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17 February 2015

This election is unpredictable, but we can predict that the media could damage Labour’s chances

They say this election will be the most unpredictable for a long time. But the media’s coverage won’t be, and it could even help to shape the outcome.

By Ian Taylor

We’re continuously told that it’s nigh on impossible to predict the outcome of the forthcoming election. Pollsters and pundits invariably hedge their bets whenever they’re asked to look ahead to May. But academic research focused on the last five elections would suggest one aspect of the election can be foreseen, and that is how the media will cover it.

Since the 1992 election, researchers at Loughborough University have investigated how all the national newspapers, each of the terrestrial television channels, the Today programme, and, since 2001, Sky News and Radio 1’s Newsbeat, have covered general elections in the UK. While no two elections are identical, there are clearly some recurrent features and evolving trends in the media’s coverage. They provide some valuable pointers as to what is likely to happen in the lead up to 7 May.

In every case, the most prominent theme across both press and broadcasting has been a focus on the election campaign itself. Combined together, the campaigning strategies and stunts that parties pull off, the spin, the gaffes by senior politicians, and what opinion polls and focus groups say, have always generated far more coverage than any other aspect of the election. By contrast, political issues and policy choices surrounding such matters as the economy, taxation, and public services, etc – which are what elections are supposed to be about – hold the same status as minor characters in a play. Each will have its brief moment in the spotlight; but not nearly as much as the electoral process itself.

Furthermore, the research has consistently shown that many issues, such as poverty and inequality, the environment, transport, defence, business, agriculture, international development, housing, and local government, along with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland rarely ever get a look in. This means that in previous elections, there have been whole departments of state whose role and performance the media have barely even discussed in the run-up to elections. There have even been occasions when the “bread and butter” issues of crime, education and the NHS were largely neglected. During the last election for example, each of those issues attracted just two percent of the overall coverage. Undecided voters who wish to make their minds up on the basis of a rational consideration of substantive issues will have to make do with slim pickings if they rely on the media.

Yet certain changes are afoot. Perhaps the most significant is the re-emergence of press hostility towards the Labour party. Traditionally, and particularly since the mid-Seventies, most newspapers in this country have strongly supported the Conservative party and vigorously attacked Labour. That changed somewhat in the mid-Nineties when the “Tory press” became the “Tony press”, as several previously staunchly Conservative papers, most notably those owned by Rupert Murdoch, changed to give qualified, conditional, lukewarm support to Tony Blair’s premiership. At the last election however, most papers turned away from Labour. In this parliament that lack of support has turned to outright vilification, especially towards Ed Miliband. This will only get worse as polling day draws near.

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This revival in partisanship should be taken seriously. Whenever public figures speculate on the influence of the media, they usually opt for the politically expedient line that the media’s influence on public opinion is minimal by recycling such clichés as the claim that people can make up their own minds, and that the press follow and anticipate changes in the public mood rather than shape it. There is some truth in these claims, but, as politicians know perfectly well, the full picture is more complicated. That’s why they suck up to the newspapers along with their editors and owners.

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The press has the power to set the agenda for the day, to undermine a leader’s credibility through continuously attacking them, and by exposing and exaggerating divisions within a party or a sense of disillusionment among its supporters. The majority of people are still unlikely to change their minds either way. But if just 3 or 4 per cent are swayed, that could prove highly significant in such a closely fought election.

Dr Ian Taylor is a distance learning tutor at the Department of Media and Communication, University of Leicester. He did his PhD at Loughborough and served as a research assistant for its study of the 2010 election