The Sun is literally not worth the paper it's printed on and it's lost in court AGAIN but Rupert Murdoch isn't done yet
*Mortal Kombat voice* “Finish him!”
There’s something quite magical about when the figurative becomes the literal: For decades it’s been entirely justifiable to say that The Sun is not worth the paper it’s printed on but now that’s literally true.
The Financial Times reported yesterday that Rupert Murdoch has, in the wake of serious pandemic punishment for the paper, essentially admitted that the tabloid is now worthless. Alex Barker, the FT’s Global Media Editor, writes:
Rupert Murdoch has written down the value of The Sun newspapers to zero, acknowledging the tabloid brand that helped build his global media empire has become a worthless asset.
The Sun titles, whose accounts were published on Friday, suffered badly as the pandemic hit print advertising and circulation, with its turnover falling more than a fifth to £324 million in the financial year to June 2020.
The bleak year left News Group Newspapers… nursing a pre-tax loss of £201m, even after slashing its costs and marketing. The grim medium-term outlook for print revenues, which carried the business through its heyday, forced the company to write down the asset by £84m, an impairment that left The Sun brand with zero carrying value.
It would be cruel to point and laugh if it were not for the fact that The Sun’s role in British media is to act like a perma-howling Nelson Muntz, ha-ha-ing about everyone else’s misfortune.
Barker continues by noting that the value of The Sun is based on assumptions that the titles will not return to positive grown — the tabloid is in its death spiral — and notes that the consequences of its awful actions are still catching up to it:
Other one-off charges included £80m of legal costs relating to the phone-hacking scandal, including £52m of fees and damages paid to civil claimants. Total legal charges amounted to £54m in 2019.
In the same week that the calamitous accounts were revealed, NGN received a new kicking in the courts. As Byline Investigates reports, The Sun has been successfully sued for the first time on its own for unlawful information gathering.
Previously NGN had tried to keep up the pretence that the bulk of toxic practices had occurred at The News of the World, which Murdoch murdered and shoved into a shallow grave with unseemly haste in July 2011. But now ex-Lib Dem MP, Sir Simon Hughes, has won a settlement in a claim focused only on The Sun.
Rebekah Brooks, CEO of News UK since 2015, was cleared of phone hacking charges in 2014, which precipitated her return to the company. But she was editor of The Sun during the period covered by Hughes’ case and despite ‘see no evil, hear no evil’ denials by her over the years an email was raised in court this week that appears to show she was well aware of how ‘blagging’ was used to acquire information.
The email, which Byline Investigates first published back in 2017, shows Brooks — then Rebekah Wade — requesting as editor of The News of the World that the paper’s Head of Pictures Geoff Webster and its Associate Editor Phil Taylor ask a picture agency, Cruise Pictures, to find out the route Michael Barrymore took out of the country following an inquest into the death of Stewart Lubbock.
If Cruise could not give them the information, Brooks suggested that the paper might “try [to] blag it out of ba and air mauritius” two airlines. Two days after she sent that email, a five-page article appeared in The News of the World — with a front-page splash — detailing the paper’s ‘tracking’ of Barrymore, including extensive details of his travel arrangements.
The court heard that the Brooks’ email was, according to Byline Investigates, “passed along the News of the World chain-of-command allegedly to [Glenn] Mulcaire [a private investigator who was convicted for his role in phone hacking], who executed her request, via his ‘handler’ Greg Miskiw — the News Editor at the paper who was later convicted of phone hacking”.
On July 23 2009, the chair of the Press Complaints Commission (PCC), Baroness Buscombe sent a letter to Brooks asking her ‘help’ in countering “strong feelings in Westminster” that press regulation was not fit for purpose.
Buscombe — who was made a Conservative peer in 1998 — wanted The Sun editor, who was set to become News International’s CEO, to assure her that the PCC was taken seriously and that there was no need to reform the existing system of voluntary regulation.
It was like a hen dropping a note to the fox to ask whether the chicken coop’s security measures are sufficient. Brooks, wiping the blood and feathers from her face, replied to Buscombe on 14 September 2009, in a letter that was read out at her phone hacking trial in 2013. She told the PCC chair:
News International’s titles have always placed great emphasis on adherence to the PCC code of practice… any journalist who breaks the law during their employment is in breach of their contract of employment and as such liable to summary dismissal.
In any sane world, those words would have been accompanied by a swanee whistle and a laugh track.
Byline Investigates @BInvestigatesBREAKING: The Sun has caved-in on a landmark ‘phone hacking’ case https://t.co/uCP3MJ6Sc1 https://t.co/bWmi64nt0u
Hughes’ court case revealed how the paper gave him no choice but to cooperate in a front-page story about his sexuality in 2006, which ran under the headline A second Limp-Dem confesses: I’m Gay Too. Remember, that headline wasn’t written during Kelvin Mackenzie’s war on gay people during the eighties, it was splashed on The Sun’s front page by News UK’s current CEO in 2006.
NGN has now had to pay a substantial sum in damages to Hughes. He said he was “the victim of unlawful information gathering by various journalists and executives at the Sun” who were intent on publishing details of past relationships with men, which they did. Hughes explained:
This was to do with unlawful obtaining of phone bills by The Sun. This explains what happened 15 years ago when The Sun came to me and said they had information about my relationships. In this case, we know that it wasn’t just private investigators – it went right to the top. The people at the top were quite clearly involved.
The key point with the Hughes case is that the former MP had already secured damages for illegal activities undertaken against him by The News of the World. The new case was about The Sun and he won.
While Brooks was the ultimate boss, it was The Sun’s political editor, Trevor Kavanagh — still a columnist for the paper — who was sent to tell Hughes about the information it had on him and what it intended to do with it.
It’s not clear whether Kavanagh knew that the information he was pressuring Hughes with — records of phone numbers called along with the duration and frequency of calls — was illegally acquired. The data had been purchased from a private investigation firm called Express Locate International (ELI), which has been referenced frequently in other phone-hacking cases.
The court heard that during the Lib Dem leadership contest in January 2006, Kavanagh had told Hughes that The Sun had obtained private and sensitive data about him but didn’t reveal how. He went on to say that The Sun was going to publish a story that Hughes had ‘engaged in homosexual activities’.
Selective and tactical ignorance is a very useful tool to an unscrupulous journalist, but, of course, The Sun would never employ such a figure as its Political Editor for 22 years, nor keep him on as an Associate Editor and then columnist after that. And you’d be deeply cynical to suggest otherwise.
There’s a deep and grim irony that Hughes appears to have been blackmailed into discussing his same-sex relationships on the front page of The Sun, as he was first elected an MP as a result of one of the most homophobic elections in British history.
During the Bermondsey by-election in 1983, his party published a leaflet that declared the race — which featured sixteen candidates — was “straight choice” between Hughes and the Labour candidate and gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell, and male Liberal Party activists wore badges that read “I’ve been kissed by Peter Tatchell”.
Tatchell was assaulted, his flat was attacked, and a death threat including a live bullet was posted through his letterbox in the night. Anonymous leaflets asked, “Which Queen do you support?”
In the run-up to the election, The Sun — under the demonic leadership of that fully-animated giant anus endlessly spewing evil shit into the world, Kelvin MacKenzie — along with other tabloids including the Daily Mail had been engaged in an effort to ‘out’ Tatchell. Stick It Up Your Punter! : The Uncut Story of The Sun recounts:
… in common with all papers on the Street, The Sun had been assured by Labour right-wingers that Tatchell was indeed gay and desperately wanted to print the ‘news’. But none of the papers had any proof and like them, The Sun was restricted to describing him by his own euphemism as ‘an avid supporter of gay rights’, which was nowhere near as definitive.
After the paper’s Political Editor, Walter Terry, refused to bring in the story even in the face of one of MacKenzie’s screaming bollockings, the job of ‘proving’ that Tatchell was gay was dumped at the feet of the News Desk.
They received a tip that Tatchell had taken part in an event called the Gay Olympics in San Francisco.
A reporter established that Tatchell had been to San Francisco on his summer holiday and that the Gay Olympics had definitely been held there but it turned out that Tatchell’s trip had occurred after the event had finished.
Stick It Up Your Punter! continues:
Reporting this to MacKenzie, the hack said he could probably prove that Tatchell had met gay activists but that was all there was.
‘You’ve fucking let me down,’ MacKenzie raged at him. The hack said he would recheck everything, but came back with the same reply. There was no truth in it. Tatchell hadn’t been at the competition.
But the absence of truth was no problem for Kelvin ‘The Truth’ MacKenzie, the man who’d go on to smear the Hillsborough dead six years later. One of the News Desk’s old hands is reported to have told his colleagues:
When will you lot get it through your heads that Kelvin’s not interested in whether things are true or not?
What you’ve got to do is give him what he wants.
The task of making the ‘story’ work was handed to Phil Dampier — now a long-standing Royal hack but then a casual from Ferrari’s, the news agency owned by LBC shock jock Nick Ferrari’s father and one of MacKenzie’s former employers. Dampier joined the Bermondsey Labour Party under the false name ‘Phil Wilson’ and befriended Phil Corr, leader of the local Labour youth organisation.
Corr was used as the fall guy for the ‘gay exclusive’. On 25 September 1982, The Sun front-page splash was RED PETE ‘WENT TO GAY OLYMPICS’, with a story that claimed:
Left-wing Labour candidate Peter Tatchell upset his tough Dockland supporters, who say he has been to the Gay Olympics…
… and while those ‘supporters’ were not identified — because the aggrieved mob didn’t exist — poor old Phil Corr was quoted by name, nudged into commenting that “going to these Olympics is the last straw”.
Dampier danced a familiar tabloid dance by avoiding specifically claiming at any point that Tatchell had actually been to the Gay Olympics and included a denial buried in the final paragraph. It was a classic smear of the kind still found in the British newspapers on a daily basis — a claim, its source unclear, presented by trickery as a fact to all but the most careful of readers.
Tatchell later said he thought The Sun’s story was the worst in the vile campaign waged against him by the media. He lost to Hughes by 9,300 votes in an election that Gay News later called "the dirtiest and most notorious by-election in British political history". The Sun defended itself in a letter to Tatchell’s election agent, claiming in a line of such toxic disingenuity it’s surprising the paper it was written on didn’t spontaneously combust that “the single quotation marks in the headline indicate that it was reported information”. That trick is also still used daily.
The Sun got its final kick in — for the time being — with a full-page leader column on the day after the by-election, headlined THE TRUTH HURTS — LIES, SMEARS AND PETER TATCHELL. Though the same headline could have been slapped on an apology to Tatchell, the text obviously sneer at him, saying:
… Peter Tatchell casts around for excuses and villains to explain away the disaster at Bermondsey. He whines that he was a victim of a campaign of smears and lies… Peter Tatchell was a victim all right. A victim of the truth.
It took Simon Hughes 23 years to apologise for the Liberals’ tactics during the Bermondsey by-election that swept him into parliament. And it was only after The Sun blackmailed him into the front page ‘confession’ of his bisexuality that he told Newsnight:
I hope that there will never be that sort of campaign again. I have never been comfortable about the whole of that campaign, as Peter knows, and I said that to him in the past ... Where there were things that were inappropriate or wrong, I apologise for that.
Tatchell backed Hughes in the Lib Dem leadership contest saying that he had “redeemed himself by voting for gay equality” since his election to parliament. But in 2013, Hughes abstained on the final vote which legalised gay marriage and backed an earlier ‘wrecking’ amendment, saying he believed marriage “should be between one man and one woman”.
I mention this background to establish that there are very few heroes in the story of British politics and the tabloid press. While Hughes’ case has struck a blow to The Sun, he also benefitted from Rupert Murdoch’s malevolent machine in the past. He may never have become an MP had it not been for the antipodean autocrat’s anti-gay obsessions.
However Britain has changed, Murdoch is still the man who, in the early days of The Sun, responded to a feature by Nick Lloyd (now Sir Nick Lloyd and Claudia Winkleman’s step-dad) on what it was like to be gay in the 70s by spiking it and snarling: “Do you really think our readers are interested in poofters?” That same worldview was still in evidence years later, as reported by Michael Woolf in his book on Murdoch, The Man Who Owns the News:
Rebekah Wade, the editor of the Sun in London, recalls Murdoch telling a joke after a few drinks, as they wait for Robert Thomson1 to arrive at a posh London restaurant. "God this is brilliant...what's the difference between a fridge and poofter?" Murdoch booms to Wade. "Well, when you pull the meat out of the fridge, it doesn't fart!" But, then, seeing Thomson coming into the restaurant, Murdoch urgently whispers, "For God's sake, don't tell Robert what I said. He's a gentrified man...very clever."
That anecdote tells you a lot about how Murdoch runs his papers. He has The Times and Sunday Times to establish his credentials among the elites that he still absolutely despises and he has The Sun for showing his real thoughts.
While The Sun will continue to be battered by reduced advertising, declining print sales, further phone hacking settlements (cases brought by Sienna Miller, the actress, and former footballer Paul Gascoigne are ongoing), and the looming spectre of the Daniel Morgan inquiry report, the paper isn’t going to disappear any time soon.
Murdoch was literally hands-on in the creation of the tabloid version of the paper when he snapped up the old broadsheet incarnation in 1969. It represents more than just a business holding to him; it is a printed extension of his ego. He will not easily let go of the idea that it was “The Sun wot won it” nor of the hope that it might win for him again.
Of course, Kelvin MacKenzie, the most racist, homophobic, sexist, and sinister of Murdoch’s rabid dogs believes The Sun is struggling not because of the new media environment, an advertising crunch caused by a global pandemic, and changing public opinion, but because it’s simply not horrible enough anymore. MacKenzie’s Sun was not feisty — it was Britain’s biggest bully, harassment and terror protected by bylines and a billionaire proprietor.
The Sun lost the title of Britain’s best selling daily newspaper to The Daily Mail last year and now hides how many copies it sells after circulation cratered far below 1 million copies a day. In its mid-90s pomp, it shifted close to 5 million copies a day and while NewsUK trumpets that its Sun ‘brands’, including a lot of bingo and gambling sites, reach 36.5 million people in the UK, none of that business is as lucrative.
For now, The Sun isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on and Rupert Murdoch looks set for a lot more ‘most humble days’ of his life, but assuming that Dirty Digger, as Private Eye relentlessly calls him, is finished is as foolish as turning your back on an alligator. Even when they think he’s legally dead, they should check twice. And maybe stick a few more nails in the coffin lid just to be sure.
The former editor of The Times and now CEO of News Corp