For our 16th wedding anniversary, Caroline and I went to the Almeida Theatre to see Ink, a new play about Rupert Murdoch’s purchase of the Sun in 1969 and the subsequent circulation war with the Daily Mirror. It is terrifically funny, brimming with comic characters and acerbic one-liners, as you would expect from writer James Graham, perhaps best known for This House, his play about the five-year duel between the Labour and Conservative whips during the period 1974-79. Ink is due to transfer to the Duke of York’s Theatre on 9 September and I cannot recommend it highly enough.
One of the things that struck me as the Murdoch character prowls the stage, laying out his plans for world domination, is how similar he is to Jeremy Corbyn. I don’t just mean in the obvious ways — privately educated, married numerous times, roughly the same age. I mean politically, too. Many of Murdoch’s best lines, particularly those in which he rails against the Establishment, could easily be delivered by the Labour leader. For Murdoch, the force he wants to unleash to bring down the ruling class is untrammelled capitalism, whereas for Corbyn it is organised labour. But they share a visceral contempt for the English class system and the sclerotic institutions and traditions that underpin it.
When Murdoch bought the Sun from IPC, the company that owned the Mirror, it was a moribund broadsheet with a circulation of 850,000. No one imagined he would turn it into a tabloid, not least because the Mirror had that market sewn up — it sold more than five million copies a day.
The dominant figure at the Mirror was Hugh Cudlipp, a Welshman who had edited the paper from 1952-63, then was promoted to chairman of the Mirror Group and, eventually, of IPC. Murdoch had been a fan of Cudlipp during his heyday, but believed he had got too close to the Establishment and now courted its approval. According to the Aussie outsider, the Mirror had once been a proper, raucous tabloid, reflecting the tastes and aspirations of its working-class readers, but by 1969 had become too refined and high-minded. Instead of trying to entertain, it was on a mission to educate. Celebrity tittle-tattle and pictures of scantily clad women had been replaced by interviews with politicians and reams of small print about foreign affairs.
There are echoes here of Corbyn’s critique of Tony Blair. Like Cudlipp, Blair was captured by the aristocratic embrace, at least in Corbyn’s eyes. Blair’s sin was to dilute the brand of the institution that he headed up and transform it from something dangerous and threatening into something safe and respectable. Corbyn’s hatred of Blair, like Murdoch’s of Cudlipp, is fuelled by a sense that he betrayed the organisation he had been entrusted with. His craving for status, for admission into the charmed circle, led him to turn his back on his comrades.
OK, maybe this is all a bit of a stretch, but consider this: Murdoch’s strategy for creating a winning brand was to embrace populism. Instead of telling the readers what they ought to want, as the Mirror did, the Sun gave them what they wanted. That meant double-page spreads about the Rolling Stones, Page 3 girls and ‘Pussy Week’ — a six-day period in which the paper was full of cat pictures. He immediately earned the ire of the BBC and the broadsheets, who accused him of pandering to the public’s worst instincts, but it worked. Within a year, the Sun’s circulation had overtaken the Mirror’s.
And isn’t that what Corbyn has done to revive the Labour party? He has abandoned the fiscal prudence that hamstrung his predecessors and promised to spend, spend, spend, whether it’s on new public housing, nationalising the railways or wiping out student debt. Sober critiques of Conservative policies have been replaced by screaming, hysterical attacks on evil Tory toffs, who are personally responsible for the Grenfell Tower fire. The old rebel has turned what was a relatively stuck-up, middle-class institution into a vulgar, tabloid version of itself. Corbyn’s Labour is to Blair’s Labour what Murdoch’s Sun was to Cudlipp’s Mirror. Ariel has become Caliban.
I’m a huge fan of the Sun. I love the fact it’s constantly cocking a snook at puritanical, liberal killjoys. But now I’ve seen this play, and spotted the similarities between Murdoch and Corbyn, my world has been turned upside down. I am finally beginning to understand the Labour leader’s appeal.