“I want us to disrupt this street,” Rupert Murdoch says after his purchase of the Sun in 1969. The young Australian sheep farmer, turned newspaper proprietor wanted big things from the ailing broadsheet founded five years earlier, which under his watch would be re-born as a lively tabloid.
Following Murdoch’s acquisition of the Sun, hard news and political stories had to free up space for celebrity gossip, TV listings, sport and hard-to-believe encounters. In doing so the proprietor and his handpicked editor Larry Lamb, challenged the status quo of Fleet Street – “this street” – and in particular that of its big rival, the big selling Mirror.
The story of the new guard’s first year at the Sun is sharply told in Ink, James Graham’s popular play currently showing in the West End. After himself being persuaded to join the new-look paper, Lamb had his work cut out convincing other journalists who had successful careers at better selling titles to jump ship. He recruited 125 staff – a quarter of the workforce of the Mirror.
Bunny Christie’s well-designed set consisting of a pyramid of desks, stacked high and surrounded by piles of newspapers, helps evoke the era when pages were still set by hand with hot metal. The action moves from the newsroom and the print shop to drinking dens of Fleet Street, where in amongst long, long lunches and heavy boozing, the editor not only found some of his new recruits, but also received and proofed the first editions.
Lamb – and the small, understaffed team that joined him – blotted out the doubters as they tore up the rule book (who would ever consider something as radical as the weather on page two?) and virtually overnight created a new title. They stole some ideas from the established newspapers (the Mirror had “Live Letter” and it had “Livelier Letters”) they had left. But then they went further with bolder headlines, giveaways and themed weeks that they hoped would attract the readers. It seemed to be a recipe for success.
Initial sales were good and they continued to rise in the weeks and months that followed. But Murdoch had to face the cameras to accusations that he was giving journalism a bad name over some of the low brow stories the Sun carried – and some people across the country would become even unhappier when Lamb introduced pictures of naked women on Page Three. Staff at the paper became the most hated on Fleet Street as it went into battle with its rivals and many friends were lost along the way.
There was a glimpse into Murdoch’s tensions with the unions as the well-acted – and at times, hilarious – play showed the numerous successive stages of the print room that were required to actually print the newspapers. Everyone had a particular task in the process and there was uproar when long-standing challenged. For Murdoch – and Lamb – it was an outdated way of working, and the play trails plans for not only the proprietor’s plans to conquer America, but also quietly shift operations to new premises in east London. Big battles with the unions loomed large.
The real Sun
Founded by International Publishing Corporation (IPC) as a broadsheet in 1964 to replace the Daily Herald, the new title “burst forth with tremendous energy,” according to The Times. It had an initial print run of 3.5 million, but within weeks it had sunk to the circulation of its predecessor – around 1.2 million.
But by 1969 The Sun had a circulation of 800,000 and was losing about £2 million a year, so IPC – which already had the best-selling Mirror in its stable – decided to sell. Along came Murdoch, who already owned the Sunday title, the News of the World, and wanted a weekday so his presses would be used seven days a week. Little did IPC know that the Sun would become a tough competitor which would take their readers in their droves.
The first issue of the new Sun was published on the 17th November 1969 and carried a front page “exclusive” story that headlined: “HORSE DOPE SENSATION.” The editorial on page two outlined the sort of newspaper that it would be: “Today’s Sun is a new newspaper. It has a new shape, new writers, new ideas. But it inherits all that is best from the great traditions of its predecessors. The Sun cares. About the quality of life. About the kind of world we live in. And about people”.
Lamb lasted in his first stint in the editor’s chair until 1972, returning again from 1975 to 1981 (in the gap he was editorial director at the company, which involved also overseeing sister title the News Of the World). In nine years, he was responsible for getting the circulation to an incredible four million copies and it has remained the best-selling newspaper ever since. When he died in the 2000, the media commentator Roy Greenslade, wrote that Lamb (who by then had been knighted) was “a classic example of that tradition in which the editors of very popular newspapers are expected, even encouraged, to be very unpopular. He worked to that rule: he was overbearing, over-critical and, often, over the top.”
Out of all the editors that followed Lamb, Kelvin MacKenzie (in position from 1981 to 1994) was one of the best known. He made the Sun more opinionated and outrageous, according to many accounts. It was under MacKenzie’s watch that sensationalist (and untrue stories) with headlines such as ‘FREDDIE STAR ATE MY HAMSTER’ appeared.
But during his editorship, the Sun attracted much controversy. The paper supported the war in the Falklands and was on the government’s side for the 1984 to 1985 miners’ strike (Arthur Scargill, the NUM leader, was compared to Hitler). And then in 1989 in the aftermath of Hillsborough football disaster in which many lives were lost, it published a story under the headline ‘The Truth’ in which it alleged that fans pick pocketed crushed victims and urinated on emergency services. The story caused outrage in Liverpool and three quarters of its sales in the city were lost (MacKenzie and the paper have since apologised for the mistakes with their coverage, but the scars in that part of the country run deep).
The Sun was born as a Labour-supporting title and in 1970 threw its weight behind Harold Wilson during the election campaign. But it later moved over to the Conservatives, encouraging people to vote for Margaret Thatcher in 1979 (its front page headline: “VOTE TORY THIS TIME”). In the years that followed it produced extremely unflattering stories about Labour, with highly personal attacks on the likes of “insane” Tony Benn. The paper saw its role in the 1992 election victory for the Conservatives as particularly significant. “It’s the Sun Wot Won It,” its editorial declared. But then in 1997, it moved over to New Labour, until 2009 when it said that: “Labour’s Lost It”.
The Sun originally operated from premises in Bouverie Street (where the News of the World was also based), but the building has been replaced by a modern office block. There’s a nice mural on the wall in an alley way here which tells the story of newspapers on Fleet Street, however it’s sad that there is no reference to this paper operating from the site. The Sun moved in 1986 to new premises in Wapping, reducing the number of staff required to print the paper and a yearlong picket resulted. But the paper was printed for the last time in east London in 2008 (it’s now printed in Hertfordshire, with the offices at London Bridge, next to the Shard).
Claims and allegations of illegal payments to public officials, xenophobia, al-Qaeda hoaxes and the publication of nude Royal photos, has meant that the Sun has not escaped controversy in recent years. Nonetheless some commentators have heralded the decline of the right-wing tabloids, given that young people are less loyal to particular titles than their parents and more people rely on online news to keep up-to-date.
Others take a different view. “The Sun and Mail have more power than they have for a long time,” said former Sun editor, David Yelland. “You could argue that in Brexit the tabloids had their most powerful moment ever. In an age where people are not supposed to buy newspapers anymore, the Sun maintains a circulation of 1.6 million (slightly ahead of the Daily Mail). YouGov has said that the newspaper you read remains “a far better predictor of Labour and Tory support than any other indicator.”
Until readership levels fall by any significant number the Sun will continue to play an important role in British politics and society as a whole. And in the years to come it will no doubt be just as controversial as it has been through its fast-paced history.