How did the Sun get so weak?

Why is the Sun so lame these days? Here’s a case study. Overnight everyone was expecting a deluge of incitement to pour forth on the Supreme Court, but when the mountains had finished travailing we got this:

Ridiculous mouse it is! First of all, as Chris Cook says, the Dick Emery quote is weirdly dated and irrelevant. I know that it’s a TV comedy bit, one of those godawful Savile-era light entertainment things they force you to watch at Christmas, and I think I’ve seen him do it although only as a clip in something else, but I couldn’t tell you any of the jokes and I have no memory of laughing at him, so for me the emotional resonance is zero. I had even forgotten he was usually in drag. You’d probably have to be at least fifty to care.

Perhaps the paper is targeting that demographic, or perhaps it’s given up on anyone outside it; either way it’s a segment-retreat strategy. A substantial one, too, as back in the day, they supposedly tried to make the paper accessible to anyone with a reading age of 12 or more. Matthew Turner tells me it’s a newsroom in-joke, which if anything hammers the point home; no audience is safer, or smaller, than the one inside your own head.

Also, the catchphrase was a sympathetic one. If it’s meant to have emotional resonance, the memory it’s meant to evoke would be a sort of jolly and undemanding televisual fug. This isn’t obviously the best mood to kick off a constitutional crisis. But neither is the actual text they stuck across the front page. They concede the point right from the get-go – “you are lawful” – and move on to complaining a bit – “I don’t like you”. Well, the thing about the law is that you’re not expected to like it and it doesn’t care if you do. Interestingly, the Sun is exactly on the party line here – the prime minister literally said that he didn’t like the judgment but had to accept it. This is precisely the message they put on the front of the paper.

“I don’t like you” is also reminiscent of long-term tabloid butt Graham Taylor’s “Do I not like that” – a weak expression of displeasure that left him looking hopelessly ineffectual. If there was one thing the classic-era Sun immediately identified, ruthlessly exploited, and scrupulously avoided, it was any admission of weakness. It is now, however, in the position of having to represent the prime minister’s weakness to the public.

The art, though, is not dead. Amazingly, News International has decided to provide us with a control group by publishing a radically different version of the paper in Scotland and hoping nobody notices. Let’s take a look.

Not only is the Scottish version different, it is better. It is accessible to anyone who takes any interest in the news. It carries conviction in its own style. It is funny. And it is even accurate. If you looked at it you’d know what had just happened, while the English version is incomprehensible – quite beyond the Savilecore references, what on earth is a prorogue farce, and what percentage of their target readership can recognize Lady Hale by sight?

This is becoming a habit, too. The last time Boris Johnson was publicly humiliated – or was it the time before? – the two Suns were at the opposite ends of their orbit, generating mighty tidal forces of cognitive dissonance.

Again, not only are they different, the one offered to Scots is just better. It’s the one with the joke, after all, and how – it’s right up there with “Now we’ve all been screwed by the Cabinet”. Also, it conveys the news; the English one presupposes you know what actually happened. I would also point out that both Scottish front pages look better visually than the English ones – whoever laid them out has a better command of the paper’s design and typography.  Interestingly, the Scottish ones look like classic-era Suns and the English ones look much more like the News of the World.

So what’s happening here? I think the simplest explanation is just that the paper is no longer written with any interest in its readership. The real audience is the political elite. The point is to signal the party line of a political party, the Murdoch party. In Scotland, it doesn’t have any particular political pull and Holyrood doesn’t own media regulation, so it has nothing to gain or fear. There, it is a simple commercial proposition and wants to sell papers. As a result, the English front page at these moments will tend to be defined by big-shot executives who don’t routinely do it, and therefore lack craft. The Scottish one, though, is left to the professionals.

Does this mean that they could improve and get better if they were really scared? You can imagine a scenario where they stop fiddling with it and let it converge with its Scottish self. It would be considerably more dangerous. On the other hand, this would mean backing off from using the paper as a political actor just at the moment where the threat to the Murdoch party is greatest.

Also, I’m sure Dick Emery would have agreed that you can only work with the material you’re given. The position they are trying to spin is, in fact, weak. Being as funny and effective as the Scottish front page with the cock joke requires you to accept that Johnson sucks. Jokes, like lies and unlike bullshit, have a necessary relationship with the truth.

Cath Trevethan mentioned that both today’s Suns show Johnson opposed by women. There is another theme in common, though. The Scottish headline is perhaps a little over-clever. Is the sub-editor making up for a weakness in the choreography by showing off technique, cracking out a few extra turns? Are we meant to read it as saying that he is a rogue? Or that he’s gone rogue? Or that he’s gone rogue and that’s a good thing, via the Sarah Palin reference? I would also wonder quite how many of the readers remember Tina Fey skits about the 2008 McCain/Palin campaign. Anyway, it’s a headline that invites multiple readings.

The Scottish version shares with the English one both weakness and that least Sun-like of qualities – ambivalence. Compare, if you will, the Daily Hell:

No ambivalence there, but note they have still ended up by putting Ted Heath’s doomed 1974 campaign slogan in Johnson’s mouth. (“Who governs Britain?” “Not you, sunshine.”) You’ve got to work with the material you’re given.

4 Comments on "How did the Sun get so weak?"

  1. Actually Dick Emery was very rarely in drag. He did sketches and the odd monologue (in character), but his big thing was proto-Fast Show one-shot character gags with him doing the character, often playing off Henry McGee as a journalist doing vox pops. (Minimal setup – literally “who’s this walking down the street?”.) He only did a few female characters, of which “Ooh, you are awful” was by far the most successful. He did a “repressed spinster” as well, which was about as funny as it sounds – but then, the whole show was staggeringly unfunny, even at the time.


    1. My mum’s village newsagent recently told her his sales of the Guardian have shot up [he now orders enough of them that she doesn’t have to hurry to get a copy], sales of the Sun and the Mail have collapsed, but the Mail readers have started reading the Telegraph. The Mirror and the Yorkshire Post held steady.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.