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FORTY YEARS OF THE SUN
By Torin Douglas
BBC media correspondent
This week marks the 40th anniversary of the Sun hitting the newsstands. It’s a peculiarly British creation which has wielded tremendous power over the years, but is it finally showing its age?
It’s 40 years since the launch of the Sun - the most consistently influential British newspaper of modern times.
Yet the paper has been reluctant to celebrate the birthday - and with good reason.
Brief history of Page Three
For the Sun that was launched on 15 September 1964 was not the “super soaraway Sun” of the 70s, the Sun which rewrote the tabloid rulebook and “Wot Won It” for the Tories in the 1992 General Election.
In fact, the original Sun was launched partly to stop that sort of populist, right-wing paper and, ironically in hindsight, to protect the position of the established Labour tabloid, the Daily Mirror.
The 1964 Sun was a broadsheet with high aspirations and ideals, based on copious market research.
It billed itself as “the newspaper born of the age we live in”, and was designed to tap into the lifestyle changes of the 60s - the rise of the young and upwardly-mobile, including career-oriented women.
The broadsheet Sun was launched by IPC to replace the Daily Herald, a trade union broadsheet making big losses.
THE SUN RISES
1964 - launched as broadsheet based on Daily Herald
1969 - New owner Rupert Murdoch launches tabloid
1970 - After 12 months, Page Three girls remove tops
1978 - Sales of four million overtake the Mirror’s
1982 - ‘Gotcha’ headline marks sinking of Belgrano
1989 - Hillsborough disaster
1992 - It’s ‘The Sun Wot Won It’ for John Major
1997 - The Sun backs Blair
Because IPC also owned the left-of-centre Daily Mirror - then Britain’s most successful tabloid, with almost 5 million sales - it didn’t want to launch a head-on competitor.
But the losses continued and in 1969 the Sun was sold to Rupert Murdoch, who relaunched it as a brash, unashamedly downmarket tabloid.
Under its first editor, Larry Lamb, it followed a popular formula - sex, sport and sensation.
It wasn’t new, but the Sun went further than its rivals. When it ran a picture of a topless girl, later putting it on Page 3, a social institution was born.
Fulfilling the adage that no one went broke underestimating the taste of the public, the Sun’s sales soared, while those of the Mirror - which had started to take itself rather seriously, with a pull-out analysis section called ‘Mirrorscope’ - fell away.
In 1978 the Sun overtook the Mirror to become Britain’s biggest-selling daily paper - and it also became the most influential, setting an irreverent tabloid agenda that was to rub off both on broadsheets and broadcasters in years to come.
The papers’ political leanings have wielded great influence
Despite its predominantly frivolous content, the Sun also acquired significant political influence, thanks to its penetration of the all-important C2 voters (the skilled working class).
It took political reporting and comment seriously, and at the General Election of 1979, it helped Margaret Thatcher sweep the Conservatives to power.
The Sun hadn’t always been Conservative. It proclaimed no allegiance, preferring to describe itself simply as ‘radical’.
In the 1970 election it had supported the Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson.
When he lost unexpectedly, it switched its support to his Tory successor Ted Heath, later losing faith with both sides.
But in Mrs Thatcher it found a true radical, backing her to the hilt as she vowed to take on the trade unions.
It was Larry Lamb who came up with the headline ‘Winter of Discontent’ to sum up the strikes that dogged the Labour Government and on polling day in 1979 the Sun came out firmly for the Tories.
Lamb was rewarded with a knighthood in the New Year Honours List.
Another, very different editor embodied the Sun in its heyday - the legendary Kelvin McKenzie.
In the Thatcherite 80s, the paper struck a harsher, more belligerent note. McKenzie dominated the paper with his energy and flair for a story and a headline, constantly administering “bollockings” to those staff who failed to meet his demanding standards.
During the Falklands War, the Sun became a cheerleader for Mrs Thatcher with headlines such as “Stick it up your Junta” and, after the sinking of the General Belgrano, “GOTCHA”.
Even McKenzie acknowledged that this headline went too far, removing it in later editions.
But his biggest misjudgement - for which the Sun was still apologising earlier this year - was over the Hillsborough stadium disaster in 1989 in which 96 football fans died.
The paper claimed Liverpool fans had picked the pockets of victims and beaten up a policeman. There was an immediate boycott and sales in the city have still not fully recovered.
In the 1992 election campaign, the Sun ruthlessly ridiculed the Labour leader Neil Kinnock and McKenzie later claimed it was the “the Sun wot won it” for John Major.
During the Falklands War the paper backed Thatcher
Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell decided that if Labour were ever to win, they must at least neutralise the paper. They succeeded beyond their hopes, winning its backing both in 1997 and 2001.
Yet in recent years the Sun has lost much of its confidence and its instinctive ability to make a splash, unlike its sister paper the News of the World.
The Mirror’s Piers Morgan - until his recent departure - was the editor grabbing the exclusives, even though that didn’t translate into sales and commercial success.
Rebekah Wade, the current Sun editor, has yet to make a similar mark.
The Sun comfortably outsells the Mirror and remains hugely profitable.
But its sales are down more than 5% year-on-year, and since it found itself in the new Labour camp, its heart has not really seemed in it.
It backed Blair on Iraq but remains fervently anti-Europe, and can’t bring itself to love the new Tory leadership.
Forty years on, the brash young upstart is showing its age.