Using the boot to generate news

8:33 am - April 23rd 2008

by Adam Bienkov    

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Boris Johnson brushed clouds of doubt aside yesterday as The Sun newspaper endorsed him for Mayor of London. In a double page spread, Britain’s highest-selling paper told their readers to kick out “Caracas” Ken and vote in “Mayor Race Favourite” Boris.

The London edition of the paper also devoted their entire Sun Says column to the race, urging their readers to pick “a new and fresh Champion for London”. And just in case their readers still didn’t know how to vote the paper included a handy how you can vote section.

Of course The Sun’s endorsement of Boris Johnson should come as little surprise. Boris is in many ways the ideal Sun candidate. Here is a public school toff posing as a friend of the working class. A man who speaks almost entirely in mockney puns without actually saying anything even mildly offensive to Murdoch and his chums.

Quite simply he is a win-win candidate for the paper. If he fails as Mayor then he provides acres of stories and if he succeeds as mayor then nothing is lost. Even if he does fail, a Mayor Boris can blame all of his failures on a hostile Labour government. This in turn would be a plus for Murdoch, as he would have yet another stick with which to whip Brown.

In fact there are increasing signs that this will be the Tory tactic if Johnson becomes Mayor. In recent weeks Boris has proposed a range of policies that the Conservatives know he has no chance of getting through. These policies include local control of the smoking ban, building an airport in the Thames Estuary, and a new pledge to retain criminal assets.

When the government says no to these policies, the Tories and their pals in the media will turn, not on Boris for making hollow promises, but on the Labour government for holding Boris back. “Here is an example” they will say, “of why we need to boot Labour out.”

So as the Tory press come out for Boris, you have to ask yourself what their real reasons are. Boris’ mates in the media, like his mates on the front bench, know full well how unreliable Boris can be. Boris has made great play of having run The Spectator but even Boris’ pals know how little he actually did. Because they all know that he is not capable of running the capital, but at the same time they don’t really care.

Last summer I was working at a national newspaper office as the Glasgow airport attacks were taking place. There was a rush of excitement as pictures of the burning car were beamed onto their screens. “Has anyone been hurt?” somebody shouted. “Has anyone been killed?” The look of disappointment when he heard that nobody had, has stayed with me ever since. Some parts of the the press want the worst to happen.

A recent advert for BBC News has Robert Peston gloating about being the first to report the collapse of Northern Rock. “There was no doubt,” he says with a smile, “that this was a BBC story.” However, as one person writing in to the channel pointed out, there was also no doubt that this was a story about lots of people losing lots of money. “What is there to boast about,” the viewer asked, “in hearing bad news a few hours before everyone else?”

So when the Tory press come out for Boris, are they really just getting the bad news in early?

This is the way the country is going they say. You won’t be voting Labour in the future so let’s get going now. Labour is last year’s news and we have a ‘new and fresh Champion’ for you. Of course they know that Boris won’t make things better, but at the same time they’ve got headlines to fill.

So when they tell their readers what’s best for them, are they actually thinking about what’s best for themselves? And with both main parties so close in policies, will these other factors come to the fore?

When the next general election comes around a change of government will mean more news. So when the press consider who to endorse, are they asking “what’s best for Britain?” or simply “what’s the worst that we can get?”

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About the author
Adam Bienkov is a regular contributor and also blogs at Tory Troll, Guardian CIF, and New Statesman
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Debates ,Economy ,Mayor election ,Media

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Reader comments

Excellent article.

I have had a similar theory about the Iraq War for a while. We paint Murdoch as a neocon, but what we’re forgetting is that, to his core, he’s a newspaperman. Iraq meant headlines!

BJ-the-mayor-bear will definitely mean headlines (although, let’s be fair, Ken has hardly knuckled down and kept a clean sheet, has he?).

I don’t go in for all the BoJo is a racist etc. He’s not. Boris is a really compelling character. He’s intelligent and I think his (classical) liberal leanings are endearing. But the guy is simply not suitable to run a large metropolis (or a hotdog stall by the sound of it), and I can’t help but think he’ll be a complete disaster for the Tories.

We shouldn’t get carried away and think the Conservatives have suddenly become a competent alternative, they’re still the shower of shit they were 10-years ago. They just have a new sheen and a fresh line in smug bullshit.

Thanks Aaron. That’s a good point about Iraq. The war has been big business for Murdoch, especially through Sky News and Fox.

On Ken though, I think that unless he wins the election, his headline winning days are over. Even if he does win it, I think most of the press, including the Standard will back off. They’ve tried all they can to replace him with someone else and if they can’t manage it this time then there’s not much hope for them at all.

In the short term though a Ken victory would make big headlines in the sense that it would be read as a sign of the declining influence of newspapers. If the Standard with it’s huge monopoly cannot kick out a Mayor after the campaign that it’s run, then it really has very little influence at all. Ken’s place in history as one of the most electorally successful politicians would be assured, but more importantly the press’ much courted role as a decider of elections would be fatally knocked. For me that is reason enough, to keep Boris out of City Hall.

Seems like you’re searching for a narrative where none is required. You say yourself that BoJo is exactly the kind of candidate the Sun loves to endorse, so why read more into it?

4. Kate Belgrave

‘A Ken victory would make big headlines in the sense that it would be read as a sign of the declining influence of newspapers. If the Standard with it’s huge monopoly cannot kick out a Mayor after the campaign that it’s run, then it really has very little influence at all.’

This is an important point & I’m glad you raised it. I understand (mostly from Private Eye) that the Sun itself has lost a lot of circulation under Rebekah Wade, so it will be interesting to see when the MSM’s declining reach starts manifesting itself as declining influence on elections, etc.

I had assumed that the Murdoch press had turned against Brown already. It will be interesting to see if that makes the difference in the general election, or whether political bloggers will have more influence and be able to counteract the Murdoch juggernaut…

I know I’m a fantasist…

Both main parties and the rest of the media will have read much more into this than The Sun just backing somebody they like. This is the first time The Sun have backed a Conservative candidate since the early nineties and if Boris wins it will be a huge boost not just to the Tories but also (as they see it) to those papers who backed him.

Also, the narrative has already been set by the press that this is a ‘proxy war’ for the general election even though that doesn’t really bear out in the polls. Because it is not me creating a narrative that does not exist. These narratives have been consciously created by the press.

A win for Boris would not mean a public endorsement for Cameron any more than a win for Ken would mean an public endorsement of Brown. But it doesn’t matter. The narrative has already been created, and to an extent the newspapers stories already written. A change of government boosts sales and boosts story opportunities. It will have done The Sun no harm to have nudged that process along.

Ken Livingstone looks and sounds like a throback to reactionary 1980s left wing politics, a southern version of Dereck Hatton, but without the dress sense, the charisma or the wit. Ken livingstone has turned London into a City where it is more socially acceptable to murder someone than light a cigarette or drive a (shock horror) car. London is a dump and the sooner someone runs it as a city rather than an experiment in social engineering the better.

Fair enough, Matt.

But, and I’m being Super Serial here, do you really think Boris is the man to run London professionally?

London needs a Bloomberg, not a blooming clown.

Ken livingstone has turned London into a City where it is more socially acceptable to murder someone than light a cigarette or drive a (shock horror) car.

You are mentally ill. Consult a psychiatrist.

For as long as I can remember the question of how much influence the mainstream media in general and the Murdoch press in particular has in the outcome of general elections has always been another of those ‘chicken or egg’ questions. They probably have some, but newspapers like to back winners. The Sun can no more forge a story about the general election from the London mayoral race than a football writer can claim Chelsea’s equaliser in last night’s European Cup tie will propel them to victory in the Premiership title race.

Perhaps it’s just that I’m not reading widely enough – and I don’t read the Sun – but I haven’t seen this narrative about London being a proxy for national politics. The fact that Livingstone is the Labour candidate will cost him a lot of votes, yet many of the people who give him their second preference votes would never consider doing so for Brown. They will do so because they don’t identify him with the party all that strongly. If he wins, all it will signify for the Sun is that it backed the losing candidate, perhaps even that it read the mood wrong. While newspapers may be losing power anyway, if they had much to start with, this is not something that can be inferred from a Ken victory.

It’s not really about London elections being a proxy for national politics, it’s the fact the sun has come out on the side of a tory so prominently. As the OP says, the intrigue is in if this is to sell papers and capitalise on bragging rights or whether it is a shift in strategy for the paper politically on the long road.

I don’t think this is all the OP was trying to say, but if so it’s not a very original point. What it breaks down to is that the Tory press is once again taking the Tories seriously, which has been happening since the Conservative party ditched IDS and noticed by everyone under the sun.

The ‘proxy’ narrative has been parroted by almost every newspaper and broadcaster there is. On May 2 the story in the papers will either be ‘Boris win signals next beginning of end for Brown’ or ‘Ken clings on in huge blow for Cameron.’ Even if the difference is only a few hundred votes, the papers will still run with those completely opposing lines.

The point of the OP is that sales and narrative are far more important to a paper like The Sun than policy, or the candidate. The majority of journalists pushing Boris know what he is really like and they know because he has been a big part of their business. Murdoch knows this as well as anyone as Boris was sacked from one of his own papers (The Times). Despite this knowledge, they will still push for him because it fits in with the existing narrative, is a good story and good for business. It has nothing to do with them taking him seriously.

As New Labour in general has done virtually nothing carrying even the smallest risk of upsetting Rupe and as Ken so delights in slugging it out with one of Rupe’s most hated competitors, I really can’t see any reason other than headline generation for his papers backing the Tories in London or nationally.


The second part of your last post I completely agree with. But nevertheless I still think you are exaggerating the importance of the proxy narrative. Despite the large amounts of publicity given to the mayoral election, it is still a predominantly local affair centred on the personalities and policies of the candidates. I’m not arguing that the outcome has no nationwide significance at all, nor that some newspapers might not run headlines on May 2 like the ones you mentioned. But the ‘proxy narrative’ is secondary to what is anyway a very interesting race. Which is why I think you are trying to hold together too many disparate points in this OP.

So the Sun is “using the boot to generate news” in London? Well, okay, but you also admit that BoJo is the kind of candidate you would expect them to support (which Ken certainly isn’t) so then again maybe they’re not.

So the Sun is “using the boot to generate news” in London, and this is because “they’re getting the bad news in” ahead of a general election? Well perhaps, but we’re on pretty shaky ground now. This is an election in which the Labour party has been somewhat in the background, and we’re not even sure about the original premise, that the Sun is backing Boris because he’ll generate a lot of news as mayor rather than because they want to stick it to Ken.

Ignore my last two pars, which veer away from my central point and may possibly appear to contradict my agreeing with you about that the media creating narratives. The main thing is that by superimposing a story about national politics into what is first and foremost a local election, your argument becomes a little too tenuous.

I was putting questions rather than giving answers. As I said, the proxy argument isn’t mine (and neither is the headline to this piece) although there is some truth in it. It is largely a local election but no election is just a local election. Boris knows this which is why he constantly refers to Ken as ‘this Labour Mayor’ and Ken knows this which is why he constantly refers to the the last Tory government and their abolition of the GLC. The Sun also know this which is why the day before they endorsed Boris they ran a Kavanagh editorial about getting rid of Ken to get at Brown.

If Boris wins it will be for a variety of reasons both local and national. This is ultimately up to the voters. My own piece is about the motivation of the press in so fully endorsing such a dodgy candidate in such a close election. Again it is probably for a variety of reasons, but I still think that they are interesting questions to ask. Especially in the run up to what may be an even closer general election.

Sorry if I’ve come across as overly critical. It was my intention to be critical, but constructively so I hope. Especially as I agree with you on the fundamental point of what motivates the press. While I do believe that the OP is placing a little too much significance into the Sun’s endorsement of BoJo, I may be just splitting hairs.

Newspaper sales are one of the best (they are daily) and most easily misinterpreted opinion polls out there. Each newspaper only survives because it has carved out a niche for itself and from which it creates its perspective, but they are a filter for opinion, not the source or the overall measure.

I think it is informative that while the cheap and vulgar Sun has offered an endorsement the same cannot be said for it’s stablemates at Murdoch towers. Why are they so reticent?

The Sun, being more downmarket and widely-read, has a reach that makes it more sensitive to these subtle changes in nuance and therefore a better barometer of political taste (amongst it’s readership) – so we shall see whether the headlines transfer into higher or lower sales figures used as evidence to determine where the political momentum resides.

It’s the archetypal inexact science, but then it is all about re-inventing the wheel.

I’m definitely biased on this subject, but I predict the News Corp execs will see conflicting evidence from this gambit – if Boris wins the mayoralty, then The Sun will further continue it’s long-term slide; if Ken gains a repeat victory, The Sun and Evening Standard will form a more cohesive and popular front against him and Labour.

I suspect, however, that the more establishment tomes will remain tentative and above the fray, reflecting the real divisions in their opposition.

There is still all to play for, because while Brown’s Labour may be wounded, it isn’t dead yet, and Cameron’s Conservatives are not completely convincing.

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