The popular papers (now called tabloid) might have stayed popular. The Daily Mail actually did so, and while the News of the World fell 50% the Daily Mail gained a similar amount. The Mail’s fierce right-wing politics offend some liberals more than Murdoch’s do, maybe because unlike his they never change. But thirty years of development by strong, independent editors has given the Mail real capacity to handle complex issues as well as celebrity antics. If politics don’t interfere, the Mail’s account of a financial crisis may compare well with one in the Financial Times.

The media circus contains some spectators who can’t believe the decline of The Sun: how could Murdoch’s international flagship fail? In fact it follows logically from the story of the Sun’s rise, which was due to the epic failure of a mighty rival, the Daily Mirror, once king of Fleet Street beasts—a failure that Murdoch exploited.

At its peak, the Mirror seemed to defy Christiansen’s Rule of News. In September 1957, for example, most of the world’s front pages showed Elizabeth Eckford and the troopers at Little Rock. Mirror readers got the sub-Monroe Jayne Mansfield, headlined: HAS THE BUST HAD IT?
The Mirror’s own executives grasped that the paper, which had truly inspired wartime soldiers (many had never before read a paper), looked by the end of the 1960s like a lazy adult comic. Their research said something must be done if the Mirror’s market was to develop. But what?

From a tale of teeming follies that followed, the Murdoch-relevant parts may be briefly extracted: Mirror executives launched a sizable current-affairs section with no newsgathering resources to support it, and with a crude pedagogic tone. Instead of investing money, they raised the price to boost cash flow, cut the number of pages, and eliminated promotion. The Mirror’s attempt at a Mail-style up-market trajectory thus exploded far below orbital height, never to be relaunched. They were abolishing their brand.

But there was worse. The power-struggles among Mirror people might have intrigued Tacitus (they called their pub The Stab In the Back) and in 1968 the chief sub-editor, Larry Lamb, was unseated. Chief sub means chief editorial technician; Lamb was talented, and knew the paper uniquely well.

Meanwhile, Murdoch’s News of the World, being a Sunday paper, had presses with no weekday task, and he had acquired in 1969 a derelict left-wing daily, The Sun, to occupy them. Murdoch hired Larry Lamb to be The Sun’s new editor, and he proceeded to recreate it as a minutely detailed copy of the old Daily Mirror, giving more pages for less money than the ‘new’ one. It was heavily promoted too.

Thus Murdoch and Lamb pulled off one of the greatest of news-business coups, depicted in this graph. They took over the Mirror without buying the company. Economists couldn’t ask for a neater instance of substitution (‘rip-off’ was Fleet Street’s term). Murdoch’s Wall Street fans may say it makes him their ideal media-asset manager. But they must not call it creative. Note in the chart what happens after the Sun climbs past the Mirror in 1978-9. The two papers then decline jointly—and have done so ever since.

Perhaps Britain’s pop tabloids hardly matter. They had a chance to modernize and (barring the Mail) blew it. Once they’ve gone, News Corp. will just have to find other cash cows. But the Sun story, told in Stick It Up Your Punter: the Story of the Sun, by Peter Chippindale and Chris Horrie, has points relevant to the Journal’s future, which certainly matters.

It shows Murdoch incessantly invading Lamb’s editorial role—crushing or promoting stories, and terrorizing staff (Andrew Neil, later a Sunday Times editor, used the term “terorism.”) There was no ethical complaint: simply dismay at the boss’s ineptitude. His ideas were impractical and “wooden-headed,” Lamb found. Fearing to challenge the autocracy Murdoch imposed, they had to laboriously circumvent it.

Punter shows a Lamb-Murdoch operation able to steal the Mirror’s market, but unable to stem its own decay. The point is not that Murdoch interfered—there nobody expected otherwise—but that he didn’t know when it was counterproductive. Lamb succeeded with his Mirror recreation but a reader of the story can hardly imagine anything new developing. Continuing after Lamb’s departure, Punter records the Sun’s decline into the “bigoted, foul-mouthed fantasy factory” (as BBC media commentator Raymond Snoddy put it) that is visible today.

Though it may cause surprise, this lack of a populist technique is credibly documented. But does the Murdoch Touch apply better to quality papers (“Un-populars,” as Lamb once called them)? There is evidence from Murdoch’s Australian homeland.

Bruce Page is the author and co-author of several books, including The Murdoch Archiplelago, published by Simon & Schuster in Great Britain in 2003. He has worked for several newspapers, including the pre-Murdoch Sunday Times of London, where he led the paper’s investigative teams. He was editor of the magazine New Statesman between 1978 and 1982.