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Politics & Law Series: General Election

Did newspapers ever really influence elections?

By Tom Felle, Acting Director of Interactive and Newspaper Journalism at City University London

by City Press Office

Tom FelleThere was a time when the first reviews of a play in a newspaper made or broke a touring company; when the exclusive first pictures were only available to newspapers and magazines; and when political coverage by the news media shaped public opinion.
 
Or at least, we think it did. But did newspapers ever really influence elections?

Political parties certainly have historically thought so, and had invested enormous resources into controlling the message during campaigns. We just have to think of Churchill’s infamous wartime propaganda, the legendary Conservative 1979 ‘Labour Isn’t Working’ campaign, or Blair’s courting of The Sun in 1997.
 
Broadcasters are tightly regulated in the UK, unlike in the US where presidential campaigns revolve around TV advertising as much as shoe leather campaigning. In the 2012 election, for example, Obama spent more than US$1bn on his campaign, US$400m of which was on TV ad buys.

Newspapers in the UK have no such restrictions on editorial, and have all traditionally been partisan in their approach to politics.

Newspaper readers tend to vote for parties that broadly represent their interests, in the same way they buy newspapers that broadly speak to their interests

In the last 70 years, Labour and the Conservatives have been in power for nine terms each. In all that time the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail have never supported Labour during elections, and the Daily Mirror has never supported any party except Labour. The Times have been broadly supportive of Conservative lead governments, except in 2001 and 2005, whereas the Guardian has been broadly supportive of Labour or Liberal Democrat governments in every campaign since the early 1950s.

There are two diverging views of the importance of newspapers in setting public opinion and influencing elections – the agenda setting view (newspapers set agendas and influence opinion) and the reinforcement view (papers tend to reinforce views their readers already hold) – and there are a myriad of studies which find that in some cases newspapers set the agenda, but in other cases newspapers are an echo chamber for the broadly shared views of readers.

For example, one 2010 study after the last election found that 59 per cent of Mirror voters voted Labour, with just 16 per cent voting Conservative. For Telegraph readers, 70 per cent voted Conservative, with just 7 per cent voting Labour. An important study in 1999 by the Centre for Research into Elections and Social Trends at the University of Oxford found that newspapers do have some influence on individual voters choices, but relatively little influence in the overall outcome of results, partly because of the highly partisan and non-homogenised nature of the British press.

So no newspaper can ever have claimed (despite what the Sun might say) that any of them ever ‘wot won it’ for any government. Newspaper readers tend to vote for parties that broadly represent their interests, in the same way they buy newspapers that broadly speak to their interests.

The parties know that in the relatively fertile ground of the online world, in particular social media, opportunities to influence potential voters are limitless

In the digital era, then, and at a time when newspaper circulation is rapidly declining, it is not surprising that all the political parties are investing heavily in social media campaigns in the run up to the May election.

All the parties know that in the relatively fertile ground of the online world, in particular social media, opportunities to influence potential voters are limitless. The 2008 and 2012 Obama campaigns heavily utilised social media (as well as digital resources such as big data to hone their message and to organise and mobilise their campaign teams).

All the major UK parties are planning similar digital strategies for May’s general election. The parties know that with the growing influence of social networks, voters are as likely to take their cues from peer groups than from traditional news media. Newspaper readership is declining, as are television audiences – especially among younger viewers, and for news and current affairs. In the sharable world, peer-sharing of content is king.

So will 2015 be the internet election? The BBC journalist Rory Cellan-Jones has claimed the predictions that 2010 was going to be the internet election were proven wrong. The Internet and social media were used by campaign teams to organise, and by readers as a source for news, but less than was expected.

The days of ‘It’s The Sun wot won it’ are over

Despite this, various surveys, including YouGov, showed that engagement and commentary by 18 to 24-year-olds occurred mainly on social networks. That cohort are an age bracket older now, and have been joined by a new group of young voters. About 24 million adults in the UK now use social networks such as Twitter and Facebook, with around 42 million people using the internet.

So if this is going to be the UK’s first digital first election, why are the parties still courting the press? There are many reasons and no clear-cut answers. The British media has always had a pack mentality, and tends to latch on to issues, so the agenda-setting role still strong (we just have to think of the 2009 MPs' expenses scandal as a case in point). But it’s also the case that in an election campaign where margins are won by inches, no party will be willing to take the chance and abandon newspapers altogether, even if their influence has dwindled significantly.

But the days of ‘It’s The Sun wot won it’ are over - even if the Sun doesn’t know it yet.

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