Does Murdoch still have the power to swing the election?

In fact, did he ever? The influence of 'The Sun' on voters may be greatly exaggerated, discovers Tim Luckhurst

When the first editions of last Monday's Sun dropped, there was deep consternation as the news was relayed to senior Labour politicians. The declaration that "The Sun cannot say today it unhesitatingly supports Labour in the coming election" was published before Tony Blair presented himself at Buckingham Palace. Britain's biggest-selling newspaper seemed to be getting its retaliation in first. That impression was reinforced 24 hours later when its veteran political editor, Trevor Kavanagh, warned on Radio 4's Today programme that: "We have given them a very fair wind over two full parliaments and I think that most of the public are a little disappointed, as are our readers, with the delivery."

When the first editions of last Monday's Sun dropped, there was deep consternation as the news was relayed to senior Labour politicians. The declaration that "The Sun cannot say today it unhesitatingly supports Labour in the coming election" was published before Tony Blair presented himself at Buckingham Palace. Britain's biggest-selling newspaper seemed to be getting its retaliation in first. That impression was reinforced 24 hours later when its veteran political editor, Trevor Kavanagh, warned on Radio 4's Today programme that: "We have given them a very fair wind over two full parliaments and I think that most of the public are a little disappointed, as are our readers, with the delivery."

Was Kavanagh broadcasting a message direct from The Sun's proprietor, Rupert Murdoch, as Labour insiders believe he has in the past? To find out, I turned to some veteran Murdoch watchers. Professor Justin Lewis of Cardiff School of Journalism says: "The Sun's conversion to Labour was always skin-deep. It has always been an intrinsically conservative newspaper. Blair suits them because he is a fairly conservative Labour leader, but if he ceases to be a winner that can change. Rupert Murdoch has a powerful hand to play, and if he remains uncommitted at this stage he can retain that hand."

Such fence-sitting alarms Labour. Since the Zinoviev letter - a forged call to revolution in Britain - tore the heart out of Ramsay MacDonald's re-election campaign in 1924, fear of the "capitalist press" has been imprinted on Labour DNA. In 1992 fear turned to loathing. Most memories focus on the legendary election day front page, which depicted Neil Kinnock's head inside a light bulb with the warning: "If Kinnock wins today, will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights?" Professor Steven Barnett of Westminster University says that was just the culmination of a devastating editorial campaign. "Labour was badly burned in 1992. The Sun was consistently vicious. The Labour leadership has never got over a deep sense of anger and blame. An awful lot of what has happened to Labour's media strategy since goes back to that."

Brian Wilson, the former minister who helped to devise Labour's media strategy in 1997 and 2001, confirms this: "I do not think people go out and vote directly in line with what a newspaper tells them, but it is an important part of the mood music. In 2001 they presented the whole thing as a bit boring and pointless. This time they can have a particular effect on persuading people to vote. That can help Labour."

But surely not if The Sun decides to endorse the Conservatives? On Monday it explained: "In many ways the Conservatives speak our language, especially when it comes to Europe, illegal immigration and crime."

Is this evidence that Mr Murdoch is preparing to transfer his allegiance? Former Mirror and News of the World editor Piers Morgan says: "Rupert Murdoch will do what he always does at elections - back the party he thinks will win. And he hardly ever gets it wrong, so I suggest we all wait until The Sun declares its colours and go straight to the bookies."

Some News International insiders say that may mean waiting until polling day. After all, across the lorry bay at Wapping The Times has been doing its best to undermine Michael Howard, with political editor Tom Baldwin's revelations about Howard Flight, which got the seal of approval from New Labour's dirty tricks department. One writer explains: "I wouldn't be surprised if we endorse Blair again at the last minute, but the feeling is that the decision has not been taken yet." Prof Lewis says formal endorsement is not really the issue. "What The Sun tells its readers to do in a polling day editorial does not matter. But what The Sun decides to campaign on and splash on its front page in the weeks before and during the campaign matters a great deal."

Prof Barnett agrees: "The editorial opinion is much less important than the broader tone. Newspapers can push issues up the agenda and that can help a party when it is perceived to have the stronger stance on those issues." He says The Sun and Daily Express have both favoured the Conservatives by putting emphasis on crime and immigration.

Some critics see this as evidence that Rupert Murdoch wants to have his cake and eat it - maintaining formal support for Labour while highlighting issues that promote the Conservative manifesto. That may underestimate Murdoch's convictions. Insiders point out that, despite his apparent conversion to New Labour, the News International chief has encouraged criticism of the Prime Minister on issues about which they disagree. In September 2003 The Sun ran a splash describing Blair as a "Blundertaker" for refusing a referendum on European integration. Blair changed his mind.

Can The Sun have as direct an influence on this election? Prof Barnett says: "Both parties have tended to exaggerate the importance of the editorial line The Sun takes. The Sun has never been as important as it believes. Parties have elevated it to a status it does not deserve."

The former Sunday Times editor, Andrew Neil who worked closely with Rupert Murdoch, for more than 10 years, says: "The Sun does matter, but only when the election is very close. Blair would have won well in 1997 and 2001 even if The Sun had campaigned against him. The Sun was following him rather than the other way around in the past two elections. But in 1992, when the British people could not make up their minds, The Sun was significant. Voters had had enough of the Tories but were not keen to vote for the Welsh windbag. The Sun encouraged that negative perception. In the final week a small majority had decided to close their eyes and vote for Kinnock, then The Sun made them think again. They held their noses and voted Tory. It was a shift at the margin in a close fight, and The Sun was significant in encouraging the shift."

So, if Britain's biggest-selling newspaper attacks Labour for the duration of the campaign will it influence the result? Prof Barnett says that will not happen: "It is a more ambivalent newspaper these days. It is uncertain about whom to back. Even if it switches to the Tories it will not be as viciously anti-Labour as in the past."

Andrew Neil says: "This is not 1992, but if The Sun was to be relentlessly negative against Labour over the next four weeks and to endorse the Tories it would hit Labour's majority." Neil says there is an outside chance that such a combination of pressure could "maybe even produce a hung parliament".

So The Sun is still decisive? Piers Morgan says: "The Sun is the biggest-selling newspaper in the country and what they say will have an influence." Neil is more cautious. He says the paper can only nudge voters in a direction they already want to go. "It has no power to nudge them in a direction they don't." The impression conveyed by last week's Sun editorial is that editor Rebekah Wade and the man who appointed her suspect that British public opinion is shifting to the right, but they are not yet sure that it has shifted from Blairite pseudo-conservatism to the authentic variety.

DIARY

Branches everywhere

Is there no limit to the reach of Prince Charles's former PR man, Mark Bolland, late of the News of the World? While a diary item in London's Standard on Tuesday's reports that he is "soon to start writing for one of the Telegraph titles", the ebullient Bolland already has a double-page spread in the sameStandard. Down boy!

No news is bad news

How real is the "row" between Spectator boss Andrew Neil and his political editor, Peter Oborne? On Tuesday, Oborne delivered a public attack on Neil for his "modernising" ideas. On Wednesday the Guardian diary reported that Neil had indignantly choked on his Earl Grey "and reached for the pink telephone". But former intimates of the choleric former Sunday Times editor know that he firmly believes that "bad news is better than no news". Could it be a coincidence that the "Speccy" has slipped from the headlines recently?

The late, late show

Journalists get used to being asked by a newsdesk "will this story hold a few days?" But Peter Hebblethwaite surely scooped a record last week. His magisterial Guardian obituary of Pope John Paul II, which appeared on Monday, carried the small footnote that poor Hebblethwaite himself had died more than 10 years ago. The obit had been updated by his wife Margaret.

Across a crowded room

Much trumpeting from Time Out editor Gordon Thomson to introduce his "exclusive interview" with the Prime Minister, "The Blair Truth", written up as a cosy one-to-one chat in Downing Street, with the PM relaxed and sipping tea. In fact, there were at least 100 other magazine editors in the room. Cheeky TO presented questions from the floor as its own.

White (cigarette) smoke

With covert jockeying for the papal succession already under way, that other highly secretive organisation, The Sunday Times, was quietly shuffling its leading figures last week. There was no visible white smoke at Fortress Wapping, as the editor, John Witherow, put the finishing touches to the biggest shake-up in years, moving Mark Skipworth from his role as managing editor (news) to the relative backwater of News Review, and promoting news editor Charlie "Mad Dog" Hymas to the top job. The stress levels of Hymas, a nervous, chain-smoking ST institution, will not have been helped by Witherow giving him the post on a temporary basis to see if he takes the strain. As always at the ST, fear reigns.

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