Election day 2017 saw a predictable barrage of propaganda headlines from Britain’s predominantly right-wing press, pleading with readers to give queen Theresa the mandate she was demanding and administer a bloody good kicking to the socialist terrorist-hugging Corbyn.
Each of the Conservative Party’s four main cheerleaders adopted their characteristic styles: for Paul Dacre’s Daily Mail, a fawning adoration of the Tory incumbent combined with a vicious assault on her opponent. For Rupert Murdoch’s Sun a light-hearted pun with profoundly serious undertones (“Don’t chuck Britain in the COR-BIN” below a deranged-looking Corbyn peering out of a dustbin).
While the Express confined itself to a simple “VOTE FOR MAY TODAY”, the Telegraph quoted May’s rousing entreaty that “Your country needs you”. This followed weeks of barely concealed pro-Tory reporting which owed much to Central Office briefings.
Conventional wisdom (though not, of course, academic research) suggested that this unremitting diet of campaign propaganda relayed through most of the national press would help to deliver May’s inevitable coronation.
So when the results confounded commentators, pollsters, politicians and voters alike, some media pundits were quick to pronounce the end of newspaper power. “This election proves that media bias no longer matters” announced Peter Preston, suggesting that while the printed press “has seldom seemed more overwhelming” in its pro-Tory bias, 2017 heralded the final supremacy of social media over the dinosaurs of the printed press. Veteran media commentator Ray Snoddy also proclaimed “the decline in power and influence of the right-wing tabloids”.
That conclusion is at best premature and at worst simply wrong. While social media clearly played a vital role, particularly as a conduit for the Corbyn campaign, there are four reasons why Britain’s press still exerts considerable power over the UK’s national conversation and its political direction – and will remain a powerful force at the next election.
First, national newspapers continue to set news agendas for broadcasters. Research from Cardiff University has shown how press reporting of the 2015 general election influenced television news, citing as one example a Telegraph front page splash about a business leaders’ letter supporting the Conservatives which led that day’s news bulletins (in contrast to a Guardian report of 140 senior doctors criticising coalition NHS policies, which barely featured). Leading figures in television journalism such as ITV’s Robert Peston and Sky’s John Ryley have both conceded the role of Britain’s national press in determining broadcast agendas.
Second, despite the cutbacks and redundancies dictated by a faltering business model, the UK press still commands a very high proportion of partisan newsgathering resources. While broadcast journalism is circumscribed by strict impartiality rules, newspaper editors can and do direct their reporters to find stories that suit their political agendas. The dominant right-wing titles will frequently lead on “revelations” about hordes of new immigrants, the shocking injustices of human rights law, or the terrible burden of EU membership.
Front page stories in pursuit of those objectives – many of dubious provenance and even more dubious accuracy – can create a firestorm which is difficult for even the most robustly impartial broadcasters to ignore completely. Journalistic groupthink will often demand a follow-up to a front page tabloid story, even if it has its roots in deliberate political mischief.
Third, those print headlines make frequent guest appearances across the broadcast media in newspaper reviews. A recent statistical analysis of one month’s newspaper coverage across the BBC in April-May this year found that the BBC was giving 69-95% more coverage and discussion to papers supporting the Conservatives compared to other parties.
This problem is exacerbated by pundits working for those same newspapers being regularly invited onto discussion panels of news programmes such as Newsnight, Marr, Peston and Daily Politics. Despite the supposed proliferation of online news sites such as Huffington Post, Buzzfeed and Vice News, writers from those sites rarely feature on TV and radio.
Finally, evidence is emerging that time spent engaging with articles in hard copy is significantly greater than online, with implications for how much emphasis we should be placing on the “new plurality” of internet news sites. In a recent article for the British Journalism Review, Neil Thurman analyses audience data to argue convincingly that “online channels are not attracting anywhere near the levels of attention commanded by print”. Newspaper circulation may be declining, but a quarter of the population still read them – and their overwhelming bias – offline.
It is perfectly plausible to argue that – far from being ineffectual – the drumbeat of national newspaper propaganda either inhibited an outright Labour victory, or at least prevented other left-leaning parties from being properly heard. We can be certain that, if there is the remotest prospect of a Labour win at the next election, these same papers will be turbocharging their pro-Tory messages through headline stories and op-ed pages.
The challenge therefore is to ensure that broadcasters – and particularly the BBC – are properly scrutinised for disproportionate dependence on traditional print media (both their stories and their columnists); and to ensure that partisan publishers are held accountable for their own versions of “fake news” stories which can be just as destructive to informed democratic debate as those that emanate from Macedonian bedrooms.
A version of this article will appear in a new collection of essays on the 2017 election, to be published next month, edited by Dan Jackson, Einar Thorsen and Darren Lilleker of Bournemouth University.