Seven months after the disgraced News of the World (NOTW) newspaper folded, media company News International sought to woo back readers with its debut edition of The Sun on Sunday, a seventh day edition of its daily tabloid.
That its launch was followed today with the leader of an inquiry into press ethics saying reporters and editors at The Sun had paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to police officers and government and military officials for information illustrates how difficult it may be for News International to repair its reputation.
The Sun on Sunday's publication followed a week of television adverts cheerily proclaiming that “In Britain The Sun comes out every day." The Sun is the United Kingdom’s biggest selling newspaper – and judging by the success of its first edition, the Sunday version will dominate the weekend market.
Yesterday evening Rupert Murdoch, chief executive of US-based News Corp., the parent company of News International, tweeted, “Amazing! The Sun confirmed sale of 3,260,000 copies yesterday. Thanks all readers and advertisers. Sorry if sold out - more next time."
Two days before he had tweeted that he would be happy with sales “substantially” above two million – which would put the Sun on Sunday comfortably ahead of the 1.9 million circulation of the Mail on Sunday – which had become Britain’s best-selling weekly paper following the demise of the NOTW.
Priced at 50 pence (70 cents), the Sun on Sunday has already started a price war with rival tabloids that cashed in on the cessation of the NOTW in the interim. Fifty pence is the price of a weekday tabloid in the UK, while the Mail on Sunday costs 1.50 pounds, nearly $2.40 USD. The Sunday Mirror, another big competitor, cuts its price Sunday from one pound to 50 pence.
The NOTW was abruptly shut down last year amid revelations that journalists employed by the paper had routinely hacked into the phones of celebrities and crime victims and used other illegal means of gathering information. The scandal sparked public outrage as well as three police investigations and a judge-led inquiry, all of which are ongoing.
Hacking allegations have since spread to The Sun. Ten of its journalists were arrested on suspicion of making corrupt payments to public officials, though none have been charged.
Today the police officer heading three criminal inquiries centered on News International said there had been a "culture ... of illegal payments at The Sun."
Deputy Assistant Commissioner Sue Akers told a wider inquiry into the British press headed by senior judge Justice Brian Leveson that systems had been put in place to hide the identity of officials who had received money.
The arrival of the UK’s newest tabloid newspaper was announced only days ago by Mr. Murdoch. Its launch is seen not only as an effort to recapture readers and advertisers lost to other papers since the NOTW was shuttered, but as a reassuring indication to News Corp. shareholders in the US that the company is moving on from the scandal.
In its lead story, a column titled, “A new Sun rises today,” the publication vowed to be “fearless, outspoken mischievous, and fun,” but in its inaugural edition, the paper played it safe, with none of the salacious scandal-breaking for which its predecessor was known. It lacked, wrote journalist Peter Preston yesterday, “any real revelation or guilty pleasures.”
The same editorial announced the paper was appointing a so-called Readers' Champion to deal with complaints and errors, and it promised that its journalists would be ethical. "You will be able to trust our journalists to abide by the values of decency as they gather news," it said.
It even – surprisingly, given The Sun’s penchant for photos of naked women and stories about the sex lives of the famous – includes a regular column from the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, one of the most senior leaders of the Church of England. Other columnists include Katie Price, a former glamour model and Hestor Blumenthal, a chef.
In an email sent to staff of The Sun last week, in which he announced the launch of the Sun on Sunday, Murdoch reiterated his intention to clean up News International. Saturday night, he personally oversaw the paper’s production at a printer north of London.
Some media analysts express disquiet that the launch of the new Sunday tabloid means Murdoch, who is once again publishing four national newspapers, is likely to reassume his dominance of the media market – before the NOTW closed, he owned nearly 40 percent of it.
A PROBABLE HIT
All-important advertising looked healthy in the paper’s debut edition. Morrisons, a leading supermarket group, took four full-page advertisements and one double page spread in the new paper, while a number of other big brands, including Nestle, took out full page ads.
Regular sales of 2.75 million are needed if the Sun on Sunday is to match The Sun's average circulation and the sales achieved by the News of the World, which sold an average of 2.67 million in June 2011, as the scandal was breaking, according to the most recent industry figures.
Industry-wide figures suggest that some of the NOTW readers have simply stopped buying a Sunday newspaper altogether. Following the closure of NOTW, The Sunday Mirror rose to a circulation of 2.3 million by the end of July 2011, compared to 1.9 million at the beginning of that month. But by the end of January, its circulation had dropped back to 1.9 million – a part, no doubt, of newspaper readers’ migration to the internet.
Media pundits, however, predicted that the Sun on Sunday would live up to the NOTW’s success.
“In order to avoid giving offence and therefore hint at being a reincarnation of its deceased ugly sister, the News of the World, it appeared unusually bland,” wrote Roy Greenslade, Britain’s leading media commentator, on the Guardian’s website Sunday.
“My hunch is that the seventh-day Sun will return shining sales figures after a weighty spend on promotion and marketing … In price wars, the gambler with the deepest pockets usually wins. And there are no prizes for guessing who that is.”
One newsagent in south London said she had ordered 100 copies of the Sun on Sunday, more than she would normally order for any weekend newspaper, and they had nearly sold out by mid-morning.
“It’s the first day, isn’t it?” she said. “Let’s see what happens next week”.