I was just about to go to bed when Radio Five Live called to ask if I would talk to Richard Bacon about The Sun switching from Labour to Tory.
‘This is DEV-AS-TAT-ING,’ he said by way of intro though to be fair, when I laughed, he laughed too.
Devastating would be Alistair Darling saying he was quitting as Chancellor because of disagreements over policy with GB.
Devastating would be a petition of half a million NHS workers saying Labour out, Tories in.
Devastating would be the IMF saying Britain’s handling of the recession had been woeful and helped turn it into a depression. (Perhaps they could do an analysis of the Tory response instead.)
So would Labour rather have The Sun’s support than lose it? Certainly. Were we pleased when they made the switch to us in 1997, not least because of the impact on the morale of the other lot? Yes. Is it a ‘devastating blow’ (cliche No 12 from GB media reporting handbook) that they have switched back? No.
It is a big media story, and the media love nothing more than a big media story. That much was clear from the way Nick Robinson and Michael Crick reported it on the BBC last night. I thought they were going to wheel out the Royal death black ties.
Far more significant, possibly, was the economics editor’s report on signs of economic recovery.
Fat chance of that getting big play this morning then, not when the media can all talk about themselves. ‘Gordon Brown has brushed aside (cliche 25) the decision of The Sun etc etc’ Far easier story. Let’s make it the lead.
The media marketplace has changed enormously since 1997. Papers have had to become very different animals to compete with 24 hour news and cope with the advent of the web and, more recently, social networking.
As channels of communication have become more diverse and diffuse, it has been harder for the papers to make impact. The Sun made media impact last night, and it will continue throughout the day. As for genuine political impact, it is likely to be less than they think. If Labour lose, it will not be The Sun wot lost it.
Because while the public may know the politicians spin them a line from time to time, they sure as hell know the papers do too.
The switch was entirely predictable, and had been evident for some time. It was merely a matter of when. For Labour, it should actually help the feeling of fighting back that has finally been around this week. If you’re the underdog, might as well have it clear that you’re the underdog.
The other thing to make clear is that the media mood has been so relentlessly negative around Gordon for so long – and despite their best efforts he is still standing – that this is not going to make that much of a difference. And it may lead others to reflect. Watch for a levelling out of negativity in some of the left press for example.
In the last few years the significance of the newspapers in the political debate has been less any impact on their readers, who will be largely unmoved, but on the rest of the media. It has always amazed me that TV, with its monopoly on immediacy, at least up to the advent of the web, allows its agenda to be set so much by the papers. Don’t forget this too. Whilst TB had the support of The Sun, their editorial stance on many issues, day in day out, was highly critical, and well to the right of the Party. Don’t forget either that Labour won three elections with considerable media negativity surrounding us, especially the third win. One of my favourite stats is that support among Mail readers rose from 1997 to 2001. How many barrels of bile down the drain for that one?
My point is that people will make their own minds up. What a daily paper urges them to do will figure marginally if at all in that judgement, and provided Labour continues to defend the record, take the fight to the Tories, and set out the forward policy agenda with clarity and vigour, the battle ahead can still be won.
David Cameron will be very pleased this morning. What the papers say is what gets him out of bed in the morning. His media strategy is his one success. But press opinion is not the same as public opinion. And public opinion is becoming more not less sceptical about his ability to do serious policy.
What The Sun’s decision means is Cameron will get an easier ride in one newspaper. It does not mean public doubts about his leadership will be dispelled.
When The Sun came out for TB they did so with the headline ‘The Sun backs Blair.’ Today’s ‘Labour’s lost it’ underlines that the decision is about negative feelings towards Labour, rather than positive support for Cameron.
I should also point out that whilst the BBC is reporting what it sees as the political significance of the Murdoch decision, there might be significance for them too. Murdoch plus the Tories in alliance on broadcasting policy… might make wiser BBC heads wonder whether their constant slipstreaming of press negativity is the place they really need to be.