Tuesday 21 February 2012

Lord Lucan and the lessons for the Sun on Sunday

Former Sunday Telegraph editor Dominic Lawson writes in the Independent today how running a a story about Lord Lucan which turned out to be rubbish gave him an insight into red-top tabloid journalism - and shows why the Sun on Sunday could succeed while a new quality Sunday would be commercial suicide.

Lawson tells how he he bought the serial rights to a book, Dead Lucky, by a retired Scotland Yard detective that claimed Lord Lucan had emerged in Goa hippy commune under the assumed name Barry Halpin and had died in 1996. The story was knocked down in hours by Halpin's friends - but added tens of thousands of sales to the Sunday Telegraph.

Lawson writes: "Although a broadsheet journalist for my entire newspaper career, the episode did give me a brief insight into the wild and wacky world of the red-top press for whom murder, celebrity and cops with some hot information to sell are meat and drink.

"I suddenly appreciated just how much more gripped are the public with such material than with the most important stories about splits in the Cabinet. Sad to say, those don't increase the sales figures of even the most serious of our national newspapers, which goes some of the way to explaining why such titles as The Times (and The Independent) now give much more coverage than ever they did before of the doings of pop stars and actors.

"Thus, while it would now be thought commercial suicide to launch a new upmarket Sunday newspaper, no one seems to be questioning Rupert Murdoch's business sense in launching the Sun on Sunday.

"I must declare my interest as a columnist for his Sunday Times, but I don't think you can fault the man's insight that in the end all newspapers, from the top of the market to the bottom, are about telling stories – and that the more vivid and compelling the tales, the more copies of the paper will be sold. Obviously, it would be better still if the stories were also true."

The article reminded me of a fantastic quote from the former Mirror journalist Garth Gibbs, who died last year. "I regard not finding Lord Lucan as my most spectacular success in journalism. Of course, many of my colleagues have also been fairly successful in not finding Lord Lucan. But I have successfully not found him in more exotic spots than anybody else.

“I spent three glorious weeks not finding him in Cape Town, magical days and nights not finding him in the Black Mountains of Wales, and wonderful and successful short breaks not finding him in Macau either, or in Hong Kong or even in Green Turtle Bay in the Bahamas where you can find anyone."

  • The Sun confirmed today it will be switching its award-winning Fabulous magazine from Saturday to the Sun on Sunday.
  • The Guardian says in a leader today: "The Sun on Sunday means that once again Murdoch is publishing four national newspapers – and surely aspires to regain his former dominance, which saw him owning nearly 40% of the national newspaper market. Last July we saw all too clearly the malign effect that dominance had on the cultural, political and regulatory life of this country, not to mention policing. So one can wish that the new Sun shines brightly while still keeping very focused on learning the lessons of the past. But to learn from them, they must first be confronted."

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