The Media Today

Britain’s government has changed. Will its relationship with the press?

July 9, 2024
Labour leader and incoming Prime Minister Sir Keir Starmer and wife Victoria Starmer greet supporters as they enter 10 Downing Street in London. (Photo by Fred Duval / SOPA Images/Sipa USA)(Sipa via AP Images)

Last week, The Sun, a right-wing British tabloid, splashed the front-page headline “TIME FOR A NEW MANAGER.” The backdrop depicted a soccer stadium, but the paper made clear at the bottom of the page that it wasn’t talking about the coach of the England soccer team, which is currently competing at the European Championships in Germany, but rather the country as a whole. In an editorial, the paper said that while it supported many policies pushed by Rishi Sunak, the incumbent prime minister—including a scheme to send asylum-seekers to Rwanda and a ban on “harmful gender ideology in schools”—his Conservative Party had become a “divided rabble.” Despite numerous reservations, the paper said that it was “time” to back the opposition Labour Party instead. The next day, Britain voted, and Labour won in a landslide.

The Sun’s endorsement is A Moment in any British election campaign, and it has a storied history: in 1992, the paper famously declared that it was “THE SUN WOT WON IT” after warning its readers not to vote for Labour; in 1997, it dramatically switched to Labour after Tony Blair, then the party’s leader, aggressively courted the paper’s owner, Rupert Murdoch. As I’ve written before, it was unclear even at that point whether Murdoch has the power to anoint winners or merely backs the party that looks likely to win anyway. Adding to that long-standing debate is a newer one as to whether newspaper endorsements are still relevant in the digital age. Some observers maintain that they still have the power to set the agenda among elites and for the rest of the media, though others argue that they don’t change many actual voters’ minds.

Still, The Sun’s latest endorsement of Labour—its first since switching back to the Conservatives ahead of the 2010 election—was a striking symbolic moment. It channeled public exhaustion with the Conservatives after fourteen years in power. From a media point of view, it also demonstrated the fickleness of Britain’s right-wing press—a point of difference, for all its sins, with its increasingly Trump-loyal US counterpart—setting up what will be an interesting dynamic as Britain enters a new era of center-left government. It also pointed, albeit indirectly, to the relationship between Keir Starmer, the new prime minister, and the press—a long and intertwined one, even if Starmer comes from a very different world from that of, say, Boris Johnson, who was himself a journalist before entering politics—and how it might, and might not, presage a break with the media policies of Johnson and his other Conservative predecessors.

Starmer cut his teeth as a lawyer before being tapped, in 2008, to lead the prosecution service in England and Wales—a tenure that coincided with the phone-hacking scandal that engulfed Murdoch’s UK media empire in the early 2010s. Starmer was accused by some critics, including a panel of lawmakers, of not doing enough to investigate possible abuses earlier; in the aftermath of the scandal, he also set out guidelines clarifying that journalists found to have broken the law might not be prosecuted if their work was in the public interest. (He later advocated enshrining this defense in law.) And yet Starmer’s office did prosecute a number of journalists and executives for their role in the hacking, including Andy Coulson—a Murdoch editor turned Conservative adviser, who went to prison—and Rebekah Brooks, a senior Murdoch lieutenant, who was acquitted. Starmer later defended the failed prosecutions as necessary to establish who knew what. “There was a feeling that journalists were above the law,” he said in 2014. “I don’t think there is that feeling any more.” (Brooks, for her part, is now back overseeing Murdoch’s UK titles—including The Sun, which just endorsed the man who tried to jail her.)

Press Gazette reported in 2012, however, that many British journalists felt their profession had become the target of a “politically motivated witch-hunt.” And, in addition to the hacking cases, Starmer was in post for at least part of a push to prosecute over two dozen journalists who were alleged to have paid sources for information; one pleaded guilty, but only one other was convicted by a jury, and that verdict was later overturned. At the time, journalists who were charged expressed anger about the way they’d been treated, and The Guardian reported in 2022 that Starmer’s role in the probe remains a source of “bitterness” for some older journalists at The Sun, where most of those charged worked. In 2021—after one of those journalists, John Kay, died—his former colleague Tom Newton Dunn accused Starmer of having “broken” him. According to Dunn, after Starmer became a lawmaker in 2015, Sun executives suggested he apologize to those charged as part of a “truce.” But he never did.

The occasional article like this aside, this part of Starmer’s legacy has not been widely discussed since he took over as Labour leader in 2020. In 2022, Johnson did accuse Starmer of spending “most of his time prosecuting journalists,” though media attention rightly focused on the second part of that remark, in which Johnson baselessly insinuated that Starmer had failed to prosecute Jimmy Savile, a prolific child-sex offender who worked at the BBC. Since then, the long tail of the hacking scandal, and the official inquiry that followed it, has come up again in Parliament: last year, the Conservative government moved to ax a law (that was never enforced) aimed at incentivizing publishers to sign up to a state-backed regulator that the inquiry proposed. Labour voted against scrapping the provision in its entirety, but not without some ambiguous back-and-forth. And party sources suggested that they no longer backed reinstating a mooted second phase of the inquiry that the Conservatives had scrapped a few years prior.

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Indeed, this ambiguous, decidedly low-key approach to Murdoch-related press reform has arguably echoed Labour’s media policy as a whole since Starmer took over. He and other members of his team have promised in recent years to make major social media platforms pay news outlets for content, crack down on libel laws that have allowed Russian oligarchs and others to bring frivolous cases against journalists, and protect the BBC from political meddling while strengthening its public service mission. But beyond a couple of vague references to “working constructively” with the BBC, and harnessing it as a source of “soft power,” Labour’s formal election manifesto was devoid of explicit media policy. As Press Gazette has reported, Lisa Nandy, the new culture minister, has in the past suggested a more democratic, decentralized management model for the BBC. But for now, her plans remain unclear. 

And if Starmer has stressed the importance of journalists’ work—both as watchdogs and as a “common thread” binding Britain’s “national story”—he has been accused in the past of not taking local journalists’ questions at his events and of treating national outlets unevenly. Yesterday, Politico reported that Labour officials caused “a stink” among reporters after predetermining who would be able to ask questions following a speech by the new finance minister, though she did take at least one query from a reporter not on the list, “opening the door,” Politico said, “to a change in press relations.” Generally, if Johnson’s vibe, for example, was one of disingenuous chaos, Starmer and his allies have worked to sculpt a highly disciplined self-image—projecting integrity and respect for traditional institutions, but also a certain stage-managed aloofness.

And Starmer’s press relations bear signs of continuity from those of predecessors belonging to major parties, from small things (his supporters booing a tough question from a journalist here; a wager with a journalist there) to much bigger things—not least his reported courting of Murdoch and his titles, which has been much more noticeable than any explicit promise to regulate them going forward. When he ran to be Labour leader in 2020 (on a notably more progressive platform than he ended up adopting once selected), he told party members in Liverpool—where The Sun is still widely loathed for coverage seen as demonizing fans of a soccer team who were killed in a stadium crush in the eighties—that he wouldn’t talk to the paper during his campaign, but after winning, he wrote for it. Earlier this year, a Guardian journalist described Starmer’s team as being “obsessed” with whether The Times, another Murdoch paper, would endorse Labour in the election. In the end, it did not, instead publishing a bizarre editorial endorsing no one. But its Sunday sister paper did back Labour. As, of course, did The Sun.

Which brings us back to the debate over the relevance of endorsements in the fractured media landscape of 2024. An important subtext to this debate is that while the explicit backing of previously hostile papers might not mean much in a positive sense, putting an end to that hostility does matter. But, as The Guardian’s Archie Bland argued earlier this year, if Starmer is not “doing a bad job of putting himself on the right side of the dividing lines drawn by his longstanding antagonists,” he “does not appear that interested in drawing them himself,” in a country whose right-wing media is still setting the tone of the political debate despite many voters having grown sick of right-wing government. And it strikes me that a return to hostilities is likely once Starmer’s political strength starts to wane and the disparities between his project and those of the right come into sharper focus. Starmer needs to understand that Britain’s biggest newspaper companies “will never be his friends,” David Yelland, a former Sun editor, said last week. Any “honeymoon period” with the right-wing press “will be very, very short.”

Two right-leaning outlets have, at least, recently run op-eds describing Starmer as sexy. (“I expected a honeymoon,” The Economist’s Duncan Robinson wrote, “but I didn’t expect it to be this horny.”) But he is already coming in for a kicking from other parts of the right-wing press. Much of it has come from outlets that were never going to back him. The Mail, which echoed Conservative fearmongering about a Labour “supermajority” before the election (even though this isn’t a thing in the UK), has moved on to fearmongering about Starmer’s betrayal of Brexit (including via Johnson). The Telegraph, a Conservative bible, is portraying Starmer as a dangerous socialist

For its part, The Sun’s print front pages since Starmer won have focused on his defense minister visiting Ukraine (a trip that a Sun reporter took part in)—and the footie, with England now Euro semifinalists. Late last night, it also published a story warning of “SMUGGLERS’ JOY” at Starmer scrapping the Rwanda-migrant plan. “We will hold Labour to account, without fear or favour,” the paper said in its endorsement last week. “But we wish them every success.”

Other notable stories:

  • The Post’s Jeremy Barr reports that Reid Hoffman, the LinkedIn cofounder, has made a major investment in the voting-technology company Smartmatic, a move intended in part to help fund defamation lawsuits that it brought against Fox News and Newsmax over their coverage of Trump’s 2020 election lies. (A Fox spokesperson accused Smartmatic of trying to chill its First Amendment freedoms and described Hoffman as “a high profile Democratic donor and longtime supporter of President Biden.”) An adviser to Hoffman told Barr that the investment is in line with Hoffman’s desire “to support the role of the legal system in arbitrating fact from fiction” and protecting America “from MAGA.”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.