‘Food and money and sex and crime’: how to be popular

IMG_1303‘… We acknowledged what many journalists were at that time anxious to forget – that the basic interests of the human race are not in philosophy, economics or brass-rubbing but in things like food and money and sex and crime, football and TV. But we did not deal with these things to the exclusion of all others.’ (Larry Lamb, Sunrise)

In 1969 Rupert Murdoch relaunched the Sun and turned it into the bestselling newspaper in the English language. How was it done? Larry Lamb, who was the first editor of the paper under Murdoch, tells the story in Sunrise.

Published in 1989, it’s also a pithy account of how to be popular. The success of the paper was driven by editorial gut instinct rather than data – helped along by an awful lot of marketing (giveaway knickers were the favourite. Graham King, who ran the promotions department, was writing a book about Emile Zola in his spare time.)

Here are some choice quotes:

(On the previous incarnation of The Sun, owned by IPC and given an overhaul by IPC’s then editorial director Hugh Cudlipp): ‘… The newspaper he produced, based so firmly upon the market research, was, like most such products in publishing, so smooth, so laid-back, so iffy and butty, as to be totally devoid of character.’

(On the brief conversation LL had about his contract with Rupert Murdoch after the long dinner that got him hired as editor): ‘The only thing I tried to insist upon was that I would be responsible only to the Chairman. I had seen too many editors struggling vainly to please managing directors who knew little or nothing of the creative process.’

(On the team they put together to relaunch the Sun): ‘We recruited… a handful of Fleet Street’s chronic unemployed, some of whose drinking habits had made them almost unemployable. We needed them as much as they needed us. On the whole, they did not let us down.’

‘…We could not, initially, write a Page One headline with more than three letter Es because in the largest size available that was all we had. There were many stores at that time about Europe, and the EEC. Neither the word nor the initial were popular with me. Both have two Es, leaving only one to play with…’

‘Apart from smelling better, it seems to me, women tend to work harder. They are often more receptive to change. And they are not short of stamina. Women who can handle a couple of toddlers efficiently cannot be short on stamina. Women who can handle a couple of toddlers and a demanding second job are nothing short of miracle-workers.’

(Of Val Hudson, who was taken on to write about prices and quality but then also wrote about her attempts to get pregnant): ‘capable of fine humorous writing – a rare quality…’

‘Most journalists are in the business because they like to feel they have a message of some kind. But it isn’t the slightest use having a message unless one has an audience.’

(Page One opinion, The Sun, June 1970): ‘The time has come, and The Sun would vote Labour. Not because the Government has been a scintillating success. It hasn’t. But because, all things considered, we believe Harold Wilson has the better team. Not only the better team, but a team which is more concerned about ordinary people. Concerned, too, about things like social justice, equality of opportunity, and the quality of living. These are things The Sun cares about. The Sun believes that Edward Heath cares about them, too. But we feel they are more likely to be lost sight of under a Tory administration. For Mr Heath is not the Tory party. And The Sun is not convinced that the Tory leopard has changed his spots.’

Beware the spike between the eyes

Sunrise is a vivid conjuring up of a time gone by, when it was possible for a newspaper sub-editor to lean down to get cigarettes out of a desk drawer and inadvertently spike himself between the eyes (as LL once did, before his editorship of The Sun, when working at the Daily Mail in 1957).

The spike was just that – a long, thin bit of metal for holding unwanted bits of paper. I never saw one in use, but this occasionally dangerous item gave the business of journalism a term that lives on – nobody wants their copy to be spiked.

Smoking in newspaper offices lingered on much longer. When I did work experience at News International in the early 90s, the cuttings library, which was stuffed with old bits of paper, had till very recently been regarded as a good place to go for a quiet smoke.

I also met a somewhat flushed old hack whose name I forget, who reminisced about the good old days when it was possible to down a bottle or two of claret before being dispatched onto a plane to do a story without the foggiest idea of where you were going or what you were meant to be writing about. The Martini-swilling ad men of Mad Men had nothing on the lunchtime boozers of Fleet Street in their heyday.

A few years earlier, in the late 80s, when I was 16 and on work experience at the Reading Chronicle, I was taken to see a printing press running full throttle, churning out copies of the paper. It was an awe-inspiring sight – and sound: power in action. It made a big impression on me, and it’s part of the reason why the newspaper industry in the last decades of the last century is going to form part of the backdrop to the new novel I’m starting work on (hence Sunrise: research).

Adventures on the wrong side of the law

In the late 80s (through to the 90s) journalists still used typewriters and the work experience’s job was usually to count the words in the copy. The court reporter at the Reading Chronicle kindly took me to court with him to give me something more interesting to do. A woman was up for shoplifting, though what she had nicked wasn’t worth much; someone else was in trouble because he’d got drunk and sat in the middle of the road with a traffic cone on his head.

They both looked crushed and thoroughly sheepish, though by then it was too late for regret. I realised how easy it can be to find yourself on the wrong side of the law, and my new novel will touch on that, too.

Food and money and sex and crime… these things are the lifeblood of newspapers then as now. And of fiction, too.

Naturally, there’s a place for animals as well. The chance to win a pet was one of The Sun’s most successful promotions in the 1970s, alongside football stamps (and giveaway knickers). These days, everybody loves a cat on the internet, right?

Yes, there are new ways of finding and reading and watching what interests us. Times change, and the past really is another country. But a good story will always catch the eye, draw us in and get us to turn the page, whether or not it’s on paper.