‘THERE’S MORE IN YOUR SOARAWAY SUN!!!!’. ‘IT WAS THE SUN WOT WON IT!!!!’. Who can forget the Sun (or ‘San’ in the cockneyesque accent of its core readership) in its 1980s pomp? Unashamedly brash, nationalistic, often cruel, often fun, sometimes clever and notoriously interested in the delights of the female form; an enormous success because it was in perfect accord with the times; moulding and moulded by the rise of Essex Man (and Woman), the people the comic Harry Enfield lampooned with his obnoxious creation Loadsamoney.
But that is precisely why the Sun succeeded, because its readers had loads of money. Culture and economics are entwined in a symbiotic relationship, each acting as cause and effect by and on the other. At the same time as the Sun’s upwardly mobile readership was rising, that of its great rival, the Daily Mirror – voice of the old unionised working class – was rapidly shrinking as deindustrialisation took hold.
Although the Sun shone brightly for a while, its cultural power was eclipsed as globalisation and the rise of the new cognitive elite took hold from the late 1990s onwards. In the Information Age, incomes and spending power rose disproportionately for the educated and highly intelligent. Moreover, with men and women now going to university and having careers in roughly equal numbers, such people tended to marry each other, concentrating spending power in affluent double-income families. A new liberal elite rose to exert an iron cultural grip on society in a way the Sun and its readers could only have dreamed of. If the 1980s was personified by Loadsamoney, the icon of the late 90s onwards was Tony Blair – smug, posh, arrogant, rather shallow but one of life’s natural winners. All ‘Right-wing’ newspapers, perhaps starting with the Times and ending with the Daily Mail, Sun and the Telegraph, started to jettison social conservatism in favour of a more metropolitan, socially liberal outlook, even if this seemed out of step with the conservative values of much of their core readership.
The reason is simple: to an extent rarely fully understood, in the commercial media advertising drives content, and what drives advertising is disposable income. Thus newspapers, commercial television and the City slickers who analyse them pay very close attention to the spending power of the customer base. Editors are under constant pressure to maintain and expand the readership of these highly affluent ‘ABC1’ demographics: attracting one person with a disposable income of £50,000 a year can be worth much more to advertisers than attracting several on £10,000.
It follows that even in the commercial world, content creation can be hugely affected not by what the majority think but by the values and beliefs of a comparatively small well-heeled elite. The higher the skew in income distribution, the more pronounced this effect will be. Of course, those elites always had other advantages, namely being positioned in places and networks of influence throughout society. Thus, they became culturally predominant, controlling not just elite sections of the culture as they always have but also those of the mass market. ‘Get Woke, Go Broke’ may make a great slogan, but there is nonetheless often more method to the madness of commercial wokery than is commonly supposed. A good illustration is the successful campaign to remove the Sun’s Page 3 Girls. In the 1980s, the paper saw off feminist attacks with ease, but in the 2000s it could no longer do so when campaigners started to target companies who advertised in the paper. Admittedly by then the feature had been in decline for some time, but a majority of the readership was still in favour of its retention. That didn’t matter, because high-spending liberal consumers in general were not. Most of them never read the paper, of course, but nonetheless corporations didn’t want to court their opprobrium. A similar though failed attempt was launched recently against the new Right-wing GB News.
However, some hope is on the horizon. Thanks to a combination of Covid and Brexit, after years of stagnation incomes for many working-class jobs seem to be rapidly rising, notably HGV driving. In due course this will be reflected in their comparative spending power and advertisers – and thus content creators – will notice soon enough. (It may also shift our culture into being less antagonistic towards men – an interesting topic for another time.) For good or ill, we will probably never return to the days when it was ‘The Sun Wot Won It!’, but in the world of commercial media, at least, the cultural hegemony of the liberal elite may well be coming to an end.