideology of self-interest; in part, it is due to the populist tabloid's ability to sniff the wind.
"Readers don't like having things thrust down their throats," says Kavanagh. "We focus their views and then reflect them back to them. Usually we get it right, but not always."
When they did a "You the Jury" readers' telephone poll on the royal yacht, Britannia, they found that readers didn't agree that it should be paid for from public funds. And when last week they lambasted the motor-mouth Tory MP David Evans for his abusive diatribe against the world in general, readers rang in to support him.
"The thing is that you don't know where you are with The Sun," said a member of Tony Blair's private office. "One day they'll give you a blow- job and the next they're whipping you across the back."
Pull a sheaf of Kavanagh's stories from a computer database and, shorn of the gaudy trappings of Sun page design, they read as well as any of Fleet Street's most solid political reporting and analysis. Nor are they any more loaded in their terminology than front-page political stories in the Daily Mail or even the Telegraph.
Where Kavanagh does let his slip show is in his language over Europe, one of The Sun's most partisan subject areas. Kenneth Clarke, for example, is routinely described as a Euro-fanatic, which is what he pretty much looks like if you are as anti-Europe as Kavanagh. Yet even here Kavanagh's weight shows. The readers of tabloids - C2s, Ds and Es - are not normally interested in big issues. It is a tribute to Kavanagh's skill and commitment that he has riled his readers to indignation over Europe. And he has not done it through cheap-shot xenophobia, but by getting heavyweight writers to write (in a non-heavyweight style) on the subject and sending reporters to Europe to look at serious subjects.
It is all a reflection of Kavanagh's own solid background. He began his journalistic career with the Surrey Mirror and worked his way through various regional and evening papers before deciding in the Sixties to emigrate to Australia on a pounds 10 ticket. There he worked for various Murdoch papers, ending up in Canberra as political correspondent for the Sydney Daily Mirror. But when he returned to the UK during the industrial unrest of the last Labour government's "winter of discontent", it was to a job as a labour correspondent. His colleagues were all surprised when MacKenzie leapfrogged him, not just into the political staff but to the top job. It proved an inspired choice.
But the shift in the politics of the paper is not simply a change in style reflecting a change in editor. The politics of The Sun are fixed by one man: Rupert Murdoch. Of course he listens to the editor, Stuart Higgins, and Kavanagh, who writes his proprietor regular political briefing notes. But it is Murdoch who decides.
"It's not a question of kow-towing, or being a lackey," says Kavanagh. "I am in sympathy with his views - that the state should be small, the economy deregulated, taxes low, and with strong policies on law and order and defence."
If anything Kavanagh and other Sun colleagues are more Tory than Murdoch. But Murdoch likes to back a winner. The word at News International is that The Sun may well back Blair. More surprisingly, there is talk that either The Times or The Sunday Times might too, with one remaining Tory to keep a Murdochian foot in both camps.
"There are huge question marks over Labour," says Kavanagh. "They have got away with murder because the Tory party is disintegrating. They have not had to answer the real questions on the economy, on education, on Europe."
The question Labour would like an answer to is whether Murdoch's aversion to Europe is greater than his dislike of backing a loser. "The decision will be made and announced the day after the election is called," says Kavanagh.
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