The media and the General Election

The UK General Election in May 2010 came too late to feature in MSB5, but since we mentioned some of the media issues that arose during the US Presidential Election of 2008 it might be useful to explore what happened eighteen months later.

One of the best known headlines from UK election coverage was “It’s the Sun wot won it” from 1992 when the Sun claimed a decisive role in the surprise Conservative victory. There have been various investigations of this claim, including a detailed study by J. Curtice from the Centre for Research into Elections and Social Trends (CREST). Curtice was actually investigating the 1997 election when the Sun switched to Labour – which won with a landslide. Curtice concluded that the Sun may have had a minimal effect in changing a small number of voting choices but that overall it did not influence the result, nor was there any evidence that it had any effect on support or opposition to any specific manifesto points. This places the effect of a ‘partisan press’ in the UK as marginally more important than has been accepted by various North American surveys of voting behaviour, but still short of real influence on the result.

In 2010, the Sun switched back to the Tories (Conservatives). But although Labour lost, the Tories didn’t win. No UK newspaper asked voters to elect a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, although the Guardian enraged some of its readers by switching to fully support the Liberal Democrats in its editorials. The Guardian is usually seen as a Labour-leaning title.

But if the Press was deemed to have little impact on the election, what about television and ‘new media’. Was this the first celebrity and Web 2.0 election in the UK?

Again the outcome seems at best inconclusive – even if the coverage created a lot of interest. The decision to broadcast the so-called leadership debates meant that network television (or rather network and multichannel TV since Sky was involved) was able to attract what now constitutes a ‘large audience’ to a politics programme (around 8-9 million). What is the importance of this?

Because of the strict impartiality conditions in the regulated UK broadcasting context, these ‘debates’ were very rule-bound and offered little real chance to develop any kind of debate. Consequently the shows prompted a similar kind of interest to reality TV formats. Would any of the leaders make mistakes? How would they come across as performers? The broadcasters themselves added to this sense of reality TV with the ‘worm’ – an animated graph representing the instant positive or negative response of selected audience members to statements by each of the leaders.

The worm as shown on the IML website.

There is little doubt that the Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg benefited most from appearing in the debates. As the least-known of the three, as well as the youngest and most ‘telegenic’, it would have been difficult for him to fail to benefit. Similarly, the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown had the most difficult task (as the best-known and most responsible as well as the most criticised). Clegg’s success resulted in instant increases in the polls measuring support for the three parties. But this was later seen to be irrelevant in terms of what eventually happened in real voting booths.

The TV contests were misleading in many ways, not least because they presented the election as some kind of ‘presidential contest’. The UK constitution and electoral process is not perhaps as well understood by voters as it might be. The political system – and in particular the first past the post voting system – involves complex processes which do not correspond easily to the popularity of the leaders.In practice, elections are won and lost on the basis of a relatively small number of marginal seats changing hands. In these seats, local rather than national factors may prove decisive. Yet several media commentators (who should know better) continued to mislead viewers/readers. For instance, the charge that ‘Gordon Brown was not elected as Prime Minister’ was frequently made – as if this was unusual or ‘wrong’ in some way. But the electorate do not elect a Prime Minister – the various political parties elect their own leaders. Here we come to that North American claim about the ‘effect’ on voters. It may be that press and broadcasting reports don’t actually change the voter’s mind but they do help to ‘set the agenda’, ‘define the issues’ etc. It was interesting after the election to hear Tory politicians discussing the ‘narrative’ of events that they wanted to put across – i.e. their version of what happened. I’ve never before heard them use the term ‘narrative’ in this way. Perhaps there are more media graduates working as political advisers than we thought?

So, although Nick Clegg’s sudden rise in the opinion polls did not translate into more Lib-Dem votes or seats on polling day itself, his higher public profile might well have made the eventual Con-Lib-Dem coalition more palatable to voters by making him seem in some way more suited to govern?

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