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How Murdoch’s many Suns play to both sides of Brexit

On September 5, as the UK’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson and opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn brawled in Parliament over Brexit and when to hold a general election, The Sun newspaper took a predictable stance, attacking Corbyn. Alongside an image of Corbyn’s face superimposed on the body of a chicken, the headline said “Corbyn clucks up Brexit! Is THIS the most dangerous chicken in Britain?”

But a few hundred miles to the north, readers of the Sun in Scotland got a very different cover, slamming Johnson with headline “Boz booted again … Floppy Johnson can’t get an election,” alongside a photo of the downtrodden prime minister.

One of the peculiarities of media in the British isles is the many faces of The Sun, the best-selling newspaper in the country, owned by one of the most powerful media moguls in the English-speaking world, Rupert Murdoch.

The national Sun title — the one concentrated in England — famously campaigned for Brexit (with a “BeLEAVE” cover), is anti-EU, and supports Johnson. Recent headlines include “Jez get on with it: Sun readers want a snap election to solve Brexit deadlock – and they want Boris to win.”

When Johnson ditched a joint press conference with the Prime Minister of Luxembourg due to protesters, The Sun deemed the decision to carry on with the press conference with an empty podium for Johnson as “staggeringly rude and utterly nauseating.”

But in Ireland, Johnson was called “NO SHOW BOJO.”

Several UK newspapers, like the Times and the Daily Mail, have multiple versions for different parts of the British Isles.

But few hold a place in the national psyche like The Sun.

It’s just business

While Murdoch has supported Brexit (he once said that the 2016 referendum was like a “prison break … we’re out,”) he’s also a businessman.

And Sun readers of those different regions — even if similar in social background — have very different politics.

“What’s interesting is as the views of those different [regions] have diverged, the views being expressed at those newspapers which have their own editors, have also diverged,” said Steven Barnett, a professor of journalism and communications at Westminster University. “That’s partly because they are being driven by what they know are the views of their readers that buy their newspapers.”

Like other media moguls, Murdoch holds a joint desire to make money and influence politics, said National Public Radio host and media correspondent David Folkenflik, who wrote a biography on Murdoch. And perhaps few of his properties help him achieve that wish as The Sun.

But The Sun hasn’t always been a Conservative-backing paper. Until Murdoch bought it in 1969 it was a left-leading broadsheet. Then, after decades of thunderous support for the Tories and especially Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, it flipped in 1997, urging its readers to vote for Tony Blair’s Labour Party.

For more than a decade after that, the Sun supported Labour candidates — except for a notable 2008 London mayoral candidate named Boris Johnson.

A year later, the shift back to Conservatives was complete, when the paper publicly announced it had lost faith with Labour under its leader Gordon Brown. At the time The Guardian described it as a move in line with “Murdoch’s policy … to always support political winners.”

Folkenflik told CNN Business in an interview that for Murdoch, there are “three legs” to the media company stool: profit, political influence and ideology.

“The ideology at times can be a little malleable with the intention to maintain influence and profit,” Folkenflik said. “Murdoch doing what he’s doing with [the different Sun editions] is consistent with his desire to maintain audience and maintain influence on leaders — and still shape the outcome of what’s happening,” Folkenflik said.

Political influence

It’s hard to measure the direct impact of a newspaper on a population, but one recent academic study suggested that after a region in northwest England around Liverpool boycotted The Sun, the area became more pro-EU (though others have doubted the direct correlation).

“I think the best you can say is that the relationship is reciprocal and that they will try both to reflect and to some extent to influence their respective audiences,” Barnett said.

Politicians though, have said they’ve felt pressure from Murdoch.

In 2012, former Conservative PM John Major said in a parliamentary hearing that Murdoch asked him to change policy on Europe, or else his newspapers would not support his government.

And much of that influence is through the Sun, which, Folkenflik said, is one of Murdoch’s “dearest” properties.

In a 2017 interview with the New York Times, the national Sun editor Tony Gallagher pointed out that his London office was the only paper owned by parent company News UK with a staircase having direct access to the management floor.

Murdoch isn’t necessarily dictating every front page or story; he is not in London as often anymore, although the current head of News UK, Rebekah Brooks, a former editor of the Sun, was once described as a “fifth daughter” to the octogenarian media mogul.

But Folkenflik said when he interviewed senior figures at Murdoch properties for his books, they said that Murdoch doesn’t need to be calling the shots everyday for people to know what he wants.

“He doesn’t have to tell you what to run because you’re thinking every morning what would he want to see,” Folkenflik said.

The view from the inside

But according to those who have worked in the top ranks of the newspapers, like Scottish Sun editor Alan Muir, having different editions is just shrewd business.

“The Scottish Sun has a separate editor (me at the moment) and we write for our own unique Scottish audience,” Muir said in an email. “Our edition can be entirely different from the national one — just as the Irish edition has its own identity, too. We have our own team producing our own stories, features and pictures – as well as Scottish columnists in news, business and sport.”

Scotland, England and Ireland have different politics. Those who might be deemed “populist” or “nationalist” in Scotland tend to be in favor of an independent referendum, but not in favor of Brexit. In England, “nationalists” or “populists” tend to skew in favor of Brexit.

Muir said the Scottish Sun has supported the Scottish Nationalist Party, which is anti-Brexit, since 2011 (the paper took a neutral view in the 2014 Scottish independence referendum.)

“We’re staunchly proud to be Scottish and hope that our paper and website reflects Scotland today as well as supporting our readers in their daily lives,” he said.

A staffer in The Sun parent company News UK’s Dublin office, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that they found the “whole circus” around the idea of different versions of the Sun “ridiculous.”

“If Ireland was playing England in the rugby or soccer, no one (would) bat an eyelid — or even expect — the coverage to be the exact same. It has been like that since day one,” the staffer said. “Match reports are framed for each audience. And it is no different with Brexit.”

At the national Sun, the audience is more of the “working class conservative,” said one former English Sun journalist who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

“They’re more like sister papers,” the former staffer said of the other editions. “We knew it looks strange for people on Twitter but we knew it wasn’t made for the people on Twitter. It’s not going to look strange to the readers in England who are picking up the English edition, or the Scottish edition. They’re not going to see the other one and they don’t really care.”

The former staffer said that although Murdoch was invested in The Sun and cared about it perhaps more than his other publications, the paper’s “number one priority” was staying in touch with its readers — so that they’ll keep buying papers.

“If they start advocating policies readers won’t agree with, then the concern is readers will stop buying and stop identifying with the paper,” the staffer said. “It’s important to the Sun to have the idea of a Sun reader as an identity. And so any weakening of what they see of the bond between paper and reader is very damaging in the view of the editors.”

CNN