A big day in history: The Sun first appeared on shelves in newsagents

Dominic Sandbrook nominates 15 September 1964 – the date that The Sun first appeared on shelves in newsagents – as a big day in history...

The front page of the first edition of The Sun newspaper. (Photo by Central Press/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the September 2011 issue of BBC History Magazine

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The late summer of 1964 felt like a good time to be British. The economy was booming, and as shoppers strolled down their local high streets in glorious sunshine, they were surrounded by all the trappings of the affluent society: car and television showrooms, crowded supermarkets, teenagers chatting over their mopeds, radios blaring out the latest hits by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Both The Sunday Times and The Sunday Telegraph were now producing colour supplements, glossy guides to this new world of consumerism and luxury, with fashion tips by Mary Quant and short stories by Ian Fleming. But this new Britain still seemed to lack a definitive chronicle.

Then, on 15 September, the first new daily paper in a generation appeared in newsagents across the country. “Good Morning!” proclaimed a banner headline. “Yes, It’s Time for a New Newspaper… a newspaper born of the age that we live in. That is why the SUN rises brightly today.”

The Sun was a quintessential product of the age of affluence. It had been designed to replace the Daily Herald, the old trade union paper, which had once appealed to an industrial working-class readership but was rapidly losing money and readers. Above all, The Sun was based on the work of a market researcher called Mark Abrams, whose surveys on teenage consumerism and working-class prosperity had caused a great stir in the early 1960s. Abrams had also worked for the Labour party, and his emphasis on science and technology lay behind Harold >Wilson’s ‘white heat’ message in the 1964 election. Britain, he thought, was being forged anew in an era of “consumer politics”. What people wanted was a new paper, to match the aspirations of “society tomorrow”. Backed by the resources of the IPC media giant, The Sun seemed bound to succeed. Never before had a media company spent so much – almost half a million pounds, some said – on posters and commercials, illustrated with the device of a blazing orange sun.

The timing was perfect: Wilson had launched Labour’s election campaign just three days before, while the premiere of the new James Bond film, Goldfinger, was only two days away. And as commuters studied The Sun’s first front page, everything smacked of modernity and excitement. Here was the paper of the future: progressive, modern, free thinking and classless.

“Five million Britons now holiday abroad every year,” boasted an opening editorial. “Half our population is under 35 years of age. Steaks, cars, houses, refrigerators, washing-machines are no longer the prerogative of the ‘upper crust’, but the right of all. People believe, and The Sun believes with them, that the division of Britain into social classes is happily out of date.”

The nation’s new leaders, it claimed, were “more likely to emerge from a college of advanced technology than from Eton or Harrow,” and this was a newspaper for them. It was politically independent; it embraced “automation, electronics, computers”. It was “a radical newspaper ready to praise or criticise without preconceived bias. Championing progressive ideas. Fighting injustice. Exposing cruelty and exploitations.” It was the newspaper of tomorrow.

At the gigantic IPC headquarters in Holborn, all was euphoria. On the first day, The Sun sold more than three million copies. Its founding fathers, the newspaper magnate Cecil King and his editorial director Hugh Cudlipp, threw a champagne party at the Café Royal. And then: nemesis.

The Sun, it turned out, was a dud. At rival newsrooms, there were gales of laughter as journalists pored over its bland stories and chaotic layout. Even Labour politicians who had hoped for a big electoral boost were disappointed. “It is a pale wishy-washy imitation of the Daily Mail and I don’t honestly see how it can survive as a daily,” wrote the young Tony Benn. “It is the product of market research, without any inner strength and message. There is little hard news – pages of fluffy features and nothing hard to bite on.”

The Sun was indeed ahead of its time; too far ahead. Readers wanted something that reflected what they were, not what they would become. Within four days circulation had fallen below two million; within two weeks it was selling no better than the old Daily Herald. By the end of the decade it was attracting barely 800,000 readers. The brave experiment had failed; The Sun was finished. In 1969 the IPC group sold it for a pittance to an obscure Australian businessman called Rupert Murdoch. And as it turned out, he had a very different idea of what readers wanted.

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Dominic Sandbrook’s latest book is State of Emergency: The Way We Were: Britain, 1970–1974 (Allen Lane). He is a frequent guest on Radio 4’s Saturday Review.