The Labour Party is in a panic over the Sun newspaper’s vicious, daily attacks on Gordon Brown and the government.
Peter Mandelson accused the paper of “bad taste and crude politicking” after it turned on Brown for misspelling the name of a soldier killed in Afghanistan in a letter to his grieving mother.
Labour ministers care about what the Sun says – which is why they were so demoralised at the news that the Sun switched its backing to the Tories during Labour’s conference this year.
This is because it is convinced that the Sun has a direct line to the minds of millions of working class people. Almost three million people buy the paper every day – and it claims a total daily readership of up to nine million.
The Sun celebrated its 40th birthday last week by reprinting a selection of its “legendary” front pages including, “It’s the Sun Wot Won It”. This was the paper’s headline after the 1992 election, when it printed a front page mocking Labour leader Neil Kinnock on election day.
The Sun was vastly overestimating it’s own influence. Yet it’s common to hear the argument that most people must be rabidly right wing if the Sun is Britain’s most-read newspaper.
The reality is more complicated.
The mass media obviously has some influence over people’s ideas. It can set the agenda and the boundaries of “legitimate” debate.
Cleverly-written articles can confirm people’s existing prejudices by offering them a highly selective and confected version of reality, reflecting and amplifying the reactionary views people hold.
In the worst case, the media can reinforce racist and sexist ideas. But those ideas do not originate in the media – they come from the capitalist society we live in.
Owner Rupert Murdoch’s main interest is profit. So he wants to sell lots of newspapers and make money.
That’s why, at the height of the anger against bankers earlier this year, the Sun declared them “Scumbag Millionaires” on its front page to try and chime with the popular mood and sell more papers.
But politics is not at all central to its success. It is the Sun’s classic formula of “sex, sport and sensation” that shifts most of its copies. A large number of readers never even see the political articles – they just turn the paper over and read the sport.
People buy newspapers for different reasons. Someone clutching a copy of the Sun might have bought it because they enjoy the lifestyle section, or “Dear Deidre”.
Or they might be collecting tokens to go on one of the “Hols from £9.50” – more than two million take up that offer each year.
Think of the newspapers you buy. Do you read them because you agree with everything they say? Or do you buy whichever looks most interesting – or entertaining – and read it in a critical way?
Those who read the Sun don’t necessarily swallow its ideology whole. People are not sheep – they have their own interpretations of what they read.
So when the Sun attacked Brown over his “insensitive” bad spelling, it backfired.
In one poll, 60 percent of people felt the Sun had “crossed the line” and almost half said they felt more inclined to defend Brown after reading the coverage. Instead of triggering public anger with Brown, the paper caused an outpouring of sympathy.
In 1989, after the Hillsborough football disaster that killed 96 people, the Sun printed a front page declaring “The Truth”.
It quoted a police officer saying drunk Liverpool fans “picked pockets of victims” and were urinating on the dead.
People in Liverpool immediately started a boycott that continues to this day. It sells less than 10,000 copies in the city, compared to 20 times that before 1989.
The boycott costs News International an estimated £10 million per year. It shows what ordinary people can do if the media pushes them too far.
Likewise, the Sun was a cheerleader for the Iraq war, but that didn’t translate into public support. On 15 February 2003, the Sun’s front page said “United we stand: Britain and US defy UN wobblers on Iraq”, complete with a picture captioned “Blair and Bush, determined to crush evil.”
Yet two million people still marched against the war that day.
More recently, the Sun was against the post strikes – as it is against all trade unionism – yet most people supported the striking workers, and post workers didn’t believe what the paper was saying about them for a minute.
Taking part in collective resistance such as demonstrations and strikes can lead people to start rejecting the media’s lies.
The root of Mandelson’s belief that the Sun can dictate public opinion is New Labour’s patronising attitude towards working class people – a view that we cannot think for ourselves.
Socialists should not make the same mistake.