The tabloid Sun first published on 17 November 1969, with a front page "splash" headlined HORSE DOPE SENSATION - an "exclusive" in which a racing trainer admitted to the paper that he was doping his horses.
The paper copied its rival The Daily Mirror in several ways. It was the same size and its masthead had the title in white on a red rectangle of the same colour as the Daily Mirror. The front page had the same general style and it could easily be picked up by mistake. Sports news was on the back pages in both. The text was written for a slightly lower reading age than the Mirror. The Mirror's "Lively Letters" was matched by "Liveliest Letters", and the comic strip "Garth" by a comic strip "Scarth" featuring a frequently naked woman. Later strips included Striker, set in the world of football; Axa, about a barbarian woman in a post-apocalyptic world; Hagar the Horrible, the comic adventures of a home-loving Viking warrior; and George and Lynne, a domestic gag-a-day strip about a couple and their friends and neighbours. George and Lynne were normally pictured naked but discreetly covered.
Sex was used as an important element in marketing the paper from the start. While the Daily Mirror frequently featured a pin-up photograph of a young woman in bikini or lingerie, ostensibly as a fashion item, The Sun dispensed with the excuses; it featured what were openly glamour photographs of women, wearing fewer clothes than their Mirror counterparts. Exactly a year after it was first published, The Sun printed a topless model on Page 3 for the first time. The Page Three girl gradually became a daily staple of the paper. Features such as 'Do Men Still Want To Marry A Virgin?' and 'The Way into a Woman's Bed' began to appear. Serialisations of erotic books were frequent; the publication of extracts from The Sensuous Woman, at a time when copies of the book were being seized by Customs, produced a scandal and a gratifying amount of free publicity.
Politically, The Sun in the early Murdoch years remained nominally Labour, although in the two 1974 elections, the paper's attitude to Labour was "agnostic", according to Roy Greenslade in Press Gang (2003). The then editor, Larry Lamb, was originally from a Labour background, with a socialist upbringing. Deputy editor Bernard Shrimsley was a middle-class uncommitted Conservative.
A year later the paper caused a small stir by changing tack politically, endorsing Margaret Thatcher in the 1979 general election. On 3 May it ran the unequivocal front page headline, VOTE TORY THIS TIME.
In 1986 Murdoch shut down the Bouverie Street premises of The Sun and News of the World, and moved operations to the new Wapping complex in East London, blocking union activity and greatly reducing the number of staff employed to print the papers; a year-long picket by sacked workers was eventually defeated (see Wapping dispute).
MacKenzie's Sun was an ardent supporter of Margaret Thatcher and her policies, and maintained its support for the Conservatives when she was succeeded by John Major in 1990. On the day of the general election of 9 April 1992, its front-page headline, encapsulating its antipathy towards the Labour leader Neil Kinnock, read "If Kinnock wins today, will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights". Two days later The Sun was so convinced its front page had swung a close election for the Conservatives it declared "It's The Sun Wot Won It".
An award-winning section titled Something for the Weekend, published each Friday, covers a wide variety of other contemporary music and arts not normally found in the main part of the paper. Coverage of the British monarchy is regular or even daily, albeit without the dominance it had in the paper in the 1990s during the life of Princess Diana. Politics is always found on Page 2 but can be elsewhere in the news pages. World news is scattered throughout the news pages, rather than in a self-contained section, with stories given prominence in line with their strengths as perceived by the paper. Crime coverage has increased during 2007 and 2008, mainly to reflect the paper’s “Broken Britain” campaign to highlight the increased lawlessness it perceives to be rife. Other themes high on The Sun’s news agenda are illegal or legal immigration, child sex abuse and security lapses. NHS scandals are frequently covered, though the paper also has a Health section which covers general health issues and treatments.
Page 3, prominently displaying a model aged between 18 and about 27 posing topless, is still a daily feature in the paper, as it has been since 1970.
The Sun has a large sports section, placed at the back of the paper and with football as its mainstay, though personal stories about prominent sportsmen and women will often be found in the news pages.
Politically, the paper's stance has been less clear under Prime Minister Gordon Brown than under Tony Blair. Its editorials are very critical of many of Brown's policies and often more supportive of those of Conservative leader David Cameron, but they have stopped short of suggesting that Cameron would make a better Prime Minister or the Conservatives a better Government.
The current editor is Rebekah Wade, the first female editor in the paper's history.
Rupert Murdoch, head of The Sun's parent company News Corporation, speaking at a 2007 meeting with the House of Lords Select Committee on Communications, which was investigating media ownership and the news, said that he acts as a "traditional proprietor". This means he exercises editorial control on major issues such as which political party to back in a general election or which policy to adopt on Europe.
The Sun has been a regular winner at the British Press Awards, the "Oscars" of British journalism . Here is a list of winners since 2000:
2000 – Front Page of the Year (Solar eclipse); Cudlipp Award for excellence in tabloid journalism: John Perry, Neil Roberts, Phil Leach for Hold Ye Front Page; Sports Photographer of the Year: Richard Pelham.
2001 – Front Page of the Year (I’m Only Here For De Beers); Reporter of the Year: John Kay.
2002 – Scoop of the Year: Briony Warden, Internet baby traders.
2004 - Reporter of the Year: John Kay; Photographer of the Year: Terry Richards; Sports Reporter of the Year: Neil Custis.
2005 - Front Page of the Year (Hutton Report Leaked); Reporter of the Year: Trevor Kavanagh; Cudlipp Award (Band Aid 20 campaign); Financial Journalist of the Year: Ian King; Cartoonist of the Year: Bill Caldwell.
2006 – Front Page of the Year (Harry The Nazi); Reporter of the Year: Oliver Harvey; Showbusiness Writer of the Year: Victoria Newton.
2008 – Reporter of the Year: Tom Newton Dunn; Scoop of the Year: Tom Newton-Dunn; Cudlipp Award (Help for Heroes campaign); Campaign of the Year (Help For Heroes).
The Band Aid 20 charity pop single, which raised around £3million for Africa after its release in 2004, was the idea of a Sun executive, who persuaded Sir Bob Geldof to become involved. The paper gave the recording and release of the record blanket coverage in a campaign that won the paper a British Press Award in 2005. The single was a re-recording of Band Aid’s 1984 original Do They Know It’s Christmas and featured, among others, Bono, Sir Paul McCartney and members of Radiohead and Coldplay.
The Help for Heroes charity, championed by The Sun, raised £7million in the eight months to June 2008 for injured British servicemen and women – a record for a start-up British charity. The campaign won two British Press Awards in 2008.
The Sun’s long-running Free Books For Schools promotion and campaign, in which readers collected tokens from the paper to be exchanged for school books, put 3.5million books worth nearly £20million into the 98 per cent of UK schools which registered for the scheme. The achievement won The Sun a Business In The Community award.
Two books written and produced by The Sun were endorsed by the Government for use in schools. Hold Ye Front Page, which told 2,000 years of world history in spoof Sun pages, sold almost 100,000 copies. The then Education Secretary David Blunkett, later a Sun columnist, recommended every school should have one as an “ideal” aid for teaching history . Giant Leaps, a science version along similar lines and jointly produced with the Science Museum (London) in 2006, was endorsed by the then Prime Minister Tony Blair, who read passages from it during a speech at Oxford University, and by Education Secretary Alan Johnson, who hailed it as a breakthrough for science teachers. The book was a finalist in 2007 for the Royal Society Prizes for Science Books General Prize, the most prestigious award for popular science writing .
The Sun is famous for its headlines – be they witty, pertinent, outrageous or blatantly offensive. Some of the most memorable front page headlines include:
The Sun’s brash headlines and bold presentation of news have made it a consistent subject of controversy and criticism throughout Rupert Murdoch’s ownership.
The Sun’s strong support for Britain and, in particular, British troops (which it routinely calls “Our Boys”) has led to lapses of judgement causing considerable offence. Most notorious was the headline GOTCHA, which celebrated the torpedoing of the Argentine ship the General Belgrano during the Falklands War of 1982. The headline was changed for later editions when the extent of Argentine casualties became known.
In 2003 the paper was accused of racism by the Government over its criticisms of what it perceived as the “open door” policy on immigration. The attacks came from the Prime Minister’s press spokesman Alastair Campbell and the then Home Secretary David Blunkett (later a Sun columnist). The paper rebutted the claim, believing that it was not racist to suggest that a “tide” of unchecked illegal immigrants was increasing the risk of terrorist attacks and infectious diseases. It did not help its argument by publishing a front page story on 4 July 2003, under the headline "Swan Bake", which claimed that asylum seekers were slaughtering and eating swans. It later proved to have no basis in fact. Unperturbed, The Sun published a follow-up headlined "Now they're after our fish!". Following a Press Complaints Commission adjudication a "clarification" was eventually printed - on page 41.
The Sun has been openly antagonistic towards other European nations, particularly the French and Germans, who were, during the 1980s and 1990s, routinely described in copy and headlines as “frogs”, “krauts” or “hun”. The paper is opposed to the EU and has, in the past, referred to foreign leaders who it deemed hostile to the UK in unflattering and arguably borderline racist terms. Former President Jacques Chirac of France, for instance, was branded "le Worm". An unflattering picture of German chancellor Angela Merkel, taken from the rear, bore the headline "I'm Big in the Bumdestag" (17 April 2006). Despite the paper's more enlightened editorial approach during the last decade, lapses persist. The Sun was outspoken against the allegations of racism directed at Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty on television reality show Celebrity Big Brother during 2007, but then captioned a picture on its website, from a Bollywood-themed pop video by Hilary Duff, "Hilary PoppaDuff" , a very similar insult to that directed at Shetty.
The Sun’s sensationalist coverage of the 1989 Hillsborough football stadium disaster in Sheffield, where 96 people died and 730 were injured, proved the worst blunder in its history. Under a front page headline "THE TRUTH", the paper claimed that some fans picked the pockets of crushed victims, that others urinated on members of the emergency services as they tried to help and that some even assaulted a Police Constable "whilst he was administering the kiss of life to a patient" (19 April 1989). Despite the headline, written by Kelvin MacKenzie, the story was based on allegations either by unnamed and unattributable sources, or hearsay accounts of what named individuals had said - a fact made clear to MacKenzie by Harry Arnold, the reporter who wrote the story. Although the disaster occurred before TV cameras and a mass of sports reporters, no evidence was ever produced to substantiate the Sun allegations . The front page caused outrage in Liverpool, where the paper lost more than three-quarters of its estimated 55,000 daily sales and still sells poorly to this day (around 12,000). It is unavailable in many parts of the city, as many newsagents refuse to stock it. It was revealed in a documentary called "Alexei Sayle's Liverpool" that many Liverpudlians won't even take the newspaper for free, and those who do simply burn it or tear it up.
On 7 July 2004, in response to verbal attacks in Liverpool on Wayne Rooney, then a young Everton player who had sold his life story to The Sun, the paper devoted a full-page editorial to an apology for the “awful error” of its Hillsborough coverage and argued that Rooney should not be punished for its “past sins”. In January 2005 The Sun's managing editor Graham Dudman admitted the Hillsborough coverage was "the worst mistake in our history". He added: "What we did was a terrible mistake. It was a terrible, insensitive, horrible article, with a dreadful headline; but what we'd also say is: we have apologised for it, and the entire senior team here now is completely different from the team that put the paper out in 1989. However, in May 2006, former editor Kelvin MacKenzie, the man behind the Hillsborough coverage, was rehired as a Sun columnist. Furthermore, on 11 January 2007, MacKenzie went on record as a panellist on BBC1's Question Time as saying the apology he made after the disaster was a hollow one, forced upon him by Rupert Murdoch. MacKenzie further claimed he was not sorry "for telling the truth" but he admitted that he did not know for sure whether some Liverpool fans urinated on the police, or robbed victims.
Despite its soaring sales The Sun of the 1980s earned a reputation for running stories based on few facts. The most blatant example gave the paper arguably its most famous headline: FREDDIE STARR ATE MY HAMSTER (13 March 1986). The story alleged that British comedian Freddie Starr had been staying at the home of Vince McCaffrey and his 23-year old girlfriend Lea La Salle in Birchwood, Cheshire, when, after returning from a performance at a nightclub in the early hours he demanded La Salle make him a sandwich. When she refused, he went into the kitchen, put her pet hamster Supersonic between two slices of bread and proceeded to eat it. Starr, in his 2001 autobiography Unwrapped, said he only stayed at McCaffrey's house once, in 1979, and that the incident was a complete fabrication. He wrote: "I have never eaten or even nibbled a live hamster, gerbil, guinea pig, mouse, shrew, vole or any other small mammal. The man behind the story, British publicist Max Clifford, asked about the story years later on TV, admitted he had made it up and justified it on the basis it boosted Starr’s career enormously.
In the early 1990s, the Scottish edition became notable as the first major newspaper to declare support for the pro-independence Scottish National Party. At the time the paper elsewhere continued to support the Conservatives, who were then becoming an increasingly marginalised force in Scotland. This stance, however, became somewhat problematic following The Sun's adoption of support for Labour elsewhere in the UK, given that the SNP were seen as Labour's main challengers and fiercest rivals in Scotland. The Scottish edition was forced to employ some convoluted logic to justify its eventual withdrawal of support for the SNP in favour of pro-union Labour.
However, the Scottish Sun had performed a major U-turn by the time of the Scottish Parliament election, 2007, in which its front page featured a hangman's noose in the shape of an SNP logo, stating "Vote SNP today and you put Scotland's head in the noose" This drew heavy criticism, even from those who opposed the SNP.
There is also an Irish edition, based in Dublin with a regional edition for Northern Ireland, known as the Irish Sun. It contains much of the same content as the main UK edition, but with quite a lot of Irish news and editorial content, as well as advertising. It tends to replace articles that would be seen as anti-Irish with ones more palatable to their readership there. One notable example is how the release of the film The Wind That Shakes the Barley was covered, with the UK editions describing it as "designed to drag the reputation of our nation through the mud" and "the most pro-IRA ever", whereas the Irish edition described it as giving "the Brits a tanning". It uses a slightly bigger sheet size than the UK version, and costs €0.90. The Irish Sun has the highest circulation of any British paper in the Irish market.