Like much of Fleet Street legend, the claim by The Sun that it was the red-top “wot won it” for John Major in 1992 is in reality a myth. The newspaper’s feeble splash headline on election day – “If Kinnock wins today will the last person to leave Britain please turn the lights out”- didn’t make a scrap of difference to what was a narrow Conservative victory.
Nor, as it happens, did Kinnock’s frankly bizarre “We’re alright!” performance at the Sheffield rally the week before (which actually preceded a very sound, New-Labourish speech). Nor did the sight of him falling over on a beach with his wife Glenys. Nor did John Major’s soapbox speech. The truth was more mundane than that: Labour had bled about six percentage points in the polls over taxation fears and because of an electorate that had yet to give up on the Thatcherite legacy.
The Sun was always about sleaze, rather than political influence. Its editor, Kelvin Mackenzie, held a shovel not a dagger. To paraphrase Rowan Atkinson, if we can compare The Sun in those days with a compost heap – and I think we can – then Mackenzie was the biggest weed to grow out of the top of it.
But part of its schtick was its swagger, the pretence that it spoke for the nation, if not the horny-handed sons of toil of old, then at least the puddy-faced white-van boys and lad-mag ononists. In truth, The Sun reflected Britain’s new vulgarity, rather than led it. So it spotted that the polls indicated that Kinnock wasn’t going to make it and clambered aboard Major’s float, just as it would abandon it again when it saw Blair winning five years later.
Now compare and contrast all that with the Daily Mail’s copy-tasting this past fortnight. At the Labour conference, it bought up and serialised Damian McBride’s self-medicating confession that spin doctors behaved hideously inside the New Labour machine (who knew?). Then for the Conservative conference the Mail produced the revelation that Ed Miliband is the son of his father, who was extremely left wing. From these well-known facts, it extrapolated the conclusion that Ralph Miliband “hated Britain”. It also ran a picture of his tombstone with the caption “grave socialist” (see what the sub-editor did there?).
Where The Sun in its heyday flicked V-signs at us and waved its wad in our faces like Harry Enfield’s Stavros, the Mail pays an unwell former spin-doctor to tell us what we already know – and if we didn’t know, my guess is that we don’t care – and insults the memory of a man who can no longer defend himself, being dead. (In this context, it’s worth bearing in mind that another old man, actor Andrew Sachs, was at least alive when the BBC abused him for its entertainment purposes, an act which of course outraged the Mail).
These are not the stories of a newspaper at the top of its game. Nor is it the exercise of power by press barons. These are more the actions of people who are deeply scared, thrashing out blindly at old enemies in the hope of landing a punch, like a drunk in pub brawl. Like McBride in his old job, in fact.
What is the Mail scared about? I suppose we might say that it is scared that Labour might win the next election, bringing with it that form of socialism which would seek to stop utility companies, some of which the Tories privatised, from charging whatever they like (remember how competition in the energy markets was going to bring prices down?)
I suppose further that we might wonder whether the Mail is scared about a Labour government seeking to regulate the press by statutory body. But behaving reprehensibly is hardly the way forward for a newspaper industry which wants a regulatory light touch from a future government.
No, my guess is that the Mail is scared of the loss of its own power. Like a retired general trying to return to the fight, it is full of bluster, but its weapons are gone. A younger generation has taken over and the battles have moved on. And they have moved online. Everyone is a journalist now and my guess is that a newly empowered and wired electorate is in no mood to have the political discourse dictated by the old organs of political prejudice.Those old nostrums are gone. Yes, sure, grandad, we know – you fought in the war. It is wholly significant that David Cameron felt able to express some sympathy for the Milibands in the face of the Mail’s phoney, puce-faced wrath.
To regain its old glory and recapture the days when it shaped the political landscape for the Right, it is desperately trying to attract attention. Look! Here’s an old political manipulator who did terrible things for the Labour party! Look! Here’s the grave of a Marxist whose son now leads the Labour party! The crowd smiles weakly, shuffles its feet and moves on.
Because it’s uncomfortable and slightly embarrassing. But that’s the way of it when the old won’t give way to the new. It’s the way of it when a newspaper believes that going online means simply making the old newspaper digital alongside links to soap stars in bikinis. And it’s the way of it when an old media monolith tries to get noticed by the old crowd it used to hang out with by attacking its dead enemies, from fights long ago.