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The BBC's Chris Hogg
"As newspapers fight ever harder for their market share, they're obliged to listen more closely to their readers"
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Former Tory Defence Secretary Malcolm Rifkind
"This country is not governed by The Sun"
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Thursday, 8 March, 2001, 12:56 GMT
Sun still shines for Blair

How the paper announced its decision
The Sun has announced it will again be backing Tony Blair at the general election, writes BBC News Online's Chris Horrie.

The influence of newspapers on the way people vote has long been debated by politicians, academics and journalists themselves.

The Sun is courted by all politicians because its sales are concentrated in belts of marginal constituencies in the south and south east. It is also read, politicians believe, by millions of people at election time who do not normally follow politics very closely.

Which is why The Sun's statement - "Blair gets our support for a second term" - is big news.

Tony Blair should clear the decks and call the election. He should do so quickly. It is crystal clear that the election is in the bag - Blair has done enough to win our backing.

- The Sun's verdict on the 2001 Budget
The consensus is that The Sun has immense "negative" power. The paper cannot get people elected, but it is believed that it can do immense damage by running sustained and brilliantly entertaining "knocking campaigns" designed to destroy political reputations.

No party in the last 30 years has won a general election while facing concerted personal opposition from The Sun.

In the closely fought 1979 election which brought Margaret Thatcher to power, the paper did not so much back her Conservative campaign as put the boot into Labour incumbent James Callaghan.

Sunny winter

The paper pictured Callaghan in shirtsleeves and sunglasses during an international summit in the Caribbean while people in Britain shivered in freezing conditions and endured public service strikes.

The paper quoted "Sunny" Jim as saying: "Crisis, What Crisis?" and then coined the slogan "Winter of Discontent".

Sun owner Rupert Murdoch opposes Blair position on Europe
"Winter of Discontent" passed into the language, and it was later thought that Callaghan had no chance after that.

The Labour Leader Michael Foot received some of the most vicious - and funny - "knocking" at the hand of the paper. The knock-out blow, many were later to say, was a front page picture of Foot wearing a duffel coat with the headline DO YOU REALLY WANT THIS OLD FOOL TO RUN BRITAIN?

In 1992, opinion polls showed that Neil Kinnock was likely to win the general election and defeat the incumbent Conservatives under John Major or that, at least, the result would be very close.

But in the final week of the election campaign a series of devastating personal attacks on Kinnock seemed to deter enough potential supporters. The Conservatives got back into power with a solid majority and The Sun ran a headline claiming to have "won" the election for Mr Major.

Major attack

Then it was Prime Minister Major's turn to get the "monsterisation" treatment.

After deeply personalised headlines like NOW WE'VE ALL BEEN SCREWED BY THE CABINET - linking the ERM economic crisis to backbench "sleaze" - it was clear that Major and his government were going to get both barrels in the 1997 election.

The Sun didn't shine on former Labour leaders Kinnock, Foot and Callaghan
For years Labour strategists went around saying that they had little chance of getting into power unless they could at least "neutralise" the negative "knocking" power of The Sun.

Many of the changes made by the party were designed to give The Sun less ammunition. Out when donkey jackets and in came smart business suits. Off the cuff remarks were banned as pagers arrived to make sure everyone was "on message".

Shortly before the 1997 general election, Labour persuaded The Sun not only to spike it guns, but to turn them on its Tory rivals - and The Sun found itself on the winning side once again.

Both the new Prime Minister, Tony Blair, and Rupert Murdoch, owner of The Sun, certainly thought it had played a vital role in the election.

Agenda setting

In 1992 Murdoch had said his papers could "set the agenda" for politics as well as influencing the outcome of elections.

To the Labour team's delight The Sun decided to back Mr Blair personally (though not the Labour Party as such).

After his landslide victory Mr Blair wrote to thank the paper's editor, adding: "You really did make a difference."

Sun editor David Yelland promises not to give Blair an easy ride
But within a year the Sun looked like it might again change its stance. The paper showed the government its teeth with an extraordinary personalised attack on the Prime Minister.

"Is this the most dangerous man in Britain?" the paper asked, alongside an article criticising his policies on Europe.

By November 1999 Labour strategists were facing up to the fact that they might have to do without The Sun's support in the forthcoming general election.

Blair himself hit out at The Sun and other tabloids for peddling "anti-European nonsense" in their reporting of proposals for the EU military rapid reaction unit.

"I'm used to the British media being impossible on the topic of Europe, but I hope the public will be given the facts," Mr Blair raged at a press conference in Moscow.

But this week the paper endorsed Labour's pre-election Budget and again got behind Tony Blair on a personal level.

The paper's approach is that all politicians are pretty reprehensible and The Sun will back the "least worst" choice.

Only time will tell if it has maintained its form by backing another winner.

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See also:

24 Jun 98 | UK Politics
Blair "most dangerous man in Britain?"
24 Dec 98 | UK Politics
Press roasts Labour
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