Was 22 March the start of a new era at The Sun?

Snoddy: Was 22 March the start of a new era at The Sun?
Cole interviewing Starmer on new Sun show

A positive football story, a YouTube interview, a feature on two leading women… another dramatic political front page may be incoming.

Whether they realised it or not, earlier this month The Sun produced a politically significant — maybe even historic — front page.

On 22 March, the paper that has spent years assiduously attacking Sir Keir Starmer, splashed on a story that was positive about the Labour leader. It may have been about football rather than his fitness to be the UK’s next prime minister, but it was positive all the same.

Sir Keir, who still plays football, was joining the fan revolt against Nike mucking about with the cross of St George on England shirts. He told The Sun that he was against the change, called for a rethink and also attacked the high prices fans had to pay for their national team shirts.

This splash enabled Sir Keir to get the boot into the Nike decision and The Sun to have an exclusive.

What was much more intriguing was how the paper got the story in the first place.

No room for Sunak

In common with many other newspapers, The Sun has been launching more television content on YouTube: in this case, a new politics show — Never Mind the Ballots — fronted by political editor Harry Cole. And who did they choose to launch the show with but the devil incarnate, Sir Keir, to face questions from Sun readers.

Note that they did not ask the prime minister, Rishi Sunak, who would presumably have been delighted to appear in such an environment; if not him, chancellor Jeremy Hunt would have been able to spare the time.

But, no, it was Sir Keir. And although he was asked tough questions on everything from his support (or lack of it) for the triple lock for pensioners to his attitude to rejoining the EU single market to whether women could ever have testicles, they were fair and reasonable.

There was one exception, which flowed from Harry Cole’s total ignorance about what lawyers do. Cole has had a previous bite at this canard and should have learned his lesson, but clearly hadn’t.

In January, after a detailed investigation led by Cole, The Sun exposed the dastardly legal deeds of Sir Keir. The charge sheet was that he had worked for free to help “scores of twisted killers around the world — including a monster who buried his two-year-old stepchild alive”. What a terrible man he must be, a poorly informed Sun reader might have thought.

What was actually happening was that Sir Keir, an ardent opponent of the death penalty, was representing pro bono those who presumably had no other means of high-level representation and trying to save their lives. To use an Irish technical term, Cole made a total eejit of himself.

More Labour coverage

Cole was at it again in the recent Sun session, accusing the former director of public prosecutions of taking money to advise a jihadi group when he was a practising barrister. Sir Keir explained, as if to a child, that everyone is entitled to have their case represented and some might be bad people you did not agree with. “Lawyers give legal advice… doctors treat patients,” he explained.

The main point is that Sir Keir was there and was treated in a fair way rather than facing a traditional Sun monstering.

Cole was a very busy boy in the 22 March edition of The Sun, with a page on the “Battle of the Iron Lefties” featuring Angela Rayner in the “deepest red corner” and Rachel Reeves in the “red corner”.

His conclusion was that, if Reeves really is going to be the new Iron Lady, an early battle she is going to have to win is against her comrade Angie.

Again, a perfectly reasonable debate. But, above all, it raised the profile of two of Labour’s leading women with Sun readers.

Not quite a reverse ferret… yet

Was 22 March the day when you could see the ice starting to melt in The Sun’s previously glacial relations with Labour?

No big U-turns or reverse ferrets yet, but a gradual thaw that could continue if, week after week, polls show Labour leading the Conservatives by more than 20 points. To make matters worse for the Tories, Reform UK is taking increasingly large bites out of their right-wing backside.

Younger readers may not know that there have already been long inter-glacial period before in The Sun’s relationship with Labour, reflecting in particular Rupert Murdoch’s desire to back winners.

There was the glacial period under Kelvin MacKenzie and The Sun front page on election day 1992: “If Kinnock wins today will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the light.”

Then came 1997 and “The Sun backs Blair — give change a chance” front page that led to the tabloid supporting Labour with varying degrees of enthusiasm for 12 years.

This was followed by another dramatic Sun front page under the premiership of Gordon Brown in 2009 saying that, after 12 years in power, “this government has lost its way. Now it has lost The Sun’s support too”. The headline read: “Labour’s lost it.”

Nearly 15 years later, with plots swirling around the head of Sunak and a likely drubbing in the local elections on 2 May, The Sun could easily brush off the cobwebs on an old headline and eventually declare once again that this government has lost its way.

The time for another political inter-glacial period is already overdue. It could well have started on 22 March 2024.

Raymond Snoddy is a media consultant, national newspaper columnist and former presenter of NewsWatch on BBC News. He writes for The Media Leader on Wednesdays — read his column here.

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