I write on the day that Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp launches its Sunday Sun in the UK, to widespread astonishment at the man’s “chutzpah” and apparent lack of remorse for the ethical breaches which brought down its predecessor, the News Of The World.
A Sunday Sun was mooted by News Corp insiders way back in July, when the NOTW went down, so it’s no surprise to see it come to fruition now, but some commentators are outraged by the cheek of the man. In the Guardian Polly Toynbee interprets the arrival of a Sunday Sun to mean that Murdoch and News International are avoiding punishment and resuming what has been an unhealthy relationship to British politics and culture these last four decades.
A poisoned brand?
I take issue with that analysis, for the simple reason that the world has changed fundamentally for News Corp and its British newspapers. The old adage about history repeating, first as tragedy then as farce, applies to the efforts of Murdoch senior to put on a brave face as he tries to save his reputation, and his UK organisation. This is not business as usual for News International.
The emperor has been exposed as possibly corrupt, or incompetent, or not in control of his lieutenants, or all three, and the damage done to his global business can’t be undone, at least not in his lifetime.
The overnight toxicity of the News Of The World brand, which panicked the company into closing it down after more than a century of profitable publication, has extended to the Sun, and to News International as a whole. All over the world, indeed, News Corp is on the defensive as never before.
Far from guaranteed success
Several Sun managers, editors and journalists, some still employed, have been arrested or questioned by police, and the scandal which exploded like a bomb at the heart of Murdoch’s empire last July has a long way to go. In that context, the Sunday Sun is far from being a super soaraway certainty.
Media analysts in the UK suggest that sales of less than two million – the numbers achieved by the current market leader, the Mail On Sunday - would be regarded as a failure by News Corp.
Full cost sales like that are unlikely, at least in the first few months, because the brand is so tainted. We should never, it’s true, over estimate the capacity of Britain’s red top tabloid readers to be repelled by immoral journalism. They made the News Of The World (NOTW) a roaring success for decades, so one might reasonably predict that they will soak up the Sunday Sun like addicts deprived of their fix these last months.
Tabloid media landscape forever changed
But it was precisely because these very readers were SO appalled by the phone-hacking revelations when at last they broke into public view that the title had to go. Nothing like it has ever happened in Britain before, or in any other country where News Corp operates. The wave of revulsion which followed the events of July last year has forever changed Britain’s news culture, and not to the advantage of News International.
I think the Sunday Sun will sell a respectable quantity – more than one million - because it will be a professionally produced product, like its daily parent, easily superior to its market competitors in most respects other than the ethical. The Sun has been the market leading red top in Britain for the simple reason that it is the best at what it does – better than the Mirror in England, and the Daily Record in Scotland, both of which it overtook in sales many years ago, never to look back.
A new approach needed for success
Whether a Sunday sister can achieve two million sales in the long term depends, first, on the ongoing twists and turns of the various inquiries and investigations going on around News International. Further evidence of wrongdoing by journalists, editors or managers will inevitably weaken an already fragile brand.
Second, will the new title demonstrate a sincere commitment to journalistic ethics, of the type so obviously lacking at News International since the early 1970s? In the post-phone-hacking climate that will be essential to success.
If it can, if Murdoch is prepared to let that happen (and for all his posturing, everything that went wrong at the NOTW and the Sun is ultimately down to him and the corporate culture he allowed to flourish), maybe the Sunday Sun can establish itself as a permanent fixture of the UK media.