- Beset with woes, Rupert Murdoch is launching a new Sunday newspaper in the UK
- Steven Barnett asks whether it's the last gasp of Murdoch's newspapers in London
- He says it has boosted the morale of journalists at the troubled Sun newspaper
- Murdoch's company, News Corp., continues to investigate the practices of his newspapers
You just can't tell with Rupert. According to his friends -- and there are still many in journalism, even if British politicians are for once giving him a very wide berth -- this is Rupert Murdoch at his back-to-the-wall, defiant, unpredictable best: pulling rabbits out of hats, raising rock-bottom morale and announcing the launch of a new Sunday tabloid to replace the defunct News of the World. And not just "some time soon," but this coming Sunday.
According to his enemies -- and there are still as many of those as there have ever been -- this is Rupert at his cynical, death-defying, manipulative worst, seeking to convince the world that his Augean Stables have been swept clean and that his commitment to tabloid newsprint remains undimmed, even as rumors abound of more imminent arrests of Sun journalists for bribing police and other public officials.
So is the Sun on Sunday a last hurrah or a phoenix from the ashes? Probably a bit of both. There is no question that the announcement of its launch, coupled with reinstatement of those journalists who had been suspended following their arrests (unless and until charged), has raised morale at Murdoch's Wapping base in London. Proof, they say, that he still has newspaper ink running through his veins and -- while still committed to rooting out past criminal activity -- is intent on demonstrating that there is still a market for good, old-fashioned, raucous, tub-thumping Sunday tabloid journalism.
For anyone who cares about journalism -- and jobs for journalists -- that must be good news.
But even the less cynical must be asking themselves a difficult question about the new creation: Since it won't be paying private investigators for confidential information, or putting celebrities under surveillance, or hacking phones for gossip, or covertly paying police officers for scoops, what sort of newspaper will emerge from Wapping? And in a market of declining circulations, where the Sun brand is in danger of becoming almost as tainted as its now deceased News of the World sister, will it really make its owner any money?
Perhaps Rupert really doesn't care that much, and really does want to indulge his favorite child while demonstrating that even at the age of 80 he can still run a successful newspaper. And perhaps he still sees his newspapers as the route to that political clout that he had become accustomed to wielding so effortlessly in Britain and which -- conceivably -- may not be quite as enervated as some commentators assume and most detractors hope.
Either way, realistically the ultimate strategic decision will lie in New York rather than London, within the boardrooms of News Corp. and its institutional shareholders. Much as it might pain Rupert himself, the UK newspaper operation that once provided the fuel for his burgeoning empire is now little more than a flea. More worryingly, the flea is increasingly becoming an irritant and has the potential for infecting the whole operation should evidence of serious and endemic corporate corruption come to light.
News Corp's. Management and Standards Committee is still, as far as we know, rooting through over 3 million potentially toxic e-mails and is committed to exposing any wrongdoing in all News International titles. There is still plenty of scope for further scandal, further arrests, further ignominy for the British operation. It is quite plausible that sometime soon, New York will issue the death warrant for a very short-lived operation.
Assuming, however, that the death sentence is commuted and that Rupert can deliver a Sunday newspaper with all the verve, scoops and investigative flair -- but without the egregious excesses that have come to typify much of the British tabloid culture -- what next?
The Sun is currently selling around 2.7 million copies a day, slightly less than the 2.8 million circulation of the News of the World when it closed. Like all British newspapers -- and especially the tabloids -- it is on a steep downward curve: Ten years ago, the Sun was selling 3.5 million and the News of the World over 4 million.
Traditionally Britain, along with Japan, has been home to one of the most vibrant and profitable national newspaper markets in the world, but those days are ebbing away. As advertisers and readers desert to online (and free), the business model for tabloid newspapers is becoming increasingly precarious.
That's why it is very hard to be bullish about the Sun on Sunday, even if we attribute to Rupert the most benign of motives: If New York doesn't pull the rug from under his new baby, the inexorable logic of the market almost certainly will.
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