After The Sun’s recent attack on Gordon Brown over his illegible letter to the mother of a soldier killed in Afghanistan, the Prime Minister had what he described as a “very friendly” telephone conversation with the paper’s owner, Rupert Murdoch.
And Mr Murdoch also separately described Mr Brown as a “friend of mine”, and seemed to put some distance between himself and his overzealous editors back in London.
Many people will say these episodes only provide further evidence of the media tycoon’s insincerity, and no doubt they are partly right. Mr Murdoch’s protestations of affection put one in mind of a sentimental mafia boss who regretfully instructs his heavies to bump off an old friend and associate, and then weeps into his handkerchief before sending the dead man’s widow a large bouquet of flowers. Yet the fact remains that he does genuinely like and admire Gordon Brown. Their roots intertwine because of their Scottish and Presbyterian backgrounds, as well as their shared belief in the virtues of work.
And it is also true that Rupert Murdoch does not much like David Cameron, who suffers in his estimation from being posh, young and English. Only a couple of years ago he was still doing his utmost to snub him. It is his son James, chief of the Murdoch empire in Britain, who is the fan of the Tory leader, and it was James, supported by his new chief executive, Rebekah Wade, who recently argued that the time had come for The Sun to drop Labour and embrace the Tories. It was the same duo who unleashed the paper’s new editor, Dominic Mohan, in what turned out to be an ill-judged savaging of Gordon Brown.
None of this is to say that Mr Murdoch did not fully agree to the transfer of The Sun’s allegiance. He can recognise a dead horse when he sees one. But one could say that he lingered with the animal in its death throes rather longer than might have been expected. In the end he had to tear himself away, because it makes no sense to be at odds with the next prime minister of Britain, who could be the fount of corporate favours. For his part, Mr Cameron had energetically sought The Sun’s blessing, aided and advised by his media man Andy Coulson, a former editor of the Murdoch-owned News of the World. Recent outbursts by the Tory leader and colleagues against the BBC were partly calculated to tickle the fancy of a man who not long ago described the Corporation as “copyright thieves”.
All may seem set fair, but I wonder whether it really is. For all his guying of the BBC over its excessive salaries for executives and stars, it is pretty clear that Mr Cameron does not intend to do much more than apply the secateurs here and there. If Mr Murdoch expects the Corporation to be broken up, or even just its free website to be closed down, he is liable to be disappointed. In his heart Mr Cameron rather approves of the BBC, and does not appear to share the view of some Tories that it is a nest of implacable lefties which must sooner or later be destroyed.
Mr Murdoch’s second hate is Google, and here it is also likely that the Tory leader will fall far short of his hopes. The media tycoon has threatened to remove his newspapers’ content from Google’s search index when his company begins charging online. He thinks the search giant is too big and powerful. Mr Cameron appears to harbour no such beliefs. A few months ago it was reported that he was considering giving people the option of storing their medical records with Google rather than the NHS, and he has otherwise extolled the virtues of its health database. Rachel Whetstone, head of Google’s corporate affairs division, is an old friend of the Tory leader, and happens to be married to his guru, Steve Hilton.
Mr Cameron is unlikely to prove a dependable ally in Rupert Murdoch’s wars with the BBC and Google. Of course, as prime minister he may find other favours to bestow on the media tycoon. On the other hand, he may also irritate him on ideological grounds, particularly Europe, where he probably lacks the stomach for the all-out fight with the European Union that Eurosceptics crave. Remember how skin deep Mr Murdoch’s affection for the Tory leader really is, and it is easy to imagine relations between them being less cordial than between him and Tony Blair and, for a time, Gordon Brown.
It is true that the old boy is 78, and may already be ceding power to his son James, but as long as he has breath in his body and a working brain in his head I would not count on David Cameron remaining his newspapers’ pin-up boy.
The coarsening effect of page three
The Sun was relaunched in tabloid format 40 years ago last week, though topless page three girls did not emerge for another year.
It is difficult to imagine the shock they caused in some quarters. Only 10 years earlier such pictures would have been almost universally regarded as pornography, and there were lots of people in 1970 who still thought they were. My late friend Frank Johnson, then a young reporter on The Sun, used to tear out page three lest his mother, a respectable working-class lady, be upset, ascribing its apparently inexplicable perennial absence to the whims of go-slow printers.
Others, however, took a different view, and there is little doubt that in a more circumspect age, when semi-naked women were a rarity in the media, the paper’s early phenomenal success owed a lot to its topless models. Within a year of their introduction sales had risen by 40 per cent to over 2 million copies a day. Rupert Murdoch got rich on bare breasts.
In the heyday of the genre, models such as Melinda Messenger and Samantha Fox became stars. The more respectable Daily Mirror reluctantly featured page three girls for a time, though it later dropped them. The Daily Star, launched in 1978, had its “starbirds”.
Over the years almost everyone, from bishops to Tory leaders, has grown used to page three girls. Lady Thatcher, in praising The Sun on its 40th anniversary, did not think to enter a caveat about topless models. The only person who has consistently campaigned against them is the Labour MP Clare Short, who in 1986 attempted to introduce a bill banning topless models in newspapers, and in 2004 reopened her campaign. The Sun generously responded by superimposing her face on the body of a page three girl.
And yet there are countries – France, for example – where it would still be considered wrong for a newspaper to run pictures of topless models. Pornography may now be ubiquitous, but it is difficult not to think that we have been coarsened by The Sun’s almost casual depiction of semi-naked women.
Even now, would you leave a copy of The Sun for your seven-year-old child to read? Perhaps the paper has not entirely lost its capacity to shock.