By Josh Eldridge, Consultant, London
Journalism is a powerful force in British politics, especially at election time, with a disengaged electorate who can’t tell the difference between candidates. Without the press, the electorate would be forced to rely on unfiltered party messaging, party activists and doorstep campaign leaflets. With campaigning underway the General Election media coverage will be voluminous and multi-platform.
Aside from a self-evident acknowledgement of the sheer volume of political journalism, what can we say about the media’s election coverage? Well, for starters it is not as varied as you would expect in light of the amount of it. Many scribes tend to skip to the perceived meaty bit – i.e. who is going to win? Once this crucial question has been chosen, journalists tend to focus analysis or opinion pieces about the merits, of lack thereof, of party leaders – mimicking the all-consuming focus of US electoral coverage. However, as Prof. Archie Brown highlighted in a BBC article, the idea that party leaders are almost entirely responsible for electoral success or failure is overstated. Brown argues that leader’s standing and the popularity of their opponent only really makes a difference in extremely close-run races (such as the one it appears we currently have on our hands).
A collective focus on party leaders can have some odd side effects too, such as “Cleggmania”, a ‘phenomenon’ that ultimately failed to deliver any real electoral gains. Part of the explanation for this incessant focus on party leaders is explained by media law during election time. Whilst journalists can say whatever they like about the main party leader, they cannot say anything about a candidate. The Representation of the Peoples Act makes slandering a candidate a crime. However, this does not explain why frontbenchers and shadow cabinet members do not figure more highly in election journalism – particularly in light of electoral fatigue amongst an electorate that grows tired of the sight and sound of just one or two politicians during the campaign.
2010 will not only be remembered for ‘Cleggmania’, TV debates and the coalition, but also for once again failing to see the ‘internet election’ and the impact of social media, ‘vlogs’ and Twitter on the outcome. Technological advances have ushered in the dramatic rise of digital journalism and further opened up political punditry, but at the same time, readers are savvier, as they search for high quality content from the most credible sources. Indeed most voters aren’t following the politics news blow by blow but look to trusted sources and their social media networks to guide their reading habits before committing their precious spare time. The outcome of #GE2015 is unclear and the likely impact of online journalism is even less clear, but at the last election it was traditional mediums that had the biggest impact – primarily print journalism and television (as well as a good dose of local radio).
As politically influential papers go, Britain’s top selling newspaper The Sun is a case in point. After famously declaring “It’s the Sun Wot Won It” after John Major’s 1992 victory, the paper supported New Labour in 1997 before abandoning Labour in 2009. Furthermore, their political influence is a key part of their image and carefully maintained. For instance, at the point of the Brown defection – the headline “Labour’s lost it” was strategically timed to cause maximum damage during the 2009 Labour party conference.
Journalism clearly influences how voters see parties, but what is the overall impact? The answer to this lies in the interplay between those in power and those tasked with holding them to account. The agenda setting effects of the 24 hour news cycle has forced a higher level of accountability from our elected representatives and empowered the media. Journalistic influence impacts more heavily on politicians and party agendas than on the electorate’s voting habits.
Risking accusations of idealism, I would argue that the best exponents of newspaper journalism understand their readership base and seek to reflect rather than control their reader’s political outlook.