The Sun joins upmarket tabloid trend to save sliding circulation

The other week The Sun greeted the news of George Michael’s arrest in a gentlemen’s lavatory in Beverly Hills with the front page headline: “Zip me up before you go go”.

It was a classic Sun splash: at once both cheeky and clever, funny and slightly rude. The Mirror and the Daily Star had their own stabs at humorous headlines but they were limp (sorry) by comparison. No one does this sort of thing quite so well as The Sun.

But it seems The Sun may not be doing it for much longer. Stuart Higgins, the editor for the past five years, who tried (usually successfully) to produce a paper in the same mould as that of his extraordinary predecessor, Kelvin MacKenzie, is leaving.

There are stories of a rift over the future of the paper, with Higgins championing the idea that the mixture be kept much as before but News International’s management, under executive chairman Les Hinton and the proprietor, Rupert Murdoch, urging a rather different product: more respectable perhaps, more appealing, certainly, to the Middle Englanders who read the Daily Mail.

That George Michael headline notwithstanding, Higgins’s paper had begun to lose its zip and go. The day his departure was announced, the paper’s front page was filled with a picture of Paul Gascoigne wrapped in a flag of St George, with a Sun sun-hat perched on his head. Alongside was a version of an elderly, popular song, supposedly penned by Gazza himself: “Gazza’s got his hat on, hic, hic, hic hooray.”

Buried on an inside page was the real story of the day, Gazza’s letter of apology to his England team mates.

The Sun’s circulation has been sinking fast. The latest Audit Bureau of Circulations figures for the six months to April 1998 were down 5.61 per cent, at just over 3.71 million. The Mirror by comparison was also down, but only by 3.27 per cent at 2.29 million. The figures for April itself were even more favourable for The Mirror: 2.31 million to The Sun’s 3.699 million.

Price cutting, advertising campaigns and promotions have not been enough to stop the slide at The Sun, whereas The Mirror has slowed its rate of decline by concentrating on old-fashioned news values and strong stories, including a recent all-out assault on the Health Secretary, Frank Dobson, and Labour’s record on the health service.

One wonders quite what Mirror readers made of last Friday’s spread on pages four and five devoted to the Bank of England monetary committee’s interest rate policy (headline: “Plank of England”, with a “guilty men” picture of the panel), but you can see what the paper is trying to do.

It’s the kind of thing calculated to appeal to old Fleet Street grey-beards who go all misty-eyed at the memory of Hugh Cudlipp’s Mirror. The early signs are that it might just succeed.

You could call this going upmarket, although it has more to do with reassessing the intelligence of readers, and their willingness to be provoked as well as entertained and titillated. Perhaps this is also what The Sun is planning. After all, it’s become a cliché of social and political commentators that the UK is becoming an increasingly middle-class society. Real household disposable income doubled in the 25 years up to 1996.

We take more holidays, and more of them abroad, we own more consumer durables and some of us are better educated than ever before (the numbers enrolling in higher education rose from 621,000 in 1970 to 1.9 million in 1995).

Knowing all this, and fashioning a party and policies to appeal to this increasingly affluent and educated electorate, was a major factor in the scale of the Labour Party’s victory in the election.

But applying the lessons to popular newspapers is not easy. What we are not about to see, I suspect, is the wholesale repositioning of the red-top tabloids in competition with the Daily Mail. Tempting though the Mail’s readership may be (it’s almost 65 per cent ABC1, compared with just over 30 per cent for The Sun and The Mirror) and strong though its sales are (nudging The Mirror’s at 2.27 million) there are only so many potential readers in the middle market.

The Express, which started with an advantage denied to The Sun and The Mirror (namely a huge middle-market readership in the first place), has shown how difficult it is to compete with the Mail on its own terms. If The Express can’t do it effectively, The Sun and The Mirror would be mad to try.

Just as the Labour Party’s move into the centre ground has led to accusations that it’s abandoning the most disadvantaged in society, so a headlong rush for the middle market risks leaving a substantial rump of tabloid newspaper readers feeling dissatisfied.

The Sun’s new editor, David Yelland, faces a tough challenge in simultaneously trying to produce a more intelligent newspaper while remaining true to The Sun’s traditions, and its remaining loyal readers.

Perhaps it’s just as well that this week The Mirror’s secret weapon, Kelvin MacKenzie, also resigned, to bid for Talk Radio. This is bad news for BBC Radio 5, and bad news for The Mirror, which is weaker without him. But perhaps he’ll give his old chum Stuart Higgins a job on the wireless.

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