Last night The Sun announced that they will back the Conservatives at the next general election, 12 years after backing New Labour, with today’s front page announcing that: “Labour’s lost it.” In 1992 the newspaper’s election day headline “If Kinnock wins today will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights?, leading to the later claim “It was The Sun wot won it”. Can we judge the shift to Cameron with the same weight?
I was part of a panel discussing this last night on BBC Radio 5Live’s Richard Bacon show, with commentator Shane Greer and a host of senior media and political heavyweights calling in. It was no surprise that Labour politicians such as Ed Milliband thought the decision lacked the significance of the past, while it was welcomed by Conservative Chairman Eric Pickles.
Tony Blair’s former spokesman Alistair Campbell played down the significance, writing today that “Sun switches ain’t what they used to be.” He suggested: “It is a big media story, and the media love nothing more than a big media story,” adding that with a fragmented media very different from 1997, consumers are also savvier. “While the public may know the politicians spin them a line from time to time, they sure as hell know the papers do too.”
Roy Greenslade also took part in last night’s debate, confirming today his view that The Sun is “placing itself as a central actor in a political drama. It is saying that what it thinks really counts. But there's precious little proof of that any longer.” The Sun’s circulation today is 35% lower today than it’s mid 1990s peak. Greenslade, like Steve Hewlett, thought the newspaper a follower of public opinion, not a leader.
The Sun may not be as significant as it once was. Nevertheless, last night’s announcement hijacked the headlines and to that extent was successful for the paper’s new editor Dominic Mohan. Otherwise it wouldn’t have led last night’s debate on Five Live, or been talked about across the media today. Can a mainstream media title, like The Sun, be as influential as it once was? Does the fragmentation of readership habits mean that no single title will ever again be able to claim an election as its own?