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Saturday, 9 June, 2001, 08:52 GMT 09:52 UK
It's the tabloids wot lost it
David Yelland
Losing influence? Sun editor David Yelland
The Conservatives were not the only losers in the general election, writes BBC News Online's Chris Horrie. The tabloids, too, have lost much of their influence.

It was also a humiliating defeat - measured in terms of blunted influence and expensive circulation losses - for Britain's tabloid newspapers.

After the tightly-fought 1992 election the Sun claimed it was its coverage "wot won" the election for John Major, quoting grateful Conservative MPs who said that the paper's hatchet job on Labour leader Neil Kinnock had made all the difference.

This time the paper, in its first edition, meekly printed a "heartwarming" picture of Tony Blair's dad and had him saying IT WAS MY SON WOT WON IT.

Murdoch
Rupert Murdoch: His papers could once make or break politicians
The Daily Mail - another tabloid once seen as politically crucial also found itself dishing up humble-pie.

Throughout New Labour's first term the constant accusation was that Tony Blair and his advisors never made an important move without considering "how it would play the next day in the Daily Mail".

Middle England

The great fear was provoking one of the Mail's trademark ferocious and highly personalised front page denunciations which, it was reckoned, had tremendous impact with the voters of "Middle England".

Larry Lamb
Larry Lamb: Sun editor in the 1970s
This time the Mail grumbled rather than roared its way through the campaign. The Mail did not even feature the election as its main front-page story on polling day, opting for the tribulations of TV star Michael Barrymore instead.

Like the politicians themselves, the tabloids have been suffering from same boredom with the political process measured in falling circulation (their own version of "low turn out").

Tightly fought

When editors looked at overnight circulation figures they were reportedly shocked to find big drops in sales whenever they ran a political story on page one.


SHAMING OF BARRYMORE

Biggest story in Britain on election day, according to the Daily Mail
(The Daily Star took the point and, in effect, decided to ignore the election entirely, using it to conveniently fill up page two - "the graveyard page" which according to newspaper lore nobody ever reads).

All the media like a tightly fought election simply because it is more dramatic and, importantly, can be treated exactly like a big TV sporting event, supplying material for endless "who do you think's going to win, then?" coffee break discussions.

Sun "Manifesto" shock

The huge scale of Labour's lead turned the political equivalent of an exciting and finely balanced World Cup final (which the whole population, and not just fans, might watch out of interest) into something more like an obscure and one-sided qualification match: Portugal v the Faroe Islands - strictly for the anoraks.

With the sporting aspect of the election contest removed, all that remained was the tedious business of egg-head policy analysis.

The Sun, amazingly, launched itself into this unfamiliar territory on day one of the campaign, producing a SUN MANIFESTO in the form of an eight page "pull out" policy analysis section (known in the business as a "pull out and throw away" section) which was soon littering the top decks of the nation's buses.

"Screwed by the cabinet"

The great thing about elections - previously - for the Sun and other tabloids was that, unlike the TV and radio stations, they are free to be as biased and one-sided as they like.

The result in previous, closer elections was a series of amazingly rude and brilliantly cruel personalised put-downs - the process of "monstering" - combined with bias so extreme it was funny and reader-friendly.

It was said that John Major's hair turned white after the Sun "monstered" him with the headline NOW WE'VE ALL BEEN SCREWED BY THE CABINET - linking the issue of Tory "sleaze" to the massive mortgage interest-rate hike after the ERM crisis.

But the fine art of "monstering" is much more difficult in an age of bland and media-trained politicians.

There are no more entertainingly nutty "wild eyed Trots" - a great source of superbly funny "Loony Left" stories on the Labour side and precious few "Hang 'em and flog 'em" foghorn Tories to liven up events.

Since the Labour party got in the spin-doctors (ironically to protect themselves from the tabloids) there's been no more making up policy on the hoof, no more way out characters, weirdies and beardies to have a go at.

Politicians are now on constant gaffe alert and potential offenders are actually hidden from view for the duration.

Power

The main exception - and unexpected - exception this time was John "Two Jags" Prescott who, to enormous tabloid delight, produced something (at last!) to write about with his famous TWO JABS punch.

For a couple of days the election came alive for the tabloids.

On the Tory side, Hague himself got a taste of the old monsterisation process, portrayed first as a dithering Bridget Jones, then a circus clown and finally described as A CLOT in the super-Labour-loyal Mirror group newspapers.


If you think Blair has done OK - VOTE LABOUR; But if you think Blair has let you down - VOTE TORY

The Sun's advice to readers

But none of it had the glory days tabloid wit of the portrayal of Neil Kinnock as a malfunctioning lightblub or the Daily Mail's devastating DO YOU SERIOUSLY WANT THIS OLD FOOL TO RUN BRITAIN headline printed above a picture of former Labour leader Micheal Foot caught looking like a tramp, stumbling over his walking stick and being dragged along the street by his dog.

In an age of political blandness, big majorities and with the growing importance of TV and the internet, the power which made politicians fear what the tabloids could do to them, is on the decline.

The real significance of Election 2001 may yet turn out to be the liberation of ministers from what, at times, was the tabloids' collective rule of fear.

For pictures of some of the more notable front pages of the campaign, click on The campaign in front pages in Related stories

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