Does it matter if The Sun backs the Tories?

by Stephen Tall on September 30, 2009

suncover.jpg The Sun is shining on the Tories this morning, with the announcement by Rupert Murdoch’s tabloid that it will back the party at the next general election for the first time since 1992. Indeed, so proud was the rag paper of its announcement that they took the trouble to email Lib Dem Voice (twice) to let us know all about it – you see how much we matter to them!

The Sun’s endorsement of the Tories in not full-throated.

Most of its leader article is devoted to setting out the ways in which Labour has failed, rather than promoting the Tories’ policies. When the paper does turn its attention to the Tories, its backing is cautious:

… we believe David Cameron should lead [the next government]. Between now and the election Cameron’s Conservatives must earn voters’ trust by setting out their promising policies in detail. If elected, Cameron must use the same energy and determination with which he reinvigorated the Tory Party to breathe new life into Britain.

That means genuine, radical change to encourage self-improvers, not wasting time on internal party wrangling or pandering to the forces of political correctness. It also means an honesty and transparency of Government that we have not seen for years.

We are still a great people and, put to the test, will respond to the challenges we face. The Sun believes – and prays – that the Conservative leadership can put the great back into Great Britain.

In 1997, of course, The Sun’s support was even more conditional: ‘The Sun Backs Blair’ – their support was limited to the man rather than to the party. So it seems in 2009, with the paper seemingly investing its support more in Mr Cameron than the Tory party as a whole.

All of which is intersting for observers of politics and the media. The question being asked is, does any of this matter? Are readers influenced one jot by the endorsements of the papers they read? And anyway, don’t papers follow what their readers are telling them, rather than readers follow what their papers are telling them?

It’s notable, for example, that in Scotland – where the Tory recovery in the polls has been at best sluggish – the editor of the Scottish Sun is declining to follow the English paper’s lead. He may say he is “yet to be convinced” by Mr Cameron – more likely, he’s yet to be convinced it won’t damage the sales of his paper in a nation where the Tory brand is still toxic.

There are two reasons it does still matter to political parties who newspapers choose to endorse:

1) Credibility – this would be especially the case for the Lib Dems, as the party still has to conquer the view that a vote for the party is a wasted vote. If the party were to be endorsed by, say, the Independent and the Guardian (as happened in this year’s Euro elections – and much good it did us!) you can bet those endorsements would appear prominently on the party’s target mail to counter the idea the party doesn’t matter when choosing the next government.

2) The ‘drip-drip’ effect – more important than an endorsement in one editorial is the paper’s attitude to a party throughout the year. What helped sink Neil Kinnock in 1992 was not The Sun’s memorable light-bulb front-page on polling day itself, but the continual undermining of his leadership qualities in the paper’s political coverage in the years beforehand. Likewise for the Lib Dems, one editorial in the Indy/Guardian is of negligible value; but if the party receives decent coverage for its policies and leadership throughout the year, this is likely to have an impact on readers.