Stephen Glover on the Press

Will The Sun cast a shadow over Tony's tilt at third term?
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The Independent Online

The Sun has succeeded in planting in the minds of many politicians, and even some journalists, the notion that it can swing general elections. After the 1992 election, Kelvin MacKenzie, the paper's editor, famously crowed: "It was The Sun wot won it." This was a reference to a string of anti-Labour pieces, culminating in the front-page headline, "If Kinnock wins today, will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights". The narrow Tory victory was attributed by some to The Sun's presentation of the Labour leader as a buffoon. The experience of 1992 persuaded Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell that, next time, they must have the paper on their side. Sure enough, in 1997 it backed New Labour, as it did in 2001.

The Sun has succeeded in planting in the minds of many politicians, and even some journalists, the notion that it can swing general elections. After the 1992 election, Kelvin MacKenzie, the paper's editor, famously crowed: "It was The Sun wot won it." This was a reference to a string of anti-Labour pieces, culminating in the front-page headline, "If Kinnock wins today, will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights". The narrow Tory victory was attributed by some to The Sun's presentation of the Labour leader as a buffoon. The experience of 1992 persuaded Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell that, next time, they must have the paper on their side. Sure enough, in 1997 it backed New Labour, as it did in 2001.

Not surprisingly, The Sun enjoys seeing itself in such a powerful role. Before Blair announced the election last week, it carried a slightly self-regarding front-page leader weighing the pros and cons of New Labour. It gave the impression that its final judgement between the two main parties could be a decisive factor in the election. The Government's record was "a mixture of successes and awful blunders". This ambivalence has led Tories to hope, and Labour to fear, that shortly before May 5, The Sun will pronounce that Blair's reign is over.

In the months leading up to the 2001 election, The Sun also enjoyed ticking off the Government. Issues which made it see red included the Dome, dodgy New Labour donors and the emerging European army. Having earlier represented the Tory leader William Hague as a dead parrot, the paper rather fell in love with him. But there was never any doubt that The Sun would back New Labour on the night. All the opinion polls showed that New Labour had a whopping lead, and The Sun did not wish to be associated with a losing horse. It has backed the winner in every election since 1979. Of course, The Sun might say that this only illustrates its enormous influence. Perhaps, what it really shows is that The Sun is nimble-footed enough always to be on the right side.

As a former young Conservative, Rebekah Wade, its editor, may hold a candle for the Tories, rather as her predecessor, David Yelland, did for Hague. Of course, it is Rupert Murdoch, her proprietor, who calls the shots. A recent article critical of Gordon Brown by Irwin Stelzer in The Times - he is generally considered to be Murdoch's representative on earth - might be adduced as evidence that the media mogul is tiring of New Labour. But a man such as Murdoch does not bestow his blessing without reminding its recipient that it could possibly be withheld. For all I know, he may be hoping to extract a favour or two from the Government before anointing Blair.

As long as New Labour seems bound to win, the paper will offer its support, though this is likely to be hedged with more caveats than was the case in 2001. The Sun columnist Richard Littlejohn writes in this week's issue of The Spectator: "I still detect a reluctance among the electorate in general - and Sun readers in particular - to make the jump to the Conservatives." Quite so. Only in the very unlikely event of opinion polls showing the Tories decisively ahead would The Sun consider changing horses. And then it would have to be sure that its own readers were following national trends. A recent Mori poll states that 41 per cent of Sun readers - there are some 10 million of them - back Labour, and 32 per cent Conservative. The Sun won't "make a jump to the Conservatives" unless a majority of its readers do, and as things stand, it seems unlikely that they will.

Eight days ago, Frank Kane interviewed Andrew Neil, the chief executive of The Spectator, in The Observer. During the course of the interview, Neil said that The Spectator "has to get dragged into the 21st century". (Note the force of the verb "get"). He also declined to talk about the future of Boris Johnson, the magazine's editor, thereby encouraging those conspiracy theorists who believe that Neil has his eye on Boris's neck.

Neil's remarks enraged Peter Oborne, The Spectator's political columnist, who bravely took Neil to task in the London Evening Standard. Oborne particularly objected to the idea that the magazine needed dragging into the 21st century. It was, indeed, a silly thing to say. I would have thought that one of the crowning graces of The Spectator is its reluctance to jump on every bandwagon and to embrace every trend. Neil's reaction to Oborne's piece has been to deny that he said what was attributed to him in the first place. This is, of course, the standard defence of any politician who finds that he has said something embarrassing. It is also a slur on Kane, a distinguished journalist, to suggest that he is in the habit of cooking up quotes. So, we are left with the impression that Neil plans to apply his editorial skills to The Spectator, and possibly to get rid of Boris. The next time he is interviewed, perhaps he could confirm whether or not this is the case.

Polly's poor papal pop

After the Pope's death it was certain that sooner or later a certain type of columnist would step forward and smash the prevailing sense of loss and awe. First off the blocks was Terry Eagleton, a Marxist Catholic academic, in The Guardian. Pope John Paul II was castigated under the headline "He has blood on his hands". The next day Mary Ann Sieghart in The Times criticised the Pope in somewhat milder terms. This newspaper's Johann Hari later wrote of "the stench" of three alleged scandals during John Paul's papacy.

Despite these interventions, I felt that something was missing. Where was Polly Toynbee? As the days passed without any explosion from her I began to pine. Once, in the early hours of the morning, I caught her on the BBC World Service saying that she had been "astonished" by the reaction to the Pope's death, but by her standards this seemed a measured contribution. I began to fear that Polly would not pronounce.

But then, on Friday, she came good. She was as tasteless, bigoted and unreasonable as one had hoped. She even managed to get in her customary swipe at the Daily Mail before laying into the Vatican as a "potent force for cruelty and hypocrisy", and demonising a Pope "whose obscurantist faith has caused pointless suffering". What I love about Polly is her natural empathy with those who see the world in different terms from herself.

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