Winning over the Times and the Sun won’t decide the next election – but Labour can’t kick the habit | Archie Bland

Last week, I called a senior Labour figure loyal to Keir Starmer and asked him about his leader’s efforts to court the Sun and the Times. He spoke for 15 minutes about the risks of letting a possible endorsement from the Murdoch press influence Labour, and how far the media landscape has shifted since the Sun could claim to be wot won it. As I thanked him for his time, he interrupted me. “Can I just check,” he said, a little sheepishly. “Have you heard anything?”

My source admitted the contradiction: arguing for a new settlement in his party’s relationship with the press, but unable to shake off the habits of the old one. He is not alone. “Every other conversation with a shadow cabinet minister at conference last year came back to whether the Times would back Starmer,” a Guardian colleague says. “They are obsessed.” A reporter for News UK, the title’s owner, says junior Labour staffers regularly ask for updates on their newspaper’s stance. A rival lobby journalist grumbles that Labour gives News UK outlets “special treatment”. A thinktank staffer mentions a special adviser with a Google alert for “the Sun says” and “Starmer”.

The Sun and the Times no longer release print circulation figures, but the combined total is probably fewer than a million. And yet they hold a special sway over the Starmer operation because they, along with their Sunday counterparts, are viewed as the only Tory-supporting newspapers that might be turned.

The Sun, 18 March 1997. Photograph: handout

Some wonder if the fixation has its roots in a folk memory from an era when print media ruled supreme: Tony Blair’s trip to Hayman Island in Australia to see Rupert Murdoch in 1995 and the Sun’s endorsement two years later. But those close to Starmer’s operation insist that the task is part of the relentless discipline needed to win. One former staffer says: “They hate the idea of leaving anything to chance.”

The argument runs like this. Yes, the number of voters likely to be persuaded by a formal endorsement would probably be trivial. But if an editor can be persuaded that Starmer deserves a shot, Labour’s stories will get a more sympathetic hearing. Wary investors will be reassured if the party has a Blair-ish breadth of support. And, above all, the BBC – more influential than any newspaper – is still swayed by Fleet Street’s choices, starting with Radio 4’s Today programme and echoing through the rest of the day. Influence the input, and you will have fewer occasions to scream at the editor of the Six O’Clock News.

That is a coherent case, as far as it goes – but others will also have a say in its success. We might think of Charlie Brown running in to kick the football, and trusting that Lucy can be counted on to hold it in place.

If the Times’ stance were up to its readers, Starmer would have its support sewn up: it is a measure of the recent realignment in British politics that its readers backed remain in the Brexit referendum, and polls suggest they are now breaking comfortably for Labour. But the editor, Tony Gallagher, may see things differently. While his predecessors have viewed alignment with the audience as a commercial necessity, Gallagher “is much more rightwing”, one veteran of the newspaper says. “I sometimes think he thinks we have the wrong readers.”

Gallagher is relentlessly focused on Westminster, holding weekly meetings with his lobby team. While there are some discussions about the paper’s editorial line, he is said to make the big calls without much consultation. He is also thought to be a fan of Tory rightwinger Kemi Badenoch, and to want the Times to shape the party leadership debate to come.

The Sun’s 1992 ‘It’s The Sun Wot Won It’ edition
The Sun’s 1992 edition. Photograph: The Sun

Since the sheen wore off Rishi Sunak, there has been a softening towards Labour – but a leader article last month, criticising shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves for seeing “commerce as subordinate to ­government”, hardly felt enthusiastic. “It would look mad to back the Tories,” one Times journalist says. “But I can’t say for sure that it isn’t going to happen.”

If a shift towards Labour feels uncomfortable at the Times, at the Sun it would require a wholesale rewriting of recent history. A January story by political editor Harry Cole, castigating Starmer for representing “baby killers and axe murderers” in death penalty cases overseas, is the most striking recent example – but it’s far from the only one.

Changing course would also require the forbearance of News UK’s chief executive, Rebekah Brooks, said to have described Starmer as “the man who tried to put me in jail” over his decision to prosecute her over phone hacking when he was director of public prosecutions in 2012. In his recent biography of Starmer, Tom Baldwin points out a remarkable 2021 column by Tom Newton Dunn, in which the Sun’s former political editor notes sourly that executives of the newspaper offered Starmer a truce if he apologised for the hacking prosecutions – an apology that never came.

Nonetheless, more than a decade has passed since the height of the hacking scandal, and Murdoch is believed to have signalled his willingness to move on. “The Sun is listening carefully to its readers,” a News UK source says.

Labour has handed the paper several minor exclusives recently, and Starmer himself agreed to be interviewed on the first episode of Cole’s new online politics show last month. He got a front-page write-up by agreeing that the redesign of the St George’s Cross on the new England football kit was an outrage.

Rupert Murdoch holding copies of the Sun and Times at his printworks in Wapping, east London, 1986. Photograph: PA

The strongest factor favouring an endorsement from the paper’s editor, Victoria Newton, is its vaunted history of backing winners. But it’s reasonable to ask if that’s a better measure of the newspaper and its proprietor’s skill in prediction than of their ability to lead the electorate. The Sun is Schrödinger’s newspaper: we don’t really know if it drives election results, because so few – other than Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn – have been willing to test the proposition.

That is deeply frustrating to those who view Starmer as distinguishable from the Conservatives only by the colour of his tie. “Endorsements don’t matter,” one former Corbyn staffer says. “They are strictly of interest to inside baseball perverts. If you want to change things, you work on the media people actually consume. The text in an Apple News push notification is a thousand times more influential than anything in the Sun.”

While many will give you a prediction, nobody actually knows if Labour’s charm offensive will bring the endorsements. My hunch is that both newspapers will find a way to accommodate the probability of a Labour win without going all in – through heavily caveated support, or by warning that a landslide will tip Starmer into radicalism.

Starmer’s team would say that damping hostility is prize enough. But it is worth asking whether their preoccupation with the waning newspaper powers is evidence of an anachronistic set of priorities. Every opinion poll suggests that the country is thoroughly sick of the Conservatives – and yet the rightwing media continue to set the tone of political discourse. The problem is not that Starmer is doing a bad job of putting himself on the right side of the dividing lines drawn by his longstanding antagonists – the problem is that he does not appear that interested in drawing them himself.

The Guardian

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