’What a week,’ Stuart Higgins joked, just before being banged
’First Geri, then Gazza, now me.’ Not that Geri Spice or Gazza got the
banging treatment - not that we know of. Banging out is an old Fleet
Street tradition reserved for departing journalists.
Still, there are some similarities in the fates of the three tabloid
stars. The Sun, minus Higgins, is now an institution with uncertain and
potentially shaky prospects - though compared with the Spice Girls’
charisma rating or England’s World Cup hopes, its future isn’t quite so
But, as with Geri and Gazza, Higgins’ departure was also the occasion
for expressions of sorrow and disbelief. The banging out was, by all
accounts, particularly loud - he was a popular editor. Higgins can also
probably count himself lucky that, in the mass market, all eyes have
been on the Mirror, whose circulation has dropped so far that it could
soon be overtaken by the Daily Mail.
But the Mirror’s sales slide (3 per cent year on year in April to
2,293,269) has been nothing to the Sun’s (3,714,666 in April, down 6 per
cent year on year). That hasn’t exactly gone down a storm with senior
News International executives. And, according to insiders, they have
become increasingly alarmed at what they perceive as attempts by the
Mirror to move slightly upmarket.
The Sun’s last ad campaign, courtesy of TBWA Simons Palmer, toyed with
something similar. It dumped the bouncy, in-yer-face ’no Sun, no fun’
for a touchy-feely spot ’dedicated to the people of Britain’. In theory,
the product itself was to be tweaked so it could live up to the
Innovations, like asking Page Three girls to keep their bras on, for
Higgins, apparently, was having none of it.
Which is why he was kicked upstairs. His replacement, David Yelland, is
an unknown quantity with a business journalism background. Is he being
brought in to implement a new agenda? Is that what the Sun needs? Has
the Mirror really moved upmarket? Does it hold the strategic high
ground? And, more pertinently, has the Sun lost its way?
Christine Walker, the managing partner of Walker Media, doesn’t believe
notions of up- or downmarket have anything to do with this. The Mirror
has merely returned to a more intelligent, current affairs-driven news
agenda. The celebrity gossip and tittle tattle doesn’t dominate in quite
the way it used to - and still does at the Sun.
She says: ’The front page of the Mirror has improved immeasurably
recently - and that’s such an important driver for the success of a
It has been generating exclusives that have, in turn, generated a lot of
interest from other media. You get the feeling that the Mirror is more
vibrant than the Sun these days. I don’t think it’s anything to do with
going upmarket. It’s just hotter. It’s a better package. If you look at
the most recent ABC figures, the sector as a whole is under pressure but
the Mirror is holding out better.’
But what has happened to the caring, sharing ad campaign? Colin
Gottlieb, managing partner of Manning Gottlieb Media, would like to
know. ’It’s interesting that the Sun’s new advertising was all about
supposedly softer 90s values as opposed to its previous up-yer-bum
approach. But I think that newspaper publishing is getting sucked into
the same sort of mindset as many other business sectors - there is a
constant feeling that the ground is about to shift under its feet.
People these days are constantly looking for a new positioning.’
But Gottlieb doesn’t believe the Sun should worry about the Mirror’s
positioning: ’The Mirror has been and still is pretty schizophrenic. I
think the problem is that we’re seeing that sense of schizophrenia
invading the Sun too. For my money, Higgins was right to resist a big
shift in the positioning of the Sun. I think it would be dangerous if it
lost its fun, upbeat approach. And where are they really going to take
it? I think the readership base knows what it likes. It would be a shame
if News International - once the most confident of publishers - lost
He is not alone in that fear. Chris Shaw, the joint managing director of
Universal McCann, is also sceptical: ’I think the whole thing about the
Sun going upmarket is bizarre, frankly. If it’s true, they are
over-reacting to the circulation decline. The Sun is still the
biggest-selling daily in the country and it is still a successful
formula. Why on earth would they want to move it upmarket? I take that
to mean that they’d want to shift it towards the Daily Mail. But look at
the figures. There isn’t the circulation to be had in the mid market.
And whatever they think is happening at the Mirror, it certainly isn’t
perceived as having shifted anywhere.’
But surely all papers have their era - perhaps the Sun has had its
There’s a new mood in the country. And a Labour government. The Sun’s
soaraway fortunes in the 80s and early 90s were surely all to do with
the fact that it caught the mood of the Thatcherite times. Those days
are gone. Paul Mukherjee, the press buying director of MindShare, agrees
that politics could be at the root of Higgins’ decision to move on.
’What the Mirror has done is become a paper opposed to the Government.
Whereas the Sun’s political line to back Labour was chosen by Rupert
That cuts against the instincts of the people there and it can’t have
been easy for Higgins in particular. Changing the paper’s outlook has to
be difficult. They’ve also lost their main source of big front-page
stories - Princess Diana.’
And he also thinks it’s interesting that the ’dedicated to the people of
Britain’ ad hasn’t been seen for a while. ’The rumour is that Murdoch
has told them to drop it and go back to price promotion. And maybe he’s
right in believing there is a direct correlation between price and
After all, if you go back a few years, before all the price wars, the
Sun was selling only 3.4 million.
’As for dropping the Page Three girls, the big question is whether you
can be a tabloid paper and be irreverent while being an editorially led
product at the same time. I don’t think anyone knows the answer to