The Sun: Too sexy for its’ shirt

sunfpI must admit to have gleefully joined in the Twitter chorus of condemnation over The Sun’s front page splash this morning showing the woman murdered in Oscar Pistorius’s house on Valentine’s Day, Reeva Steenkamp, posing provocatively in a bikini.

Disrespectful to the dead woman and her grieving family? Yes. Leering, sexist and tasteless? Undoubtedly. In many ways the Current Bun cannot complain. Not for the first time its’ misjudged the public mood. From ‘Bonkers Bruno’ to Hillsborough the title has a long charge-sheet of cock-ups most of which stem from under-estimating the humanity and sympathies of Britain.

Yet the newspaper is the most successful for a reason, namely that most of the time it gets the treatment right, whether or not we agree with its’ politics.

Yesterday it ran a page 2 lead “Lib Doom” on the flimsiest of pretexts; an anonymous Lib Dem source expressing fears the Tories will use behind-the-scenes coalition debates against the party at the next election. It was a sorry excuse of a story, but it was engaging and well-written with a catchy headline. I disagreed with the story but could not fault its’ presentation.

And herein lies the rub. The Sun excel in the art of tabloid production. Accessible design and headlines and a concise blokey writing style with the readers’ instincts, eyes and prejudices in mind. It’s an art-form sadly under threat in this tabloid age of smart-phones and tablets. However it jars with my sentiments the Sun is always a joy to consume for its’ journalism and visual layout. Well-presented colourful bite-size snacks that feed the pallet but don’t weight down the stomach with information.

Of course I enjoy the broadsheets too and I guess I am naturally a Guardian-reader by instinct. But as informative as the Grauniad is, too often it feels like a groaning heaped plate of food delivered out of a cement-mixer. Long pompous sentences boasting four commas where full stops would suffice, it leaves you feeling full-up half-way through an article.

As wrong as The Sun have got the Steenkamp murder story, every day it produces a good 60-odd pages of quality tabloid fare that is often inspired, sharp, funny or plain revolting. Of course the paper often plays fast-and-loose with the facts (any newspaper that does not, no matter how up-market, please throw the first stone) so it cannot object to the barrage of criticism this morning. If you live by the sword you die by it.

It’s headlines frequently crystallise and define issues for the whole nation. Yet the creativity that goes into producing such a paper every day does mean that in many ways it is living on the edge. Every so often its’ inspiration fails and it ends up relying on its’ prejudices or chauvinism.

The Sun has always been too sexy for its’ shirt and just like Right Said Fred they offer a cocktail of entertainment, self-deprecation and plain preposterousness.

In the Steenkamp case it was the right front page story with the wrong treatment. The headline was uninspired, and use of the bikini picture lazy and misogynistic. However I wondered, coming hot on the heels of Rupert Murdoch’s tweet expressing doubts over Page 3, it was ironic to see Page 3 transposed to Page 1. A message, perhaps, from the paper to its’ proprietor?

Clearly this wasn’t one of its’ better headlines, yet aren’t we being a bit hypocritical in our condemnation of the paper I wondered after joining the masses in firing off a couple of outraged tweets?

All this week The Sun’s front page headlines have all hit the mark. Yesterday it was “Shock telly blunder: ITV chump flashes pic of Kate’s bump” – okay not brilliant but certainly a talking point – and Wednesday they went with “Exclusive, Mum Speaks: I ripped my baby from jaws of fox”, a good story well-delivered even if the fox threat is being hyped-up beyond justification.

But that’s The Sun for you. Always clambering for attention, forever trying to catch the mood and quite often succeeding but occasionally failing spectacularly. Often they try to shock, like printing a pictured of the bloodied and dead Gadaffi with the headline “That’s for Lockerbie”.

I suspect that such instances where the paper appears to lack humanity for life is down to the fact that the paper is stuffed with educated middle-class hacks writing principally for the working classes and sometimes relying on stereotypes as a compass.

That said, I still admire The Sun for practicing the art of tabloid journalism at the cutting edge. As a former tabloid editor myself, running the African and Caribbean weekly the New Nation, I aspired to the highest standards of presentation but strived to also uphold the principles I hold dear and use the paper as a force for good. As the Daily Mirror often shows the art form can be used for the right reasons.

Yet amid the front-page stories calling for justice for victims of racism I was not above running with an entertainment story, not least because I answered to a managing director and board who were nervous about all this conscious politics stuff.

The deal was I would publish what I liked on the inside pages but would carry ‘heavy’ and ‘light’ front-pages on alternate editions. One week I was feeling particularly peeved about this and decided to run with a completely vacuous story about a beef between two ‘video vixens’. It was a terrible story probably lifted from Media TakeOut, and was illustrated by the two bikini-clad ‘vixens’ in question facing each other.

I thought at the time: right, if my bosses want a light non-story this will teach them! How wrong I was! On deadline day the newsroom all gathered around to admire the front-page and tell each other how good it was. One staff member told me: “Now this is why I love working for this paper!” I thought, what was wrong with the last front-page calling for reparations for slavery?!

The video-vixens splash went down a treat, much to my dismay. I never repeated the trick but it reminded me of the desire to gossip about news.

Ultimately tabloids are what they are. They are papers with life, with loud voices, with laughs, sometimes with tears (albeit crocodile ones!), but most importantly they passion and heart. They paint pictures for our visual minds, know what they want to say and speak straight to the reader.

They are risk-takers and have their faults like any living human. They say stupid things sometimes but are still loved for who they are; flawed passionate creatures.

And that’s the point. They should be judged not merely on their mistakes but their whole personality, including what they get right. I view newspapers according to their personalities and as much as I am politically on the Left I will buy any newspaper – broadsheet or tabloid, Left or Right leaning – according to my mood.

The only exceptions I make are for the Daily Express and Daily Star which I never buy as they are cheap parodies of their genre, the latter only one step removed from the Daily Sport.

Is the Sun guilty of “lechery over a corpse” today as the Guardian suggests? No, they are simply ‘guilty’ of being a tabloid walking a high wire act to entertain the masses only to fall off. But they’ll get back on the wire, as they always do, because they enjoy entertaining us. And, politics aside, Britain is a brighter place for it.

By Lester Holloway @brolezholloway

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