Circulation problems plunge The Sun into sleaze quagmire

The Sun had been all quiet on the sleaze front for a while. Is its renewed offensive something to do with The Mirror’s April recovery? asks Torin Douglas.

What are we to make of Norman Jones of London? Is he a high-minded, public-spirited citizen who puts his principles before his own personal pleasures? Or a conspiracy theorist who believes television should be punished for the sins of the newspapers?

Mr Jones wrote to The Guardian last week in the wake of the outbreak of tabloid sleaze, which had seen the News of the World entrap Tom Parker-Bowles, Johnnie Walker and Laurence Dallaglio into admissions of drug-taking and The Sun expose Sophie Rhys-Jones, Lennie Henry and Ian Botham.

“The hypocrisy of these News Group publications is gargantuan,” wrote Mr Jones. “They purport to take the moral high ground but operate in the depths of depravity. I have just cancelled my Sky subscription.”

This witty non-sequitur may owe its brevity to the fact that The Guardian edits letters for space. But it acts as a timely reminder that the Last Chance Saloon, in which newspapers have supposedly been drinking for almost ten years now, has long since installed a Sky Sports screen – and the links between tabloids and TV go well beyond Rupert Murdoch’s stake in both enterprises.

Indeed, sport has to some extent become the newspapers’ new rock ‘n’ roll, with acres of sports sections, fulfilling – and refuelling – readers’ demands for more coverage. BSkyB’s pay-TV money has allowed the clubs to buy star international players and turn home-grown ones into millionaires who marry Spice Girls. And though the company’s bid to buy Manchester United was blocked, its bankrolling of the Premier League surely helped United achieve its European triumph last week.

The Times’ guru on newspapers, Brian MacArthur, says The Sun’s sales are boosted by 20,000 to 30,000 copies a day during the football season, with its Monday “Goals” pull-out adding 40,000. He says tabloid circulation managers now expect a lean time until the start of the new football season in August.

Which brings us back to last week’s madness in The Sun. What brought this on, when only a month ago its editor David Yelland had said the newspaper had reached a new accommodation with Buckingham Palace and it understood readers no longer wanted papers to intrude on people’s private lives?

Things had gone so quiet on the privacy front that Lord Wakeham was becoming better known for his role in sorting out the House of Lords than as chairman of the Press Complaints Commission. The tough new code of practice drawn up after the death of Princess Diana was largely being heeded, at least by the dailies, which have generally had a less sleazy agenda than their Sunday stable-mates.

Indeed, sexual indiscretions no longer seem shocking or exciting enough to get onto the front page of the News of the World. Its new “sin of choice” is drug-taking – which at least provides the satisfaction of being illegal. And while arguments rage as to the legitimacy of the paper’s methods of entrapping those it has uncovered in recent weeks, such methods are permitted under the industry’s code of practice if the story is deemed to be in the public interest.

But there seems no conceivable public interest defence in The Sun’s trio of privacy-busting stories last week – and it did not seek to make one. In both its leading articles on the Sophie Rhys-Jones pictures, its only excuse for showing the royal bride-to-be topless was that it proved she was a “fun-loving” girl, which it claimed was just what the Royal Family needed (a sentiment open to question, given that the last “fun-loving” girl who married into the family was the Duchess of York).

Was Yelland under pressure to boost circulation? The Sun’s sales fell in April, month on month, while The Mirror’s rose. But as I pointed out two weeks ago, it was a long way ahead of The Mirror – in March The Sun’s circulation had been at its highest for two years.

Nevertheless, newspaper managers are all too aware that trends can matter as much as hard figures, and The Sun’s sales looked likely to fall again in May, giving The Mirror the chance to trumpet once again – however misleadingly – its own success. The end of the football season, and the start of the holiday period, meant sales would fall still further over the next few months. Could that be why The Sun made what some see as a clear change in strategy?

If so, it backfired spectacularly. Early sales returns suggest that neither Monday’s Lennie Henry story nor Tuesday’s about Ian Botham boosted sales. Nor did they produce the follow-up in other media that The Sun might have expected. Was that why Yelland went for the big one – the long-known-about Sophie pictures – searching for an ever bigger high?

Certainly the pictures sold more copies – about 250,000 according to one estimate, thus helping ensure that The Sun’s May sales figure won’t fall. But it will prove a Pyrrhic victory, commercially and in terms of the paper’s relationship with its readers, the Royal Family and the Press Complaints Commission.

As part of its apology, The Sun is giving all its syndication profits from the pictures to charity – one estimate puts that at £1m. And though readers’ boycotts rarely have much impact (Liverpool’s avoidance of The Sun after the Hillsborough football disaster being the main exception), many readers were angry. One, who contacted The Mirror, had rung The Sun’s “commentline” to complain, only to be told the editor wouldn’t accept any criticism. She’s switched papers.

And then there is Norman Jones. His one-stage-removed boycott – of Sky, rather than The Sun – seems more likely to worry Elisabeth Murdoch than Yelland. But I don’t think it will catch on – particularly now they’re giving away Sky digital systems, making them even cheaper than The Sun.

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