Boris Johnson has teased Rupert Murdoch for his flirtation with Scottish independence, saying the media baron need look no further than his own business to understand the meaning of “Better Together”.
The London mayor joked that he wanted to see the four parts of the “union” kept together: the Sun, the Sun on Sunday, the Times and the Sunday Times, referring to Mr Murdoch’s four British newspapers.
There was speculation the Sun would become the only major publication to back the Yes campaign, after Mr Murdoch told his 526,000 followers on Twitter this week that Scotland was “ready emotionally and politically” for independence.
His own empire has itself benefited from splitting into two – analysts say that the 2013 division into print-focused News Corp and television-heavy Twenty-First Century Fox increased the Murdoch family’s wealth by hundreds of millions of pounds.
However, on Wednesday the Sun opted not to back either side in the independence campaign. Few observers thought that its endorsement would have exerted a decisive impact – unlike after the 1992 UK general election, when the tabloid proclaimed “It’s the Sun wot won it”.
“There is a very long history of people who buy one newspaper voting the opposite way to the one that the newspaper recommends,” said George Brock, a former journalist and senior Times executive who is now a professor and head of journalism at City University. “Rupert is – first and foremost in this kind of situation – a mischief-maker.”
Most major titles have openly opposed independence, leading to accusations of bias by the Yes campaign. Only the Sunday Herald, which has a weekly circulation of 24,000, has supported independence – and even then it seemed to play down the significance of its stance. “We state our opinion not in an attempt to persuade our readers. That would be presumptuous and arrogant,” the paper wrote in an editorial in May.
If any media can claim credit for the tightening of the opinion polls, it is the televised debates between Alex Salmond and Alistair Darling, leaders of the Yes and No camps. In early August, the No campaign led by up to 20 points in the polls. Six weeks later, following two TV debates, the two are neck-and-neck.
The impact may not have come from the debates themselves. “So few people watched them and they tended to be political obsessives, who are unlikely to change their minds very much,” said Joe Twyman, head of political and social research at YouGov. But the subsequent media coverage – indicating the Yes campaign’s success in dealing with issues such as a currency union – may have “focused the mind” of wavering voters, Mr Twyman said.
Mr Murdoch may be relishing the discomfort among British politicians, many of whom have distanced themselves from him since the phone-hacking scandal erupted in 2011. “Scottish independence means huge black eye for whole political establishment, especially Cameron and Miliband,” he has previously tweeted.
He has a warmer relationship with Mr Salmond, who this year described Mr Murdoch as “a remarkable man”, and recently met Nigel Farage, the other bête noire of Westminster politicians.