By Glenn Frankel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, May 4, 2005
LONDON, May 3 -- Never mind the polls and the speeches and the brutal grilling of national political leaders on a range of TV and radio shows. If you really want to know what the British public thinks of the general election taking place here Thursday, have a look at Tuesday's Sun.
The front page of Britain's biggest-selling tabloid daily features a full-cover photo of a famously blond television celebrity named Abi Titmuss with no blouse on, her hands strategically placed over her physical assets, with the headline "A great pair of Titmusses." And below that: A piece on the arrest of a popular boxer after he allegedly fled the scene of a car accident.
Election? What election?
Yes, the Sun has decided that its readers are less than enchanted with politics in what has been a lackluster and fairly predictable campaign. But something even more interesting is going on here that helps explain why, for all his political problems, Prime Minister Tony Blair and the ruling Labor Party are widely expected to win a third consecutive term in office. Blair has managed to capture or else neutralize the tabloids, most of which used to be rabidly anti-Labor, and he has denied the opposing Conservatives one of their key electoral weapons.
Not so many years ago the Sun, which is owned by Australian-born Rupert Murdoch, was firmly on the side of the Conservative Party. Its editorials and punchy, hammering headlines helped the legendary Margaret Thatcher win three successive terms in office between 1979 and 1987. In 1992, despite its distaste for Thatcher's bland successor, John Major, the Sun stuck with the Tories, and led a brutal assault on Neil Kinnock and Labor -- "Nightmare on Kinnock Street" was the headline on an eight-page attack a few days before the election. It was an important factor in Major's narrow electoral victory, and "It Was The Sun Wot Won It," the newspaper boasted a day later.
In truth it was the Sun's readers, but fair enough. Two other Tory tabloids -- the Daily Mail and Daily Express -- had also led the charge, but their readers were predominantly Conservative to begin with. The Sun, whose mainly blue-collar readership tends to skew toward Labor, had done the most damage.
When Labor's strategists looked back on their defeat, they realized the role that Murdoch's stable of newspapers had played, and as part of the process of making Labor electable again, they set out to somehow appease the media magnate. After Blair became party leader, he and his aides flew to the Australian resort at Hayman Island in July 1995 to attend the annual conference that Murdoch and his senior executives hold there. Blair managed to convince his audience that "New Labor" would be fiscally responsible, socially progressive and tough on crime.
Two years later, the Sun carried a piece by Blair headlined "I'm a British Patriot"; the next day, the Sun endorsed Blair, who went on to win the 1997 election by a landslide. Alastair Campbell, Blair's right-hand man, has called the endorsement his greatest achievement in politics. The Sun, after all, sells 3.3 million copies a day and boasts nearly 10 million readers -- more than all of Britain's serious broadsheets combined.
The Sun wasn't the only newspaper Blair wooed. Piers Morgan, former editor of the Daily Mirror, the one tabloid that has consistently supported Labor, calculated in his recent memoir that he had 22 lunches, six dinners, six formal interviews, 24 one-on-one chats over tea and biscuits, and innumerable phone calls with the prime minister. (It didn't do a lot of good -- during the Iraq war, the Mirror was savagely anti-Blair, although it's returned to the Labor fold for the election.) Blair for a time even managed to forge a wary but respectful relationship with the Daily Mail, Britain's most rabidly pro-Tory tabloid.
But the Sun was the big prize. During Blair's eight years in office, he and Murdoch have stayed on reasonably good terms. Critics contend Blair's government has been soft on regulating the British branch of Murdoch's empire, while adopting policies on immigration, taxation and foreign policy (the media magnate was a passionate supporter of the Iraq war) that Murdoch was comfortable with. Still, in recent years the Sun has been tougher on Blair's government, and there was some talk this time that Murdoch might return to the Conservative fold and endorse the party's new leader, veteran Thatcherite Michael Howard.
The Sun took its time. Howard made the pilgrimage to Hayman Island last year and won respectable reviews for his performance. But two weeks ago the Sun spoke; to no one's real surprise it endorsed Blair for, as the front-page headline put it, "One Last Chance." Being the Sun, it did so in hyperbolic fashion: sending red smoke up its chimney in a parody of the white smoke that rises from the Sistine Chapel when a new pope is chosen.
And, this being the Sun, the endorsement didn't mean just a favorable editorial or two, but rather a barrage of news stories and headlines, virtually all of them weighted toward Blair. On Page 8 on Tuesday, there's an editorial warning voters to think twice before supporting the third-party Liberal Democrats, which the Sun characterizes as an "extremist" party that would legalize marijuana and abolish mandatory prison sentences for drug addicts. Just in case readers miss the point, there's an accompanying column on the Lib Dems' "Drug Policy Madness" penned by that well-known opinion writer -- Tony Blair.
This is the way the British tabloids operate: full-blast condemnation of the enemy, whoever he or she may be. Thus the Daily Mail and Daily Express both devoted their front pages Tuesday to the claim by the widow of the latest British soldier to die in Iraq that Blair is to blame for her husband's death. (The Sun managed to publish an interview with the widow and her 7-year-old son without a word of criticism of Blair.) Inside, the Express's headlines hammered away: "Another soldier betrayed by Blair's Iraq falsehoods"; "Frazzled and bad-tempered, Blair fails to hide his arrogance on TV"; "Union chief: pupils are out of control," etc.
Even in the venomous world of the Tory tabloids, however, things are not quite as clear-cut as they used to be. While the Mail and Express have pilloried Blair, they have been less than enthusiastic over the Tory alternative. The Mail has even published a piece by former Labor cabinet secretary David Blunkett defending Blair, along with pieces claiming that none of the parties has addressed the serious issues facing Britain. All of this helps explain why polls indicate Blair is still in the lead.
"If you look at 1997, what the papers did then was not merely trash John Major but they built up this new iconic figure of Tony Blair and helped make him the inevitable winner," says Roy Greenslade, journalism professor at City University in London and a former tabloid editor. "This time you see a trashing of Blair but no equivalent attempt to build up Michael Howard."
The bitter truth is that for the tabloids, the election has been less than a compelling story. A study carried out by Loughborough University for the Guardian newspaper found that during a 10-day stretch last month, the election got only a quarter to half the front-page tabloid space it received in the 2001 campaign.
Soon it will be over and the papers can get back to the important things: the Michael Jackson trial, Tom Cruise's fling with Katie Holmes, Prince Charles and Camilla, the latest staff member to spill dirt about David and Victoria Beckham -- the things that make life worth living and Britain's tabloids worth reading.