Stephen Glover on The Press

Why the fawning? 'The Sun' is far less powerful than Blair thinks it is
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Tony Blair's trip to Pebble Beach in California, where he yesterday opened Rupert Murdoch's annual conference of senior executives, brings him full circle. It was in 1995 that the relatively new leader of the Labour party jetted off to Australia to pay obeisance at Mr Murdoch's court. The theme then was that the Labour party had changed, and the interests of the Australian media mogul would be safe in a country governed by Tony Blair.

The deal has stuck. In 1997, 2001 and 2005, the Murdoch-owned Sun backed Labour. The Times, having in 1997 rather eccentrically urged its readers to vote for the most Eurosceptic candidate, soon swung enthusiastically behind Mr Blair, and set about trying to damage the Tories as often it could. Interestingly, despite its relentlessly pro-Labour propaganda, more of its readers (according to the polling organisation, Mori) voted Conservative than Labour in 2001 and 2005.

Mr Murdoch is not going to pull the rug on Mr Blair in the dying months of his regime. But whom will he then support: David Cameron or Gordon Brown? He is one of the most shameless teases in history. A month ago he warned Mr Brown in the Australian newspaper that he might back Mr Cameron. And yet 11 days ago, when asked on the Charlie Rose Show on US public television what he thought of the new Conservative leader, he replied "not much". Mr Cameron, new best friend of Rebekah Wade, editor of the Sun, will be recovering in a darkened room.

How wonderful it would be if both Mr Brown and Mr Cameron were to stand up to their tormentor. Let me float a theory that is heresy to New Labour: the Sun is much less powerful than Mr Blair believes it is. For one thing, it is selling about 10 per cent fewer copies than it did in 1992 when, so Neil Kinnock believed, it lost the election for Labour. (Actually, he can probably claim credit for that himself.) For another thing, as turnout declines particularly markedly among working class electors, so an increasing proportion of the Sun's readers is not bothering to vote.

But the most important reason why the Sun is less powerful than New Labour believes is that newspapers cannot simply instruct their readers how to vote. This admittedly is a highly controversial area. Consider though, as I have mentioned, that the anti-Tory Times has not persuaded a majority of its readers to vote Labour. Similarly, during the Daily Express's pro-Labour phase, which lasted for about five years, a majority of its readers remained resolutely Tory.

There is evidence that, despite its vigorous continuing support for the Government, the Sun's readership had been gradually growing more disenchanted with Mr Blair even before Mr Cameron came on the scene. In 1997, again according to Mori, 52 per cent of the paper's readership voted Labour while 30 per cent backed the Tories. By 2005, 44 per cent of readers said they would support Labour, while the percentage intending to vote Tory had risen to 35 per cent.

A significant shift had taken place not because of anything the Sun had done - the paper, as I say, remained as pro-New Labour as it had been - but because some readers had changed their minds.

Of course, I do not say that newspapers do not exercise any political influence over their readers, but it is likely that this influence is a lot less than most politicians believe. Though Mr Murdoch must know the limits of his power, he is certainly not going to tell Mr Blair. The Prime Minister, no doubt influenced by the former red-top journalist Alastair Campbell, has bought the myth of the power of the tabloids hook, line and sinker. For a time he was at least halfway up the fundament of the Daily Mail until, from about 1998, that paper turned on him, with no discernible effect on his level of popular support.

Some editors and journalists are politicians manqués, who did not fancy clambering up the political greasy pole. They are only too happy to participate in the myth that they are more powerful than they really are. This has made for many happy relationships with New Labourites who share the same misconception. Nine days ago, representatives of the court of Tony Blair and the court of Rupert Murdoch mingled happily at the wedding of Anji Hunter, the Prime Minister's former "gatekeeper", and Adam Boulton, the political editor of Sky News, the satellite channel controlled by Mr Murdoch.

Tony Blair, Peter Mandelson, Alastair Campbell and Tessa Jowell mixed with the likes of Irwin Stelzer (Mr Murdoch's journalistic spokesman on earth), my old friend Peter Stothard (the former editor of the Times), Dawn Airey (a big gun at Sky) and Michael Winner (no introductions necessary). I have absolutely nothing against either Ms Hunter or Mr Boulton, but I must say that it sounds like the most gruesome event of the year, if not the decade. How one longs for a world in which politicians - particularly New Labour ones - and journalists - particularly Murdoch ones - are not in each another's pockets.

My suggestion to Mr Cameron and Mr Brown is not that they make an enemy of Mr Murdoch - that would be silly - but they do not genuflect and crawl to him as Mr Blair has done. There is no need to, and it is very demeaning in an elected politician. Mr Murdoch (or his successors; the tycoon is 75, and talking of handing over to his children to fight over the crown) will not bully or even cajole Sun readers into voting Tory or Labour. He will see which way many of them are going, and then he will join them.

All-expenses paid trip to the Middle East, anyone?

Any self-respecting television journalist evidently wants to head to the Middle East. BBC stars such as Jeremy Bowen, Middle East editor, John Simpson, World Editor, and Fergal Keane, tear-jerk editor, have been jostling one another as they vie for attention. The newsreader Huw Edwards has even set up shop in Jerusalem, though what the advantage might be to the viewer of such an arrangement is not at all clear.

Among newspaper journalists the conventions are different. There are experienced reporters who know the region, such as The Independent's Robert Fisk or The Guardian's Suzanne Goldenberg. Less knowledgeable journalists are also dispatched. Papers without correspondents on the spot are forced to rely entirely on such "firemen".

But there is no newspaper equivalent of the grand television journalist decamping to foreign territory. In some ways this is a mercy. On the other hand, I am rather tickled by the idea of, say, the Daily Mail's Richard Littlejohn or The Sun's Kelvin MacKenzie or even The Guardian's Polly Toynbee setting up their pulpits on unfamiliar soil, and filtering their views through the reality they see around them - or possibly the other way around.