Media: Shock! Horror! `The Sun' goes soft and cuddly

In Kelvin MacKenzie's day it was raucous, titillating and laddish. Now he's at `The Mirror', and `The Sun' has softened its tone with an eye on the middle market. Rob Brown finds out what's cooking at the Currant Bun

For years the Great British public - the great percentage who purchase racy tabloids, anyway - have been wooed with a simple hedonistic sales proposition: No Sun. No Fun. But that's about to change. Suddenly the Currant Bun's corporate bosses want it to be taken more seriously.

Their repositioning of Britain's biggest-selling daily began at the weekend when a pounds 5m TV branding campaign broke. The ads are designed to play down the paper's laddish image and attract more female readers. They push The Sun's more earnest and androgynous new strapline: "Dedicated to the people of Britain".

A senior insider at Rupert Murdoch's News International explained: "A conscious effort is being made to dispel the image of The Sun as a macho, even slightly misogynist, publication. We want to broaden its appeal."

Although The Sun still sells 3.8 million copies a day, it suffered a 5 per cent year-on-year circulation fall in January. Its down-market rivals were also down, but the mid-market Daily Mail continued on an impressive upward curve, recording a 7 per cent rise in sales.

The Mail has a high proportion of female readers. Although The Sun can probably never match it on this front, Murdoch is convinced that it could win more women readers by becoming decidedly less laddish.

Two recent moves indicate the extent to which NI is determined to emulate the Mail to some degree. First, a woman, Rebekah Wade, was recently appointed deputy editor of The Sun. Previously number two on the News of the World, Ms Wade actually became the first woman to edit The Sun recently when her boss, Stuart Higgins, took a week's holiday.

She is working closely with Ian Monk, who has been hired as associate editor in charge of features. Monk worked for a decade on the Mail before a brief stint as deputy editor of The Express. The growing influence of this duo is evidenced most dramatically in the tranformation of the Sun Woman section, which is no longer pandering to the paper's predominantly male readers with cor blimey pictures of babes in scanty lingerie. Last week it tackled a range of serious subjects, including underage-girls on the pill and the problems of workplace relationships. Its fashion coverage has also moved slightly up-market, from catalogues to the high street.

Others are not persuaded about the wisdom of this strategy. In the words of one recent Wapping defector: "How are they going to turn on women readers - replace the knockers on page 3 with a dick?" A senior executive at Wapping acknowledged that "there is some anxiety that we could destroy what has been a winning formula by tampering with it too much".

According to former colleagues, those anxieties are shared by the editor of The Sun. "He's been down in the mouth recently, " said one. Stuart Higgins declined to be interviewed by Media+ or, indeed, to comment at all on the repositioning of his paper. He is reported to have hinted at some dissatisfaction when he presided at a recent leaving party in The Hot House, a hostelry near his paper's east London HQ. "We've seen too many of these sort of do's recently," he morosely observed.

In the space of only a few months the editor of The Sun has had to bid farewell to his deputy, Neil Wallis, plus features editor Mike Ridley, associate editor Sue Carroll and TV editor Peter Willis. And he also appears set to lose the sports editor, Paul Ridley. These are all key players who had an instinctive feel for what made The Sun so popular.

Reinforcing the pressure on him is the fact that all but one of the defectors have been lured away from Wapping to the Canary Wharf tower, where The Sun's most famous former editor, Kelvin MacKenzie, has been feverishly headhunting since he was recently elevated to deputy chief executive of Mirror Group Newspapers, News International's arch rival in the tabloid newspaper stakes. Spurred by the drive to reverse the Mirror titles' falling sales, armed with a cheque-book and aware of the rising discontent among his former subordinates, MacKenzie usually gets his man.

The only one who seems to have resisted his charm offensive so far is Paul Ridley, who is poised to leave The Sun's sports desk to spearhead MUTV, the new Manchester United cable and satellite channel being developed by Murdoch's BSkyB in a joint venture with the club and Granada. Ridley's expected transfer from the print to electronic media keeps him in the Murdoch empire, but it has still robbed Stuart Higgins of yet another key player - something which must bring a mischevious smile to MacKenzie's face.

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