Media Bias

Debates around bias and persuasion in the media

The media in a democratic society

A free media is a vital feature of a healthy democracy and can play an essential role in holding governments to account, especially when parliamentary opposition is weak, as it was for much of the New Labour era. However, there are concerns about the role of the media in politics. Popular newspapers in particular tend to present an unduly simplified interpretation of political issues, focusing excessively on personalities. Press owners are primarily interested in boosting their circulation figures and cannot be held to account in the same way that politicians can.

Media bias and the political parties

Newspapers are notoriously partisan and will alter their allegiance in response to changing circumstances as much as to any ideological loyalties. For example, The Sun began as a Labour-supporting paper but switched to the Conservatives in the mid-1970s. Its owner, Rupert Murdoch, responded to Margaret Thatcher's hard-line approach to the trade unions, which was in line with his business interests. In the run-up to the 1997 election The Sun abandoned the Conservatives as John Major's government disintegrated and Tony Blair showed that business had nothing to fear from New Labour. It returned to the Conservatives after repudiating Gordon Brown prior to the 2010 election.

Television is less biased in its coverage than newspapers — the BBC Charter insists on political neutrality, and this is by and large followed by the other terrestrial channels. Parties are allocated agreed amounts of air time for their election broadcasts, based on their voting strength in the last contest and the number of constituencies they are contesting.

Websites and social media platforms are not subject to control of their content, and so are likely to be more biased than traditional broadcasters.

When questioned about the support the Sun gave Tony Blair, Rupert Murdoch was asked if it was ant democratic, while giving evidence to the 2012 Leveson Inquiry, which dealt with phone hacking by certain newspapers, The Sun’s proprietor Rupert Murdoch replied, ‘Anti-democratic is too strong a word…it was tasteless and wrong for us. We don’t have that sort of power.’ The Sun went on to back Blair for prime minister in 1997, and again Murdoch commented, ‘In the 10 years he was in power, (I) never asked Mr Blair for anything, nor did I receive any favour.

How much influence do the media have on the public?

It seems unlikely that the influence of the press causes people to change their voting behaviour. It is best to be sceptical of claims that newspapers have decided the outcome of elections, the best known example of which was The Sun editorial on the day of the 1992 election, picturing Labour leader Neil Kinnock's head in a lightbulb and urging its readers: 'If Kinnock wins today will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights.' After Labour lost, the paper celebrated with a headline that was to become notorious: 'It's The Sun wot won it.'

Following the 1992 general election, when the Conservatives won a surprise victory after most predicted a Labour win, the Sun newspaper famously proclaimed, ‘It’s the Sun Wot Won It.’ Certainly the Sun had run a relentless campaign against the Labour Party and especially its leader, Neil Kinnock, and the opinion polls, at first predicting a comfortable Labour victory, turned round near the election date and John Major’s Conservatives secured a majority. Whether or not it was indeed the press that had changed voters’ minds, however, is open to contention.

In fact newspapers usually confirm people's political views, and they read papers that broadly reflect their outlook. However, the importance of the press as a reflection of public opinion should not be discounted — the winning party at each recent election was supported by the majority of the press. In 2010 and 2015 the Doily Mirror was the only major popular national daily that still backed Labour. The press may also shape the political agenda through the way it covers political issues. This may be more important in an age of class and party dealignment, when voters' loyalties to political parties are more changeable.

The influence of television is also hard to judge with certainty. A survey found that 62 per cent of respondents cited television as the strongest influence in helping them form an opinion in the run-up to the 2015 election, while only 25 per cent put newspapers first. Figures for other forms of media were much smaller. However, it is important not to exaggerate the role of television in changing people's opinions. In the 2010 election, Nick Clegg enjoyed a boost in the polls following an impressive performance in the first televised debate. This proved to be a temporary triumph as voters swung back to the two larger, more familiar parties in the final stages of the campaign. Nonetheless, the raising of the Liberal Democrat leader's profile may have helped to deny the Conservatives an independent majority and so had an indirect influence on the outcome.

The importance of television lies in the way that it projects visual images, helping voters to form an impression of the party leaders. The relentlessly negative coverage of Jeremy Corbyn since his election as Labour leader in September 2015 centred as much on his personality and appearance as on his policies. This did not damage his reputation among the party faithful, who chose him as leader in preference to his more conventional parliamentary rivals, but it may have prevented him from becoming established with the wider public.

It seems reasonable to conclude that electronic media, like the press, reinforce rather than change political attitudes. So many differing views are available on websites, blogs and other online forums that it is unlikely that many users will deliberately seek out those that conflict with their own views. Social media more often provide a vehicle for trivial political stories, rather than a serious forum for debate. It is hard to make a case that it has so far done much more than register the increasingly fragmented, personalised nature of modern politics.

New Media

 The significant sums listed in Facebook’s Ad Library Report from October 2018 to May 2020 would certainly suggest the parties believe so.

Liberal Democrats’ total spend on 19,975 ads — £1,312,915

Labour’s total spend on 7,647 ads — £1,219,315

Conservatives’ total spend on 20,887 ads — £999,730

How effectively that money was spent is more debatable, since the actual result bore little relation to the amounts each party set aside for online ads.

In both 2017 and 2019, each of the main parties spent heavily on Facebook ads, which were often carefully targeted, by both location and voter profile. For example, the BBC reported that Conservative NHS ads were targeted in key marginal seats including Stroud and Abingdon. Gender can also be directly targeted. The text of one Conservative ad seen over 250,000 times, but only by female users, read: ‘We’re recruiting 20,000 more police and giving them the powers they need to keep you safe.’ This is just one way that media spending by parties has become increasingly targeted and developed in response to how voters access news and political opinion.

Do the Media have a influence on the public attitudes between elections 

Cultural effects theory is used to explain how this works– this approach argues media influence on its audience isn’t immediate but occurs over a long steady build up over a significant period of time. This process is sometimes known as the drip, drip, drip effect and is popular with neo-Marxists in explaining how hegemony is achieved.


During the 1992 parliament, the media reported on a number of sex and corruption scandals that afflicted the Conservative Party.  A number of political scandals in the 1980s and 1990s created the impression of what was described in the British press as "sleaze": a perception that the then Conservative government was associated with political corruption and hypocrisy .

This led to the party being associated with the term ‘sleaze’ and fed an impression of the Conservatives as ‘the nasty party’ and one that had abused its time in power. This helped swing public opinion toward the anti-sleaze Tony Blair and his 1997 campaign that ‘things can only get better’.

Tony Blair and New Labour became associated with dishonesty.

The BBC reporting and resulting press coverage about a ‘dodgy dossier’ and ‘sexing up’ the case for war in Iraq became a political scandal and resulted in the death of weapons inspector David Kelly. Although the Hutton Inquiry exonerated the government, it fed the impression of Blair as a liar and a ‘poodle’ of President Bush, fundamentally damaging his reputation.

Expenses Scandal 

In 2009, the Daily Telegraph used a freedom of information request to obtain the records of MPs’ expenses. The newspaper then revealed details of wrongful claims and outright abuses by MPs and peers, including a £1,645 claim for a duck house in a garden. This created a mood of cynicism and distrust in politics and all politicians.

The EU

Hostility in the media to the EU and the promotion of myths of mad regulations and waste- made the issue more prominent with politicians than it needed to be. Furthermore, the press successfully began to link the issue of the EU to immigration, an issue that did rank highly with many voters. UKIP adopted this strategy and it explains why pressure to hold an in/out referendum mounted under media pressure.


Perhaps more than anything, the rise in political satire since the 1960s has coincided with a decline in the reputation of politicians and an end to cultural deference. Programmes like That Was The Week That Was began openly mocking politicians and stage shows like Beyond the Fringe presented mocking impressions of prime minister Harold Macmillan. This began to undermine the prestige with which politicians were regarded. Shows like Have I Got News For You, Spitting Image, Mock the Week and The Thick of It have continued to parody politics and politicians.