Sense and nonsense about newspapers and elections

I’m getting asked a lot of questions about newspapers and their effects on elections. Any kind of close or surprising result usually unleashes a wave of claims that newspapers have manipulated, influenced or dumbed down coverage. If the past is any guide, most of these theories will be wrong.

I took part in a discussion on Radio 4’s Media Show on this subject yesterday. My City University colleague Roy Greenslade wrote a fine debunking Evening Standard column. Hold on to the following facts as you listen to claims that it was newspapers wot won it or lost it.

  • Evidence that formal endorsements of political parties by papers change votes is hard to come by. People mostly don’t choose their paper because of its political allegiance. Twenty per cent of Daily Mail readers regularly vote Labour. If newspapers ever influence how people think politically, they only do so very gradually. Stop Press: the complexity of this is well caught by a neat new experiment from The Times.
  • A majority of newspaper titles advocate a Tory vote and that’s been the case in the 17 elections since 1945. Labour won nine of those outright.
  • In 1945, when newspapers commanded a vastly greater “mindshare” than now and television broadcasting hadn’t begun, most editors and proprietors campaigned for a Conservative victory. Labour won a landslide.
  • Newspapers now compete in a media market filled with hundreds of broadcast channels and proliferating new media platforms. When The Sun switched allegiance from Labour to the Tories last autumn, one major pollster pointed out that they were following, not leading, their readers who had moved in the same direction earlier in the year.
  • The media event of this election wasn’t the much-hyped new media or print but TV. The leaders debates moved Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems 9-11 points up in the polls and they stayed there. Print does not do this and never has.

What newspapers do is to help frame the agenda. That has been notable in several ways during this campaign. The three party leaders shared an unspoken agreement that none of them were going to talk about the public expenditure cuts to come in full, unexpurgated detail. Partisan sniping was OK, full disclosure was not. Some print commentators railed about this in broad terms but it was left to the Institute of Fiscal Studies and Channel 4 News to punch through this grisly consensus of concealment with the some hard facts.

Second, don’t lose sight of the fact that close focus on the campaigns distracts news media from what’s happening just outside their restricted range of vision. There’s a economic firestorm burning in continental Europe and during the campaign that story has been peripheral. Only yesterday, when three bank workers were killed in Athens, were news organisations forced to wake up and pay attention.

Lastly, coverage of the anti-politics mood has been good where it’s happened but generally thin. Would you guess from the prevailing tone that an ICM poll found that 51% of voters say that political parties are corrupt? Some of the frustration that builds up is to be heard from Claire Fox of the Institute of Ideas and at OpenDemocracy’s OurKingdom blog.

And two footnotes while we’re on neglected bits of the election. The parties all sent senior people over to the US to study the Obama campaign’s tweeting and texting techniques. More of that has happened in the past than before but the “first new media election” hasn’t really happened as predicted. While pondering this I came across this astute post by Paul Mason of BBC Newsnight (plus a followup here). Best thing I’ve read on Twitter.

And the election has been a small moment for new online sources of local news. If you want to know how they’re faring, have a look at this handy roundup by Laura Oliver of journalism.co.uk.

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