Where it don’t shine … yet

Murdoch’s papers have yet to endorse Sir Keir - Paul Demarty wonders how long they can hold out from backing a winner. Meanwhile Rupert is on honeymoon and indecision rules

Last week, we discussed the decision of The Daily Telegraph to belatedly red-bait Keir Starmer over his youthful Pabloite flirtations: a brave attempt to fight back against what still looks like a Labour cakewalk on July 4.1

True to its nickname, the Torygraph has already sprung for Rishi Sunak, though its output is notably Reform-curious, and we suppose the grand plan is the Tory-right wet dream of somehow parachuting Nigel Farage into the leadership. For such purposes, of course, he will need to prevail in Clacton, or else inveigle himself into some future by-election.

Also on the war-path against Starmer is the Daily Mail, whose front page on June 13 warned that “a Tory wipeout risks one-party socialist state” - on the face of it, a classic Rothermerian paranoid hallucination, except that this is more or less the official line of Sunak’s campaign at this point. Even John Major saw fit to pretend to be in with a shot until election day. Barring a miracle, it seems that the Tory goose is not so much cooked as incinerated.

This poses a certain problem for the other great empire of the British rightwing press: that belonging to Rupert Murdoch, though he formally retired from management last year. The Sun, in particular, has attempted to cultivate a certain mystique of infallibility in electoral politics. In every general election since 1979, the Currant Bun has backed the winning party. In all but three of those polls, that party has been the Tories; their post-Thatcher combination of fanatical Atlanticism, plutocratic economic policy (which soundly benefits a mogul like Murdoch) and absurd demagoguery (which he can sell to his readers) suited his interests fine. The interregnum of the Blair years was acceptable to the Murdoch papers - so long as his pecuniary interests were unmolested and no great distance was taken from the Tory politics of his papers. When Labour was widely expected to win the 1992 election, The Sun famously claimed credit for John Major’s victory: “It’s The Sun wot won it,” the paper crowed the morning after.

Lose, lose, lose

Something like this idea in fact enters into the explanations offered by New Labour figures regarding the party’s success. We think of Peter Mandelson’s stark recent statement of Labour’s electoral returns in this period: “Lose, lose, lose, lose, Blair, Blair, Blair, lose, lose, lose, lose” - exactly the same starting point as The Sun’s perfect record. Blair’s famous meeting with Murdoch in Australia in 1995 gave the latter an off-ramp from Tory support, as the Major government rapidly frayed.

Formal support did not come until the first day of the election campaign two years later, but in the interim Murdoch’s tabloid muck-rakers set to work on the government. Blairites, not unfairly, give the left short shrift for its petulant complaints of media unfairness - what else is to be expected? For them, of course, Blair’s success proves that a sufficiently business-friendly, ‘competent’ Labour Party can overcome the disadvantage.

The campaign is in full flow, however, and still there is no endorsement in The Sun or The Times. Some Kremlinologists suspect that this might be something to do with Murdoch being away on his fifth honeymoon, although surely his younger, more inky-fingered self would either have delayed the getaway or rudely interrupted it to ensure his papers took the correct line. In any case, they seem gun-shy, perhaps afraid of what the boss - not officially any more, but in reality now - will do if they get the call wrong.

In the meantime, the papers’ coverage is cautious and tepid. A Sun leader from June 14, on Labour’s manifesto launch, is typical. Starmer is praised for a few things: ruling out certain tax rises, and “reforming” the NHS rather than “treating it like a shrine”. “Likewise, Labour seems better placed than the Tories to finally build the 1.5 million houses the country needs, being less in thrall to Nimbys.” But then there are the downsides - a refusal to rule out fuel duty increases, pro-LGBT “wokery”, imprecision on immigration numbers, “closer ties with Brussels”, and more. The paper demands he clarify every vague assurance he has made to his various constituencies on these diverse questions.

Yet the closing sentence seems almost resigned to the result: “The country needs to know” these details “before July 4. Not after Sir Keir already has a super-majority in the bag.” But why would he tell us, if he believes - as The Sun is probably right to say - “that voters want to boot the Tories out - so he just needs to keep things vague”? If he comes clean, it can only hurt him. The editors can only threaten - rather lamely given the state of things - that “he should now expect the next three weeks to be all about what is not in his manifesto”.

The indecision of the Murdoch papers, however, is also a story here, reported by the hated BBC and Guardian alike. Both have noted that, quite apart from the political calculation, there is special bad blood between them and Starmer, who was director of public prosecutions at exactly the moment that the time came to round up all the usual suspects after the phone-hacking scandal broke. There is a vindictive streak to the gutter press in this country. GK Chesterton famously said that the problem with the Irish is that they forget nothing, and with the English that they remember nothing. Murdoch is certainly a man who can nurse a grudge or two. (He and Blair have been splits since he came to believe that Blair had made the beast with two backs with his third wife, Wendi Deng.)

Lurking in the background, perhaps, is anxiety about how much the power of the press has declined since 1997. Per the BBC’s Katie Razzall:

Newspaper circulation is a fraction of what it once was and that offers up a ‘more healthy’ media environment, Andrew Neil, the journalist and Spectator Group chairman, told me on BBC Radio 4’s Media show recently. The era of The Sun and the Mirror as really powerful forces in the land has gone, he says.

Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s former spokesman and a former Daily Mirror political editor, says the papers are less important than they were, due to a combination of falling sales and aging readership. But he believes that the news cycle means the press’s influence on the broadcast media “remains important”.2

Neil and Campbell, as quoted here, have different emphases, but there is agreement that the power of the press has declined. This seems undeniable, and the question is really: how much?


The “impartiality” rules of the British broadcast media have, it is true, preserved largely for the press the prerogative of agenda-setting (not the case in the United States, where the honours are shared with the shamelessly partisan cable news networks).

The big question is how the internet media fit into this. In the early 2010s, the left became very excited about the apparent ease with which social media could be exploited to achieve impressive results, at least in terms of short-term reach for some slogan or campaign. Ultra-viral internet phenomena regularly seemed to swamp legacy media, whose owners scrambled to keep up.

By the end of that decade, utopia had curdled into dystopia, and now the worry was the ease with which largely rightwing ‘disinformation’ could spread. Liberal media ceased to see the social media world as one of grassroots idealism, and instead began indulging in slightly silly conspiracy theories about the diabolical reach of the Russian secret state, which could be blamed for Brexit, Donald Trump and (for that matter) Bernie Sanders taking the shine off their holy anointed, Hillary Clinton.


At a more fundamental level, however, the internet has not inherited that agenda-setting power. How could it? After all, the Russiagate ranters were wrong - Vladimir Putin was never the secret manipulator of all this. There is none to be found. Leaving aside digital outlets with the same ad-funded corporate model as legacy media, and indeed the perfectly respectable web operations of most legacy outlets, the remainder is a disordered cacophony - alienation and atomisation whistling in our ears like wind in the trees. This is not the type of thing that could take on the role of the bourgeois press (and US cable news).

It has, of course, provided a steady stream of the same sort of idiotic balderdash that the rightwing press always has. One thinks of the absurd cluster of grand narratives that have emerged, especially since the Covid lockdowns - the Great Replacement, the Great Reset, and now the idea that every mundane traffic-calming measure is an attempt to imprison people in their homes, like a low-tech version of the human-battery racks in The Matrix. The tastiest morsels from this stew are picked out and served up by legacy media (and legacy-like digital media), just as ‘straight banana’ Euromyths and the like were served up long ago. The imprimatur of a ‘respectable’ outlet matters too much to suppose that there has been any “great replacement” of the old guard.

Indeed, the power of the tabloids to manipulate the docile masses was always somewhat overstated. For all The Sun-wot-won-it bravado, that paper’s readers have, in general, tended to lean towards Labour throughout this whole period, reflecting the overall class composition of the different parties’ votes and of the tabloid’s readership. It is not that it made no difference, but there has always been a level of theatre involved in the appearance of it making all the difference.

For now, we wait and see - will The Sun sit this one out, for the first time in its history? That would be a remarkable admission of defeat and decline.

  1. ‘Sir Keir’s sinister past’ Weekly Worker June 13: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1495/sir-keirs-sinister-past.↩︎

  2. www.bbc.co.uk/news/articles/cw88x6ww1p8o.↩︎