How Labour wooed and won the Sun

A football match, a breakfast love-in and a binge on Dartmoor all played a part. The Tories are aghast. By Stephen Castle
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Indy Politics
The moment when Labour's three-year courtship of the Sun turned into something serious can be pin-pointed to close to 3pm on Saturday 15 March in the stadium of Brentford FC. Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair's press secretary, was there supporting the away side, Burnley, and by chance so was Stuart Higgins, editor of Rupert Murdoch's top-selling daily.

The two men know each other well and, while chatting, the man from the Sun asked for an article for Monday on how Labour would defend Britain's interests in Europe, an issue on which the Eurosceptic newspaper needed reassurance. "Consider it done," said Mr Campbell. To cap a rather good day for Labour's top spin doctor, Burnley won 3-0.

Within two days the Sun, the most visceral opponent of Labour throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, had switched sides.

Although they tried to hide it, the dismay among Conservative ranks was tangible. One minister fumed: "There is a deal here and we just don't know what it is. It is corrupt, cack-handed and may blow up in their faces." At a Belgravia reception a more reflective ex-minister confessed the double danger: "First, it means six week of bad headlines where last time we has a succession of rather good headlines. Second, it represents the judgement of one of the world's most astute and best-informed businessmen that we're finished."

So how was the Sun won? The most recent meeting between Messrs Campbell and Higgins may have been a coincidence but very little else had been left to chance. It was a courtship conducted a several levels: a series of meetings between Mr Blair and Mr Murdoch, some one-to-one; a long- standing axis between Mr Campbell and Mr Higgins; and a subtle series of pronouncements underlining that News International, Mr Murdoch's holding company, has nothing to fear from New Labour.

It was a remarkable triumph for Mr Campbell who, as a Mirror political journalist, spent several elections rowing with his colleagues from the Sun about their coverage. But while aggressive in his defence of Labour, Mr Campbell has friends on tabloids.

In one sense the wooing of the Sun dates back to January 1984 when Mr Campbell, then working for the Daily Mirror, helped to persuade 122 inhabitants of a Dartmoor village to turn off their televisions for a week for a news feature. The Sun decided on a spoiler ("Thirty telly addicts are rebelling at a village's switch-off experiment and sitting defiantly glued to their sets"). But on Burns night, Mr Campbell invited his rival from the Sun - a rather more junior Stuart Higgins - into the party at the Peter Tavy Inn, drinking long into the night.

Ten years later, Mr Campbell took the reigns of Mr Blair's personal press operation. Having seen the damage wrought by the tabloids on Neil Kinnock's election hopes, he set out on a strategy to neutralise them. The plan was actually not to win endorsements but to use papers to help get his message across, and to stop them going on the offensive. There were meetings with editors and pieces in the Murdoch tabloids, articles by Tony Blair, John Prescott, Gordon Brown and David Blunkett.

That was just the tip of the iceberg. Beneath the surface was a series of contacts between Mr Blair and Mr Murdoch. In fact, Mr Blair had met the Australian newspaper proprietor even before he took over as Labour leader, at dinner in Mosimann's dining club in Belgravia.

The tycoon was impressed. The contacts grew. As a Wapping source put it, "Murdoch keeps a political salon in London. He makes it his business to meet rising political stars. Blair's puppy-dog, youthful, company lawyer image appealed." Social contact blossomed, as Tony and Cherie Blair struck friendships with News International executives such as Les Hinton, the executive chairman.

When Mr Murdoch was in England he would usually ask to see the Labour leader. Often this would be for breakfast at the tycoon's Mayfair apartment when issues discussed would include family values and morality, on which the two hold similar views. According to one source, "Murdoch is very impressed by Blair's Christian values. They share the same type of ethical politics. I was told about a bizarre, almost evangelical, breakfast where they mentally stroked each other over their mutual support for family values."

The seal on all this was at News International's conference in 1995 on Hayman Island off the Australian coast, when Mr Blair flew across the world to address its top executives. For Labour this was an important test because of the risk of a backlash from party members, many of whom see the Australian tycoon almost as the devil incarnate. As one opposition source put it, "this was a bit of a jump for the party but there was not much flak."

Back in Britain the wooing continued. Two months ago, there was another breakfast, again at Mr Murdoch's London apartment. On that occasion Mr Blair took Mr Brown and Mr Murdoch invited Mr Hinton. Another source said: "In general, what Blair asked for was a chance to be reported fairly, and he passed the top-table, Tio Pepe, pass-the-port, handle-your-knife- and-fork- correctly, construct-a-coherent-sentence interview."

And what would Mr Murdoch want in exchange? He is concerned about two media issues - firstly, that there should be no more controls on the expansion of his empire as he prepares to dominate digital television, and secondly, that no privacy laws should impede the activities of his tabloids (The Sun once asked a lawyer to examine how much of its output would be banned under French privacy law, and was horrified by the result). In last week's New Statesman Mr Blair said there would be no new legislation to limit Mr Murdoch, just a request for sensible behaviour - "He's got a strong position and whatever authority or power he has needs to be exercised responsibly. I would like to see a situation where that happens not by legislation but that people getting a fair crack of the whip in the media."

The Tory accusations that Mr Blair has done a deal with News International is a little crude. The Sun's backing for Labour during a period of Tory unpopularity may be a smart way of stealing readers from the Daily Mirror. Those close to Mr Blair say he and Mr Murdoch have never directly discussed cross-media ownership, and that is not inconceivable. One source observed, "In these elite circles, a lot of things are never said. They are done by body language, a shrug of the shoulders, that sort of thing."

Moreover, the Labour Party has changed so radically that it now feels at home with a multi-national like News International which is fundamentally conservative in instinct and loathes trade unions. It is, of course, Labour which has shifted its ground rather than Mr Murdoch.

THE CONSERVATIVES meanwhile have gone badly wrong with the right-wing press, including the tabloids. Again that has happened at several levels. It is partly ideological, because several right-wing editors still resent the overthrow of Margaret Thatcher and none admires Mr Major in the same way. The Government's Broadcasting Act infuriated Mr Murdoch by placing limits on his expansion in terrestrial television. At the more functional level, no one on the Conservative side has the combination of access to the party leader, knowledge of strategy and tabloid instincts to compete with Mr Campbell. As one Tory put it, "there are a series of people who claim to be good at PR - Sir Tim Bell, Maurice Saatchi, Charles Lewington, Howell James - yet none of them can deliver a good tabloid package, a story that you know will play well in the pop papers."

Attempts to bring Mr Murdoch back on side have proved ham-fisted. Several ambassadors, including Sir Tim and Michael Heseltine, have come away empty- handed. A senior minister said: "Murdoch does not respond well to people he views as crawling to him. Several people were deputed to talk to him but he made it clear that he decided the line of the Sun."

Labour is not resting on its laurels. It hopes that the Times and the News of the World, also owned by Murdoch, will be positive. The NoW editor, Phil Hall, has seen Blair on several occasions and speaks to Mr Campbell most weeks. Nor has Associated Newspapers, publisher of the Mail titles and the London Evening Standard, been ignored. Its chairman, Lord Rothermere, has had two recent meetings with Mr Blair, including a dinner at the papers' Kensington offices, in the past two weeks. Also present was Sir David English, editor-in-chief, who has made no secret of his respect for Mr Blair. Friday's Evening Standard came close to an invocation to vote Labour, arguing that "just now the prospect appeals of at least a change in the cast of scoundrels".

Labour has collated a paperback book's worth of negative comments from Tory papers about Mr Major, designed to embarrass any that revert to the Conservatives before polling day. And the minor downside of the Sun's endorsement of Labour is that it has superseded Mr Campbell's other prized initiative, the launch of the "Melinda Messenger Sun readers for Labour" campaign. As the Sun might put it, it's politics, John, but not as you know it.