The Guardian and the Sun climb into bed with Uncle Sam
The Sun and the Guardian, you would think, are chalk and cheese. The two papers disagree about almost everything. Richard Littlejohn of the Sun is forever tossing rot- ten cabbages at Polly Toynbee of the Guardian who obligingly lobs them back. The gulf between the columnists is the yawning gap between the papers. They see life differently.
Until now, that is. The Sun has recently taken up a Guardian columnist called Jonathan Freedland in a big way. Mr Freedland has recently written a book called Bring Home the Revolution. He is reputedly New Labour's pin-up boy. Gor- don Brown has just had him in for a chat. A couple of weeks ago Mr Freedland was given a page in the Sun to extol American democracy. In Mr Freedland's view, we should appropriate key elements of the American constitution. This would entail getting rid of the monarchy.
Normally the Sun would not give a per- son like Mr Freedland the time of day. But his views on the royal family and the superi- ority of American constitutional arrange- ments echo those of the paper's proprietor, Rupert Murdoch. Mr Freedland's natural assumption of his own country's deficien- cies is part of a tradition among left-wing intellectuals famously mocked by George Orwell in The Lion and the Unicorn. But whereas such people have normally looked across the Channel for their inspiration often, as Orwell pointed out, as far as Moscow — Mr Freedland fords his models across the Atlantic. The Guardian, which has given shelter to its fair share of Soviet admirers in its time, has itself been infected by its columnist's love of the United States. On Monday it produced an entire supple- ment in celebration of America, the 'beau- tiful behemoth'. Meanwhile in a leader last week on the referendum in Australia the paper betrayed its republican sympathies: The monarchy has had its day. Now, in Australia as elsewhere, new symbols are needed for a new century.'
The Sun has been displaying the same pro-Americanism and the same scepticism about the royal family. First it carried the Freedland article with a brief, respectful leader. Last week it expressed its doubts about the monarchy at greater length, lav- ishing further praise on Mr Freedland. Then on Monday the paper's editor, David Yelland, pulled out the stops with a front- page leader that ran on to page eight. More laurels were bestowed on Mr Freedland, and there was a good deal of raving non- sense about the advantages of American democracy over the British version. The paper believed that Britain was `a funda- mentally undemocratic country' while those who knew America (like Mr Yelland and Mr Freedland) understood it was 'truly free'. What accounted for the difference? The monarchy. Here Mr Yelland took the Sun as close as it has ever been to republi- canism: 'We doubt that, eventually, monar- chy can exist as part of a democracy.'
One could enter several objections to this overblown paean of praise to American democracy — the corruption of American politics; the low turnouts at presidential elections; the alienation of the poor — but now is not the time. The question is what moved Mr Yelland almost to embrace republicanism. In the first place there was Mr Freedland bouncing up and down. Then came the referendum on the monarchy in Australia and Mr Murdoch's own (disre- garded) advice to Australians to vote for a republic. Finally, on Sunday the Observer's front-page splash alleged that Prince Charles, according to his advisers, was in favour of submitting himself to a referen- dum on the British monarchy. This has been subsequently denied by other advisers, convincingly so in my view, since Prince Charles would have to be barmier than he has yet shown signs of being in order to entertain such an idea. But the Observer story lit the blue touch-paper in Mr Yel- land's mind.
He has now taken himself off to a health farm where he may be able to calm down. Perhaps he will ask himself if his infatua- tion with Mr Freedland's views is benefi- cial to the Sun. Most Guardian readers, it may be confidently supposed, are republi- can, though whether they love America as much as Mr Yelland and Mr Freedland do may be doubted. But I am pretty sure that most Sun readers will not appreciate the running-down of their country, the cham- pioning of America at the expense of Britain, and the paper's hostility to the monarchy as an institution. Indeed, the Sun's own telephone poll found two thirds of respondents supporting the monarchy. (This was reported under the somewhat tendentious headline, '1 in 3 say no to Royals'.) Certainly, the supposedly left-of- centre Mirror has been quick to spot an opportunity. In its own front-page leader running on to page six, the paper identi- fied 'a revolting stench beginning to per- meate from the cesspits of this country . called republicanism', and took much pleasure in berating the Sun. In other cir- cumstances you might expect the Mirror to harbour republican sympathies. We live in strange times, do we not, when the fastidi- ous and left-wing Guardian can make com- mon cause with the Murdoch-owned and once-Thatcherite Sun.
The Belfast Telegraph is for sale and the government will have the ultimate say as to who can buy it. Its owner, Trinity, has been required to sell the paper as a result of its merger with the Mirror Group. The Mirror Group owned the Belfast News Letter, and there were fears about a concentration of ownership. So Stephen Byers, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, has decreed that the merged group, now called Trinity-Mirror, must sell the Belfast Tele- graph within a year from September. He will have to approve the new buyer if that buyer is a publisher of any significance.
It is quite a prize. The group makes £20 million a year, most of it generated by the Belfast Telegraph on sales of about 125,000 a day. Various suitors are lining up, including Northcliffe, Gannett (an Ameri- can publisher) and Tony O'Reilly's Inde- pendent Newspapers of Ireland. There is also the possibility of a management buy- out. The cost may be about £250 million, and the sale will probably be made in Jan- uary or February.
In fact it isn't a purely commercial deci- sion. Although it has readers in both com- munities, the Belfast Telegraph is broadly a Unionist paper. Unionists will not want it to go to a buyer who might change its edito- rial position. Dr O'Reilly's Dublin-based group is viewed by many people as a likely buyer. Its supporters point out that it is an international company which has far out- grown the Republic of Ireland, and that in any case its papers in the South have been reasonably friendly towards Unionism. But some more hardline Unionists may nonetheless mount a resistance, in which case the chances of a home-grown manage- ment buy-out team would rise. This could turn out to be a hot potato.