The Influence of the media

Politics Shed Podcast The Media

1983  Newsnight reflects on the changing style of UK elections. I983 was an election which saw the Conservatives use the media in a manner which seemed new but would now seen quite ordinary. Photo opportunities and choreographed speeches- politics was becoming more of a  performance an less spontaneous.

Holding up a mirror or a distorting lens? What is the impact of the media?

While large sections of the public do believe the press influences them, research suggests it does not. Instead the newspapers tend to reflect the typical political views of their readers rather than leading them. The papers may also reinforce existing political attitudes, but there is no strong evidence that they can change them.

Giving evidence to the Leveson Inquiry into press behaviour in 2012, the Sun’s owner, Rupert Murdoch, admitted that newspapers do not swing votes, they do merely refect readers’ opinion. However, the fact that the Sun has backed the winning party at every election between 1979 and 2015 does raise some questions about its influence. Newspaper expert Roy Greenslade believes that the press can and does influence voters, though he accepts that the effect is small and cannot really be proven. Tom Felle of City University’s newspaper journalism department disagrees, suggesting that it might have been the case in the past but is decreasingly so. Felle also points out that younger voters increasingly rely on social media for their information, so the influence of the press is waning.

The role of the media has traditionally been to:

■ report accurately on political events

■ provide a commentary on political events and policies

■ act as a check and scrutinise the government of the day

■ investigate controversies and bring them to public attention

■ educate the public on major issues and explain the potential impact of the various options available

■ provide a forum for public debate and discussion, and act as a bridge between the electorate and the elected

But has it changed?

■ The press and online sources have become overly partisan and mock and ridicule rather than providing informed debate.

■ They have created a national mood of cynicism towards politics and politicians by their focus on scandal and corruption.

■ The media have made entertainment out of politics.

Print Media is in decline

The oldest form of media is the newspaper press. Circulation of most newspapers has declined in recent years as voters have increasingly turned to new media, notably the Internet from the 1990s and social media from the 2000s. However, the press continues to be important. Many people now read newspapers online. Television and radio news programmes take up stories that the press has publicised, and newspaper journalists are often quoted and interviewed on other media.

Television still dominates media coverage of elections, and is probably the most important means by which voters obtain political information. An estimated 9.6 million people watched the first of the leaders' debates in the 2010 election campaign. Seven million viewers watched the leaders' debate on ITV in the 2015 election and 4 million watched a further BBC debate in which only the opposition party leaders took part.

Opinion polls

 The role of opinion polls has increased considerably since the 1970s. Parties, think-tanks, interested individuals and the media all commission a variety of opinion polls to try to work out how the respective parties are faring. These polls are often used to test key policies, leadership performance and the success of a campaign. Opinion polls are also used by the media as a starting point for political discussion and reporting. Polls can be a useful tool to help parties tailor their policies and messages to target key demographics and ensure they appeal to voters’ concerns. When they are done badly, polls can misrepresent public opinion and affect the way in which people vote.

Opinion polls, run by firms including Ipsos MORI, Populus and YouGov, aim to gauge the popularity of political parties by asking a sample of people how they intend to vote. They also ask the public more detailed questions about their opinion of the party leaders and their policies. Opinion polls have become an integral part of election campaigns. The parties take note of their findings and conduct their own polls. Another variation is the exit poll, which asks voters how they have voted as they leave the polling station. This does not of course take account of people who have voted in advance by post.

Opinion polls are not always accurate. In 1992 most failed to predict John Major's 21-seat majority. Instead most polls predicted either a narrow Labour victory or a hung Parliament. There were different explanations for the inaccuracy. Some commentators suggested that there was a 'boomerang effect' — the polls had shown Labour in the lead early in the campaign, causing voters who did not want a Labour victory to turn out and cause a late swing to the Conservatives. It was also suggested that the results had been skewed by the phenomenon of so-called 'shy Tories': people who intended to vote Conservative but did not want to declare themselves in public because they felt self-conscious about supporting a party that was viewed as 'uncaring'. In

response to this the polling firms adjusted the way in which they selected their samples, and made more use of telephone polling, which was considered more accurate than face-to-face interviews.

The polling agencies were wrong again in 2015. They correctly predicted that the Scottish National Party would overwhelm Labour, which had previously been a powerful force in Scotland but, at UK level, on average they predicted that Labour and the Conservatives would each win about 34 per cent of the vote. This proved to be some way off the mark: in the event the Conservatives won a small majority with 38 per cent of the vote, leaving Labour with 31 per cent. An inquiry found that the polling firms had not surveyed a representative selection of the nation's voters. In particular,they did not question enough retired people, who were more likely to be Conservative supporters, and they interviewed too many politically engaged young people, who were untypical of their age group and were more likely to vote Labour.

TV Debates

Televised debates have  now become a common feature of elections. The BBC, ITV and Channel 4 have all held leadership debates in recent elections and do so under scrupulous conditions, overseen by the Electoral Commission. However, it is not at all clear that leadership debates have any significant impact on the voters. Nick Clegg’s spectacularly good performance in the 2010 debates still led to a decline in his party’s share of the popular vote. Similarly, in a BBC Challengers’ debate held in April 2015, just before that year’s election, and in which David Cameron did not take part, the opinion polls suggested that Ed Miliband narrowly won, even over the enormously respected Nicola Sturgeon, but Miliband’s poor standing in leadership polling did not change and his party lost an election it was expected to win.

What has been the impact of changing types of media?

The Internet played little if any part in politics during the first decade of its existence, the 1990s. As late as 2000 only 26 per cent of households had Internet access. This figure had risen to 82 per cent by the time of the 2010 election, leading the political parties to make extensive use of the Internet to reach the electorate. Most MPs had their own websites, which became the most important way for the public to learn about their activities and to communicate with them. Established media outlets such as the BBC set up their own websites, and major newspapers had started to appear online as well as in print.

Another new feature by 2010 was the rise of social media, such as Facebook and Twitter. By 2015 these platforms had been joined by Snapchat and Instagram, and this was widely expected to be the first general election in which social media would play a major role. The parties were certainly aware of the potential of the new media. For example, the Conservatives reportedly spent f100,000 a month on Facebook advertising.

These developments have helped parties to reach the young in particular. A survey on the eve of the 2015 election indicated that 79 per cent of 18 to 24 year olds relied almost totally on online sources to inform themselves, while 59 per cent depended on social media to discover others' opinions on politics. This generation has not acquired habits of buying and reading newspapers, which they see as too expensive, less convenient and not fully up to date in an era of 24-hour news coverage.

However, these considerations do not apply with the same force to older people, who are much more likely to turn out to vote. They continue to derive their news from the press and TV, and to read the contributions of columnists and commentators for interpretations of political events. There is little evidence that social media played a major role in shaping the overall outcome of the 2015 election.

The political parties clearly believe in the continued importance of the press and television. In the 2015 election Conservative-supporting newspapers repeated David Cameron's claim that if voters did not choose his party, they risked putting a weak Labour government in office, propped up by the SNP. The Daily Telegraph printed an appeal from 5000 small business owners not to place the economic recovery in jeopardy, and to give Cameron a mandate to finish what he had started under the coalition. Similarly Cameron was anxious in 2015 to make sure that, if he could not evade participation in televised debates, the timing and format of these events should work in his favour.

More generally, over the last three decades political leaders have become more conscious of the importance of projecting a favourable image in the media, and of seeking to control the news agenda as far as possible. This reached a peak under the New Labour governments, which took the business of news management very seriously. This was the era when the term 'spin doctor' was coined. To cope with the arrival of 24-hour news in the 1990s Tony Blair recruited a press secretary, Alastair Campbell, who was the political editor of Today newspaper at the time. Blair's Number 10 developed a so-called 'grid' of forthcoming events so that news announcements could be made around them, presenting the government in the best light. Later governments have been no-less controlling. In his memoirs Kenneth Clarke, an independent-minded member of David Cameron's Coalition Cabinet, tells a story that illustrates this. Early in 2014 he was informed by Downing Street that he was not needed for the BBC's 'Question Time' because the programme makers had inadvertently booked another minister to appear. When Clarke telephoned to verify the story, the programme makers expressed surprise; they had been told by the Number 10 Press Office that he could not be on the panel because he was unwell. The only possible conclusion was that Number 10 preferred to have a spokesman who could be relied on to toe the agreed government line.

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