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Murdoch's Sun: politics and scoop

business Updated: Feb 18, 2012 15:41 IST

Rupert Murdoch's Sun newspaper prides itself on an aggressive reporting style that has delivered decades of sensational scoops and made it Britain's best-selling newspaper. But now it is the one being scrutinised, and it doesn't like it one bit.

Murdoch bought the Sun in 1969 and swiftly turned it into an irreverent muck-raking tabloid that came to be loved and loathed in equal measure by the nation it reported on. In a decade, circulation rose from 800,000 to 4 million.

At times jingoistic, always merciless towards its targets, but unswervingly loyal to its proprietor, it established itself as a national institution that could not be ignored.

But now the hunter has become the hunted. The cheeky "red top" tabloid has been dragged into a damage limitation exercise launched by its owner, News International, after evidence of widespread phone-hacking led Murdoch to shut down the Sun's sister Sunday paper, the News of the World, last July.

Keen to put its house in order, the company set up a secretive committee of lawyers, police and executives who are holed up in soundproofed offices sifting through millions of Sun records for traces of wrongdoing.

As a result of the committee's work, 10 current and former Sun staff have been arrested over suspected corrupt payments since November and many of the Sun's current crop of journalists fear they are being sold out by Murdoch despite their loyalty.

"The Sun journalists are extremely angry with Murdoch. He's shattered that special bond between him and them. They feel they're being scapegoated," Roy Greenslade, who was number three at the Sun during its heyday in the early 1980s, told Reuters.

The paper's woes mark an incongruous low point for a tabloid that is used to setting Britain's political agenda and one that can make or break the reputation of politicians and celebrities.

"Prime ministers pick up the phone"

A measure of its perceived power was the presence of then Prime Minister Gordon Brown and his successor-to-be, David Cameron, at the 2009 wedding of Rebekah Brooks, then the editor of the Sun.

Such clout, be it real or imagined, has seen politicians of all stripes pay court to Murdoch and the Sun for decades hoping to avoid a similar fate, although some influential figures in politics and media say they were misguided.

Conservative grandee Chris Patten last month told the Leveson inquiry into the ethics of the British press, triggered by the News of the World scandal, that politicians "demeaned themselves" by "grovelling" to newspaper editors and owners.

"There's plenty of evidence that in some cases, particularly News International newspapers, they back the party that's going to win an election. They give you what you don't need," he said.

"When the editor of the Sun calls, prime ministers pick up the phone," Tom Watson, a lawmaker who has taken a leading role in parliament's efforts to hold News International to account since the phone-hacking scandal broke, told Reuters.

The Sun lampoons or vilifies those with whom it disagrees so fiercely that politicians are terrified of it, Watson said.

It revels in simplistic jingoism too, rudely attacking Britain's European partners, as in the famous "Up Yours Delors" front page of 1990, an insult to the then head of the European Commission, Frenchman Jacques Delors.

To the horror of Argentina, that jingoism was on display in 1982 when the British navy sunk the Argentine warship General Belgrano during the Falklands war. The Sun's stark banner headline: "GOTCHA".

The paper has also angered women by continuing to serve up a daily diet of topless "Page 3 girls". It revels in show business gossip in its "Bizarre" pages and loves titillating headlines such as last week's "I slept with 1,000 men but I used to be a man myself."

Glory Days

Regardless of the outcome of the drama playing out at the Sun, some media insiders say its glory days are over.

"The truth is the Sun has passed its sell-by date," said Greenslade, also the author of an authoritative history of the British press.

He cited steadily declining circulation figures, an ageing readership not being replenished by young blood and the fact that the Sun's saucy content cannot compete with the internet.