Media Endorsement - vital as ever
A look at newspaper endorsements in UK elections.
We have reached that moment in the campaign where newspapers officially throw their weight behind a political party. Most of these are unsurprising: so far, The New Statesman has endorsed Labour, while The Sun is backing the Conservatives. Interestingly, the Scottish Sun has backed the SNP. The SNP will rejoice in this given the mainstream media was near unanimously opposed to a Yes vote during the referendum.
The Scottish Sun case is the exception, not the rule. The Guardian has developed a brilliant infographic providing a history of newspaper endorsements for general elections since 1945, and the consistency of endorsement becomes clear. The Telegraph, Mirror and Mail are dailies that have consistently backed a single party at every election (don’t expect that to change this time around). If you average out support for the remainder, the results are as you would expect, the Guardian and Herald back Labour, while the Express and Times are more often than not Conservative.
How significant are these endorsements? There’s no doubt that they can attract widespread attention, such as The Sun’s (in)famous ‘If Kinnock wins today will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights’ headline in 1992. The paper itself certainly let there be no confusion about the potential impact of such a headline - the next day’s paper ran with the headline: “It’s The Sun wot won it”. The real impact is however, impossible to measure.
There are three schools of thought. One that believes newspapers directlyinfluence their readers’ views, an opposing camp that argues people choose a newspaper based on their thoughts and the paper in-turn merely entrenches those beliefs, and finally the view that people do not buy a newspaper because of its political persuasion – perhaps they like a certain crossword. I would sit more comfortably in the reinforcement camp, and this seems to be backed up by research. Unlike any other paper, the majority of Sun readers have backed the winner, e.g. 52% Labour in 1997 and 44% in 2005. This reveals the gradual swing to the right as well which was cemented with the paper abandoning Gordon Brown after the 2009 Labour conference.
Regardless of which view you subscribe to, these questions are much less pertinent today than they were ten years ago. Newspaper readership is declining and mediums such as social networks and new-media outlets such as Buzzfeed and Vice are joining the debate. Younger voters are disproportionately exposed to these unconventional sources but with five-year election cycles their influence will grow exponentially at each election. Just look at the role digital has played in this election compared to 2010 – it has on numerous occasions set the broadcast and print agenda (think #Milifandom and the Milibrand episode of Russel Brand’s YouTube show, ‘The Trews’). The problem with digital however, is that despite having a larger audience, they are not certain to vote. So while the Telegraph might only have a readership of 470,000, nearly all of those are likely to be voters.
Despite the ‘democratisation’ of endorsements in recent times, the political parties themselves take endorsements from traditional media as well as exposure in the press or on broadcast very seriously. This often puts media outlets in the firing line, particularly the broadcasters who are legally obliged to be independent. The Leaders’ Debates and the number of Nigel Farage appearances on Question Time are just two examples of major incidents of airtime disputes.
Loughborough University’s Communication Research Centre has taken this dispute and turned it into academic research. They now provide weekly updates of their meticulous airtime and press coverage analyses. During week three of the campaign, the Conservatives enjoyed a greater quotation time score over Labour and appeared more frequently in the national press. They also observed how SNP coverage went from positive in week one to negative in week three.
With journalists, TV presenters, tweeters and video bloggers now competing to set the tone of the campaign, the endorsement picture is a now a complex web instead of direct and impactful backing. This won’t stop the parties from courting media outlets for their support, although Miliband did break tradition in this regard through his confrontational relationship with Rupert Murdoch, but the results are questionable to say the least. In the UK the swing voter is king and a brazen Sun headline endorsing a party may be off-putting as much as it is reassuring.