FEW issues have led to more discussion among journalism academics than The Sun’s headlines at election time: ‘Will the last person in Britain please turn out the lights’, is often seen as crucial to the outcome of the 1992 UK General Election, while the gloating follow-up, ‘It was the Sun wot won it’, led to a host of imitators.
Less well known across the UK is the front page which appeared north of the border in May 2011 – voters in the Scottish Parliament were told to ‘Keep Salm and Carry On’, and, afterwards, to the surprise of very few, the SNP won a thumping majority at Holyrood.
That was historic in its own way though, as it’s one of the strange contradictions of the Scottish media that the nationalist cause in general, and the SNP in particular, have managed to win over voters but not the newspapers, most of which are owned by companies based in London or even further afield.
So with less than 200 days to go until the referendum on Scottish independence, will the SNP receive another high-profile endorsement?
The Yes campaign is still behind in the polls, and yet there is still speculation that the cause of Scottish independence might be backed by not only The Scottish Sun but its bitter rival, the Daily Record.
At the start of the 1990s, the Record dominated the Scottish newspaper market to an extent rarely seen in the western world, selling 800,000 copies daily in a country with a total population of about five million.
The sales gradually declined though until a landmark point eight years ago when the left-leaning tabloid’s circulation was overtaken by Rupert Murdoch’s Scottish Sun, on the back of an aggressive price-cutting strategy.
The Record may have lost its dominance, and still trails the Sun in terms of circulation, but, between them, these two red tops still sell nearly 460,000 copies daily – about two-thirds of all the daily papers sold in Scotland – so their front covers and opinion pages are being anxiously scoured by the spin doctors of both sides.
Is it really likely that the Record – which for decades has supported Labour, unions and the Union through thick and thin – could switch sides to back the SNP and independence? It would be a huge surprise, but not as inconceivable as, say, the Record supporting the Conservative party, a brand widely seen as toxic in Scotland since the early years of Margaret Thatcher’s government.
Last month, its front page featured the visits to Aberdeen by both the UK and Scottish cabinets and, at first glance, it was certainly good news for Alex Salmond as headlines called David Cameron a ‘Tory toff’ running ‘a cabinet of elitists who hammer the poor while lining the pockets of their millionaire pals’.
The SNP leader, by contrast, was praised for meeting real people and posing for selfies.
Was this support for Salmond, or just a chance to kick the Tories which proved too tempting to resist?
That’s day’s editorial piece said the First Minister was ‘always sharp on the propaganda front’, but that is fairly faint praise and stories on the facing pages said only 17 per cent of voters in the north of Scotland favoured independence and quoted economist, Paul Krugman’s vow that keeping Sterling with the Bank of England would be ‘a disaster’.
Later in the week, columnist, Bill Leckie, reviewed a shrill and bad-tempered TV debate between Scottish Labour leader, Johan Lamont, and the SNP’s deputy leader, Nicola Sturgeon, with a uniquely Scottish sarcastic put-down: “Is this the quality of leader we’re meant to entrust our futures in? Aye, right…”
He laid into both sides of the debate, sparing only Mr Salmond himself but saying he needed to raise his game above the ‘rubbish’ that was dominating the debate.
And an opinion piece earlier that month had also grudgingly praised Salmond as ‘a wily operator’, before attacking his ‘political games’ on currency and telling readers: “He’s asking you to put your money where his mouth is.”
The Record’s stance still isn’t clear-cut (the SNP’s Joan McAlpine has a weekly column, after all), but despite the paper’s obvious discomfort about the prospect of being seen as on the same side as old Etonian Tories, it’s still very hard to see it taking the plunge into the Yes camp.
And what of The Scottish Sun? Making a pragmatic choice about the best person and party to run a government is one thing, but urging its readers to vote ‘yes’ in an emotive issue where views are very entrenched could prove quite different.
Last week, its political editor, Andrew Nicoll, attacked Salmond for not coming up with a ‘plan B’ on currency, saying: “He’s not bothered about living in a world without money, a world where we would all get paid in knitwear and live chickens.”
Other sections of his article were more even-handed, with statements by Home Secretary, Teresa May, and Treasury Chief Secretary, Danny Alexander, being questioned.
But the points about currency and legal advice about EU membership being ‘totally made up’ were clear and telling.
The powers that be at The Sun in Glasgow might just have decided that readers will be urged to vote Yes on September 18 – but if so, most of their staff seem not to have been let in on the secret as yet
And a quick look at how Murdoch’s papers have leaned in the run-up to all recent elections would show that there is one consistent factor – he doesn’t like to back a loser.
Last week’s Ipsos Mori poll in The Guardian showed only 32 per cent said they would vote yes, with 57 per cent voting no. Unless that changes dramatically, will the ‘red tops’ risk alienating so many of their readers?
Julian Calvert is a senior lecturer in journalism at Glasgow Caledonian University. A version of this article first appeared in TheConversation.com.