A couple of weeks ago Ally Ross, the longtime TV critic at the Sun, was summoned to the managing editor’s office. Such confrontations normally involve expenses. At the Daily Express in the 1950s one Middle East correspondent submitted his — one camel: £125. The narrow-eyed managing editor pointed out that if the camel was bought, it must have been sold, and they would be grateful if the claim was adjusted. Another form turned up 30 minutes later — burying a dead camel: £200.
This conversation with Ally was not about money. It was much more serious. It was solemnly explained to him that he had used the word ‘woke’ in his column — and it had been decreed on high that ‘woke’ was synonymous with racial injustice. So, from now on, columnists should not use the word in a disparaging manner in the Sun.
For the record, ‘woke’ only acquired a dictionary definition in 2017 and depending whether you are on the right or left it can mean a) well informed, b) alert to social discrimination or injustice or c) pretentious and culturally elitist. Of course, woke may still make a guest appearance in headlines — particularly if Rupert Murdoch is in town. But to my mind, that bizarre chat in an office which is supposed to be the hub of free speech does explain one thing: why Murdoch announced last week that he had written down the value of the Sun newspaper to zero, acknowledging that the paper that created his fortune was now worthless. Broke. Skint. Potless.
Newspapers are struggling all over the world, red-tops especially. But how did the Sun fall so far, so quickly? By completely losing the plot. Losing its readers. Losing its advertisers. Losing its news sense. And finally losing its political raison d’être. Murdoch turned 90 this year. It is only a matter of time before the paper, a huge loss-maker, also loses the only person keeping it alive.
In my day we were selling four million papers a day and making around £4 million a week. Today, in an act of shocking commercial cowardice, the paper’s circulation figures are not published. But my hackers tell me it’s 500,000 a day — and losses are heading towards £200 million. A decent chunk of the losses spring from News of the World phone hacking payouts.
But to understand why Murdoch would tell the world that the Sun is worthless, you would have to pop along to the High Court on the same day as the financial announcement from New York. There you would see Sir Simon Hughes, former Lib Dem MP, accepting huge damages (I am told around £500,000) from the Sun for hacking into his phone bills and forcing him to out his sexuality by discovering he made calls to a gay chat line. As ever, the paper’s publisher, News UK, coughed up without admitting liability.
It was the first time the Sun had been fingered for hacking — so it was a good day to bury bad news by disclosing the equally bad news the Sun wasn’t worth anything. Even worse news for Murdoch was that the paper’s editor at the time of the Sir Simon revelation was Rebekah Brooks. Today she is CEO of News UK and the company will probably face a flood of similarly expensive lawsuits which may test even Murdoch’s loyalty.
If you like a conspiracy theory, you might believe that announcing the paper wasn’t worth anything might encourage hacking victims to settle cheaply and quickly before the joint goes bust. I quite accept that papers have had their day. But being desperate to avoid controversy (good luck with that in journalism) has hurried the death of the country’s bestselling newspaper by changing the content to attract a new audience that would rather turn their left testicle into a kebab than buy the paper.
Its readership is mainly male, white and working class. They love a celebrity scandal, and would prefer to read the back page before the front. Instead of keeping this dwindling band happy, the Sun ignores their requirements and now imposes its own agenda on them. For instance, the chances of reading a celebrity scandal in the Sun today are non-existent. Under a legal deal with stars who have been phone hacked, the company has agreed to run only positive stories about them in the future. So that’s half of showbiz gone.
The other half of showbiz disappeared when, following This Morning presenter Phillip Schofield outing himself as gay in a spectacularly successful PR campaign, ITV CEO Dame Carolyn McCall went to the Sun’s London Bridge offices as she felt the paper had been unhelpful in the process. It was agreed without threats of either withdrawing ITV advertising or access to their stars that it would be better for everybody if, in the future, the Sun would only write nice things about ITV’s stable of talent. And that is the case today.
Finally, we should all come back in the next life as Gary Lineker. Last month, other papers and news websites (I read it in the Times) carried a story saying HMRC was pursuing Lineker over a £5 million tax bill. A big number about a big personality. At any other time that would have been a lead story in the Sun. But it wasn’t the splash, it wasn’t a page 11 lead; it wasn’t anywhere. Lineker makes clear he is challenging the HMRC claim but editor Victoria Newton has never explained why he is a protected species. None of this is journalism: it’s simply PR. Why should a reader pay 65p a day for that? Increasingly, they don’t.
The strangest volte-face is the paper’s sudden concern for climate change. The tabloid Sun has been published for 52 years and until 30 minutes ago it couldn’t give a damn about it. In fact, when I ran the place, we were vaguely in favour as it meant holidays in Norfolk would be warmer. But in a ludicrous attempt to attract the young (can you imagine anybody under 40 reading the Sun?) the paper has now launched a ‘Green Team’ to lecture readers on cutting their carbon footprint. It asks them to ‘join our campaign and save the planet’ by dropping used face masks into special bins at Morrisons where they will be recycled and ‘turned into benches and building materials’. I suppose the readers need something to sit on.
What about Murdoch? Although he now has more pills than he has readers I need him to hang on because I have my book out next year (Murdoch, Me and Other Madmen, thank you for asking) and it will sell better if he’s still around. The minute he goes to that Printing Press in the Sky, the newspaper will be put up for sale. So my advice to current employees is to start carrying around a defibrillator with your laptop.