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It is, I think, a good idea to confront one's prejudices from time to time, and it would be hard to be more prejudiced than I am against The Sun newspaper.
I hardly ever see The Sun in the usual way of things, let alone read it, yet if you asked me to describe it I would have no difficulty in trotting out at least a dozen derogatory adjectives, the most polite of which you will see listed as "Disadvantages" in the summary points above. The fact that The Sun is part of Rupert Murdoch's media empire only serves to redouble my bias against it.
The trouble is that I'm such a sad case of bleeding-heart liberal that I'm not truly content to live with knowing I'm prejudiced. So when I saw that the Ciao competition for May was for reviews on sun-related topics, I decided it was time I bought a few issues of The Sun and made a serious attempt to read and assess it. To put this subjective assessment in perspective, I also looked out a few basic facts about the newspaper.
~ Vital Statistics ~
The Sun is a tabloid newspaper published in and distributed throughout the UK by News Group Limited, a subsidiary of News International plc. It appears daily, six days a week. Cover price, Monday-Friday, is 30p. This is competitive but not the lowest in its sector of the market (e.g. the Daily Mirror is 35p, but The Star is 25p). Saturday cover price is 50p.
Average circulation per issue was 3,258,502 in the year to April 2005 (source: Audit Bureau of Circulations), some 38% higher than the next highest among national dailies (Daily Mail).
Average readership per issue among adults (aged15+) was 8,825,000, in the year 2004 (source: National Readership Survey), some 49% above the next highest national daily (in this case, the Daily Mirror). Nearly one in five adults in the UK reads The Sun.
Although its socio-economic profile tends towards the less affluent end of the market, it still has more readers in the ABC1 group (approx. professional, managerial and white-collar) than any other daily except the Daily Mail. It is particularly popular among young people (22.5% of all 15-44 year olds read The Sun, almost exactly double the percentage reading the runner-up Daily Mirror), and among men (21.8% of all versus 13.6% for the Daily Mirror). Additionally, however, it is still the best-read national daily among women as well as men.
~ Salient Features ~
Those numbers are formidable. Even though there has been a slight decline in both circulation and readership recently, The Sun is evidently still doing something right, or it wouldn't be bought and read by so many people. What, one wonders, is it that it does so right?
The four specimen issues in front of me average 72 pages, each with 24 pages of advertising (additionally, three of them have advertising supplements each of twelve pages). So for his or her 30p, the average punter is usually buying about 48 editorial pages. Of these, about half have colour, mostly full-colour. Paper quality and colour reproduction are adequate rather than outstanding. As so often with mediocre newsprint, the black ink does tend to rub off on the hands.
What do the 48 editorial pages contain? I invented some rough categories and subjected the sample issues to an analysis, with the following results:
News, UK domestic: 9% News, international:
2% News, sports: 23% News, popular culture/celeb: 5% News, business/financial: 1% Human interest stories: 6% Features, UK serious topics: 6% Features, international serious: 1% Features, sports: 5% Features, business/financial: 1% Features, popular culture/celeb: 17% Glamour pics (not illustrating news stories): 1% Cartoons, puzzles, competitions, offers: 8% Horoscope, problem advice: 4% TV&Radio listings, entertainment guide: 9% Letters page: 2%
A rough breakdown of 40% news, 30% features and 30% other is unremarkable for a newspaper. What is remarkable is the breakdown of news and features by topic:
UK domestic news and serious features: 15% International news and serious features: 8% Business and financial news: 2% Human interest stories: 6% Sports news and features: 30% Popular culture and celebrity news and features: 22%
The "serious" content of the newspaper is thus just 25%, and as we shall see below, it is questionable how serious much of even this 25% actually is. International topics command just 8% of The Sun's attention, and this figure would unquestionably have been lower if one of my sample issues hadn't happened to contain The Sun's 'scoop' of Saddam Hussein photographed in his prison underwear. Business and financial topics merit just 2% - one page in the average issue.
Meanwhile, sports topics alone account for nearly a third of the newspaper's editorial pagination. This may have been exaggerated in my small sample, in that the Manchester United takeover and Liverpool's Champions' League victory were current and heavily featured in two of the issues, but it is not much lower in the other two.
Popular culture (film-stars, soap-stars, pop-stars, etc), meanwhile account for nearly a quarter of editorial space. Given that there is a crossover between the two topics in that sports stars are celebs in popular culture, and given that there is a celebrity element to the What's On and listings pages, it is fair to say that well over half the newspaper is devoted to the celebration of celebrity in the sports and entertainment industries.
~ The Treatment ~
Subject-matter is one thing. Treatment is another. It hardly needs stating that the same story will be treated very differently in The Sun from how it might be in, say, The Times or The Independent.
The Sun treatment is heavy on headlines and pics, light on body copy and in-depth analysis.
Front pages in particular tend to carry at most three stories, with the lead story dominating over half the page, in the form of a big pic and short banner headline. No story is allowed more than about a hundred words on the front page; they are always continued within. Even within, however, the visual approach is maintained: over half of the average page is devoted to pics and headlines, rather than to text.
The headlines are predictably sensationalistic. Words like "Shock", "Sex", "Fury", "Scandal", "Chaos", "Hell", "Drama" and "Miracle" are the stock building blocks from which headlines are constructed. Needless to say, any celebrity connection is exploited, even if the story is not ostensibly about a celebrity. Sometimes the connection is virtually non-existent; for example, a story about a murdered schoolgirl describes her as a "showbiz hopeful", which later turns out to mean no more than that she "dreamed of being a singer, model or actress".
Similarly, headlines can be contrived to convey a sensational implication absent from the story itself. Anyone glancing at the back cover with the headline "KNIFED" accompanying a pic of a dismayed-looking Alex Ferguson might conclude that he had been fired. Only on reading the small print does one realise that all that is being said is that his position could be threatened by the takeover, something one might reasonably have concluded without The Sun's guidance.
There was, however, much less than I had expected of The Sun making itself the story, or of self-congratulation. It would be unrealistic to think of this newspaper as self-effacing, but it is more so than in the bombastic days of the 1992 election ("It was The Sun wot won it!"). Even in the case of the Saddam story, one reaches the third paragraph before being told that it is a world exclusive for The Sun. Modesty indeed, by past standards. I did, however, notice a story deep inside one issue - headed "We put perv DJ in dock" - that had unedifying echoes of the vigilante sex-offender witch-hunt of a few years ago.
When one reaches the small print, the news stories and features are generally written with a succinct professionalism. Sentences and words are kept short, with little verbal flamboyance. Overstatement and insinuation are left to the headlines. Maybe the publisher's assumption is that Sun readers have small vocabularies and short attention spans, but if one reads every word, The Sun is rather a dull read, albeit a quick and easily-absorbed one.
~ Visual Stimulation ~
A picture is allegedly worth a thousand words, and I'm sure this is a philosophy to which The Sun subscribes. The archetypal Sun picture shows a celebrity, preferably looking either ecstatic or distraught, but, either way, ideally in a state of undress.
Some readers may have been surprised to see, in my analysis above, that glamour pics (i.e. scantily clad women in suggestive poses) account for only 1% of pagination. But there I counted only pics that appear as stories in themselves, rather than illustrating stories. If one added in pics illustrating stories, the count would shoot skywards.
For example, a story about supermodel Kate Moss in Cannes for the film festival is ornamented with three pics or her in swimsuits, one topless. Another pic, beside a story about a soap star, shows her lying on a sofa, stocking-topped thighs parted invitingly. "Dear Deidre" - the agony aunt page - is always accompanied by a 'photo casebook' of near-naked pics. And, in one issue, I even found nipples on the City Page, surely an unorthodox guide to stock selection.
The Sun was only really running true to form when it led the paper with Saddam in his underpants.
~ Points of view ~
But, you may be thinking, looking beyond content and treatment, what about The Sun's opinions? Aren't they famously strident, populist and rabble-rousing?
In fact, to judge just from these four issues, no, not particularly. Maybe, in the aftermath of the election campaign, the newspaper had decided to give political topics a bit of a rest, but I doubt it was just this. For a start, political and social opinion takes up very little of the paper's space, as can be seen from the analysis above.
Predictably perhaps, The Sun was vociferously in support of Blair's simplistic stance on yobbish behaviour, all the way down to supporting the ban on "hoodies" at Bluewater. Regular columnist Richard Littlejohn tends towards right-wing tub-thumping, but is perhaps too much of a maverick to be predictably typecast. And, contrary to my expectations, I also noted that:
- there was nothing at all in the political features about European issues, and only one news story that seemed to me to display an overtly anti-European bias.
- the one leader on immigration, though taking a predictable side-swipe at UK citizens on incapacity benefit, was positively enthusiastic about East European immigrants.
- there was a welcome, and rather witty, article by Boris Johnson, fulminating against the ID card scheme, something I would have expected the The Sun to support.
Above all, though, the prevailing impression is that such issues are not truly important to The Sun, not compared with, say, a top footballer's transfer or soap star's sex life.
~ The Bottom Line ~
So, The Sun is mostly about celebs, and its approach is salacious, scandal-mongering, and sexed-up with saucy pictures.
No surprises there, you may be thinking. But, in fact, I was a bit surprised. I had expected more of a news-reporting, campaigning newspaper, however much I might have winced at the thrust of its campaigns. Since I haven't read it regularly in the meantime, I can't tell whether subsequent editors have subtly shifted its positioning from its heyday under Kelvin MacKenzie in the 1980s and early 1990s. Unless my memory is playing tricks, there was more content then with a claim to be addressing serious subjects, however brashly and tendentiously it did so.
Now, under Rebekah Wade's stewardship, it seems to be morphing into a cross between Hello and FHM. As a result, I was less annoyed by it than I expected - I've nothing against nipples, after all, even on the financial page - but I was also less interested and less impressed.
This was not just because the lives of celebrities, even in their scandalous aspects, hold little interest for me. It was more because the paper seemed to me to be a little lacking in just those qualities - pizzazz, verve, even chutzpah - that I had most expected to find it in, both because of its track record and its reputation. Where were the headlines to match "Gotcha" or "Up yours, Delors"? In fact I was not disappointed by its banality, which was only as expected, but by its lack of sparkle. It seemed surprisingly flat, and formulaic rather than fresh.
Even as I write this, though, there is a nagging voice in my mind that says: "Whatever you think, over eight million people read this paper every day, and eight million people can't be wrong. They can - and some of them may, for all I know - be tasteless and trite, but not wrong. The Sun must have done it's research and be reflecting their tastes in its content. You're just too old and obtuse to spot what the paper's doing right for them. Maybe they like it formulaic rather than fresh."