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Beyond the Sun - what impact will Sun on Sunday launch have on Scottish rivals?


By Iain Hepburn

February 20, 2012 | 7 min read

So Murdoch swerved everyone again. Not only is the Sun on Sunday a reality, but its first issue will hit the newsstands this weekend - weeks before anyone thought it would appear, and at a time when scrutiny is still focused heavily on News International and their behaviour.

You can practically feel the heat from a burning Tom Watson from here, can’t you?

One thing that is certain is that the scrutiny and attention focused on the Sun on Sunday will be tighter and more ferocious than on any newspaper launch in recent history. The critics of Murdoch’s print empire - who have already been fluffing their plumage in preparation of the week ahead - will have a field day with any transgressions, perceived or real, by the new title.

The launch is undoubtedly a gutsy move by Murdoch. A piece of flagwaving to show his support for the latest part of his newspaper empire - and more importantly, its staff - to find itself under fire.

It’s just hours since the Sun on Sunday was announced, and as yet details are sketchy. It seems some of the staff will be shared, others will be unique. Undoubtedly more information on the paper - who will run it, who will write it, and who will read it - will spill out over the course of the next few days.

But it’s also understandable Murdoch should want to move now. That gap in the market for a populist Sunday tabloid not only exists, but is blatantly exploitable following Trinity Mirror’s spectacular failure to capitalise - on either side of the border - on the News of the World being closed.

The Mail on Sunday remains the Mail on Sunday, ploughing its own angry furrow through Middle England, while the Sunday Express - like its daily sister - is little more than an irrelevance these days. But it was the Trinity red-tops - the Sunday Mirror, the People and, this side of the border, the Sunday Mail - which had a chance to make a major landgrab during the seven months that News International has been out of the market.

And not only did they blow it, they did so shedding staff like leaves on the way. If the Sun on Sunday sustains the big readership numbers that its launch will undoubtedly generate, then the blame for that success lies firmly and squarely on the shoulders of Trinity Mirror’s craven executives, too concerned with saving cash and appeasing shareholders than with investing in a gap in the market that was theirs for the taking.

From a Scottish point of view, it’ll be interesting to see what happens. There’s been whispers for months of the staff at Guildhall looking nervously over their shoulders, particularly in light of the cuts over at Central Quay. It's hard to imagine those cuts happening now - certainly for the immediate future - while the paper shifts to a seven-day operation. Yet questions remain too over how that operation will operate. Would a Scottish Sun on Sunday staff up separately to its English counterpart? How much control will Andy Harries have over the new title - if any?

A new Scottish Sun on Sunday would, if recruiting, be in a remarkably blessed position. The free market for hacks has rarely been stronger this side of Hadrian’s Wall after the last two years of swingeing cuts across the rest of the news industry, and many freelance investigative hacks will likely be dusting off their CVs, getting their pitches ready, and hoping for a call or two over the next couple of days.

And the launch of a Sun on Sunday north of the border would be a good excuse for News International to finally do something with the apology of a website the Scottish Sun currently endures.

The timing of all this has a curious sense of inevitability. The launch will mark the 25th anniversary of the Scottish Sun dawning, but also comes 21 years after the last high profile Sunday tabloid launch - and failure - in Scotland.

The Sunday Scot was a big money counter to the Mail, Screws, Post et al that hit news stands in March 1991, under the management of former News International favourites Jack Irvine and Steve Samson/

Launched by former Rangers owner Sir David Murray in a blaze of glory and confrontation, it burned through an estimated £3m in just a few months, before eventually closing in a rage of mince and acrimony that July.

A sound idea in theory, it was hampered by a variety of problems - both editorial and technical - that ultimately scuppered the paper’s chances of success, even though it’s circulation at closure is a number that many Scots papers would kill for these days.

One imagines the Sun on Sunday will enjoy a somewhat smoother launch than the Scot, or indeed that of the original Scottish Sun in May 1987 - both having been plagued by untested and unready editorial systems which threatened to sabotage the new titles’ debuts.

And it will be interesting to see how comfortably the new title slips into that gap that the Scottish NotW left behind. Since its departure, the Sunday Mail has gained a new editor ... well, regained an old one, anyway, and Media Scotland’s shown a softening of its hardcore anti-SNP line.

Yet Murdoch's recent courting of the SNP government - and vice versa - virtually guarantees some kind of op ed or interview by Salmond or another senior Holyrood player welcoming the new title to Scotland's shelves. The Mail's going to have to pull out every stop to compete - anything less hands initiative to the rivals over at Guildhall.

With the Sun outselling the Record, and the gap between the Mail and the Screws having been so narrow, it would be a humiliating blow early on for Allan Rennie, and another sharp kick to morale at the if the new Sun on Sunday were to slip into the NotW-shaped black hole in the Scottish Sunday market and knock the Mail into second place.

Indeed, in Scotland the new Sun on Sunday is in a virtually win-win scenario. Debut behind the Sunday Mail’s sales, and it’s still early days for a paper finding its feet. Launch with a bigger circulation, and it confirms the dominance of the NI brand in Caledonia.

Expect a lot of nerves to be jangling on Clydeside this weekend.

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