Sometimes my editors may over-estimate it their influence, just as I believe politicians vastly over-estimate our influence. Some politicians are paranoid” about newspaper editorials but I think they are probably wasting a lot of emotional energy on that.Rupert Murdoch
When Labour romps to victory in the General Election it will not be, no matter what trumpeting emerges from Wapping, The Sun wot won it. First-rate journalistic gimmick that it was for David Yelland to declare for Labour the morning after the Budget, the endorsement is all mouth and no trousers when it comes to persuading readers where to place their crosses at the polling station – and the paper’s proprietor knows it.
Rupert Murdoch – make no mistake, The Sun’s all-over-bar-the-shouting front page was authorised by the chief – is a pragmatist. He knew full well that in putting its weight firmly behind the incumbent Government, the paper was reflecting the intentions of the vast majority of its readers, rather than urging them to switch their allegiances.
No matter that only days before the Budget he had made a speech in New York in which he declared himself "suspicious" of the Prime Minister’s motives in Europe and expressed the view that Mr Blair "is deluded if he thinks the UK needs Europe". The fact is, Murdoch can spot a winner approaching the final straight a dozen lengths or more ahead of the opposition and he is not in the business of backing losers.
Nor is he in the business of self-delusion. Peter Preston, in his largely eulogistic Guardian piece to celebrate Murdoch’s 70th birthday, ruminated that "the Murdoch press isn’t half as powerful as it thinks it is". The head of News Corporation subscribes to Preston’s view. When last we met, Murdoch told me that his editors see their newspapers having an influence at all levels, socially and politically and even in the world of sport, and they take that influence very seriously. "Sometimes they may over-estimate it," he said, "just as I believe politicians vastly over-estimate our influence." Some politicians are "paranoid" about newspaper editorials, he suggested, "but I think they are probably wasting a lot of emotional energy on that."
In the New York speech, Murdoch also confessed to both liking and admiring Blair: "I like what he is trying to do; he is trying to make a meritocracy out of Britain." There are those that would say the Prime Minister isn’t trying hard enough, or getting results quickly enough, in the meritocracy department, but it is a philosophy that has dominated much of Keith Rupert Murdoch’s 70 years. The meritocracy of the US played a large part in a younger Murdoch settling there, and taking the country’s citizenship, just as he emerged as the most powerful media baron in Britain.
Although the hurt has receded, he still vividly recalls the resentment that greeted his success when, after having bought the News of the World, he transformed the sickly IPC Sun into a pocket battleship of a title that threatened to blow the Daily Mirror out of what, until then, had been the tranquil waters of the tabloid market.
The antipathy shown towards him was not for social reasons, he told me. "They [the national newspaper establishment] may have considered me a rough-edged Australian, but, it was what we were doing, taking the opportunities that arose. I remember my competitors and people who were acquaintances of mine at the old Newspaper Publishers’ Association patting me on the head and saying, ‘It’s great having you here’, and ‘You’ll do well in this country’ and so on. When we started to do well with The Sun, their feelings changed. Then there were very bitter feelings."
He’s not in the best of health now. And the problems that threaten to turn his proposed merger with DirecTV – a bonding that would establish the first ever global satellite service, straddling four continents – into a financial nightmare may eventually defeat the man who makes William Randolph Hearst look like a bit part player in media history.
But I wouldn’t bet on it. There is no more determined or fierce competitor in the world’s business arenas. Witness his current instant retaliation, reducing the cost of The Sun to 20p on Saturdays, to match a similar Mirror cost-cutting promotion, and last weekend slashing the cover price of the News of the World.
Even if The Sun’s pro-Government clarion call may have whistled in one ear and straight out the other of most readers, there are many in Downing Street and the palaces of Westminster now sleeping easier. It’s such a comfort for them to know that, if only temporarily, they are safe from a severe mauling by the man who pulls the strings at Wapping.
When, on this page earlier in the year, I castigated Neil Wallis, editor of the Sunday People, for his paper’s reaction to Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss’s ruling on the anonymity of James Bulger’s killers, he responded with venom. Along with some personal abuse – no complaints; it comes with the territory – he suggested in a letter of response that when it came to me judging the merits of his "BULGER FIEND TRIES TO KILL AGAIN" story, my expertise was comparable to what an abattoir assistant might bring to brain surgery.
What I certainly did not know, and neither did Wallis, was that the local authority report forms, appearing to confirm the attack by one of James’s killers on another youth in a secure unit, were forged.
There is a sizeable, if shrinking, section of the population still unaware that the story was wholly inaccurate. These are the readers of the Sunday People, for the editor has neglected to publish a correction – never mind an apology – for what was the rotting central plank of the paper’s campaign for the media to be allowed to identify the convicted boys.
As The Guardian pointed out in a leading article calling for "a little more openness and humility and a little less aggressive grandstanding" from Wallis, he sits on both the main ruling body and the code committee of the Press Complaints Commission. Private Eye has given him a drubbing, too, so surely it is about time he came clean.
Should he be tempted to write an aggressive, grandstanding response to this column, perhaps Wallis could comment on my assertion that he wanted to launch a People campaign for the restoration of capital punishment until prevented from doing so by Trinity Mirror chief executive Philip Graf. Any mention of this abhorrent plan was strangely absent from his previous diatribe.
The latest ABC figures show the Sunday People continuing to slide, with its 5.77 per cent year-on-year drop being the greatest of any proper national title. With bulk sales removed, the drop is 8.46 per cent and the paper’s fully paid-for circulation only 1,416,451. But at least it doesn’t finish bottom of the heap in the bulks-adjusted table. As Richard Despond is painfully aware, the Sunday Express (836,309) is down 9.25 per cent on the year and the daily title (914,004) a whole one-tenth of a per cent worse than the People.