Election aftermath: The media

In the first of a special week-long assessment of the general election, politics.co.uk looks at what the campaign taught us about the role of the media.

Come back later in the week to see what the election taught us about the public, political parties, the pollsters and the British constitution.

By Ian Dunt

One wonders who was more nervous on election night: the candidates, or the Sun newspaper. Having dramatically taken away its support for Labour at the party’s autumn conference and given its backing to David Cameron, the electorate suddenly became churlish enough to deny the Tories an outright victory.

This is not how it is supposed to be. The legend goes that the Sun won the 1992 election with its devastating campaign in the lead up to polling day, culminating with: “If Kinnock wins today will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights”. The newspaper always picks the winner, or so the legend goes. True or not, Tony Blair clearly believed it. He feted and charmed Rupert Murdoch and the sense that the Sun could swing British elections was set in stone.

The 2010 general election has made the limits of the newspaper’s influence quite plain. Cameron is indeed in No 10, but he won without a majority and was forced to form a coalition with Nick Clegg. Were it not for the breakdown in Lib-Lab talks, he could easily have never even become PM.

Media observers are starting to look back over the last few decades and wonder if the Sun’s influence was ever that emphatic. After all, the dawn does not arrive because the cockerel crows. Perhaps Sun support and election success are both caused by the same thing, rather than one being caused by the other. Maybe the Sun supports a party for the same reasons that lead the public to support it. Or perhaps the Sun once had the power to influence election, but had it no longer.

If so, its impotence was felt throughout the print media, which reacted angrily to its reduced influence. The attack on Clegg on the eve of the second TV debate told a story about editors frustrated with the way public sentiment did not confirm with their editorial line. The Daily Mail, in a rather questionable and distasteful article, challenged Clegg’s Britishness. The Telegraph challenged his donations – a claim which did not last long. The Express happily joined in.

Declining circulation, the diversification of the media market online and the impact of the recession on advertising budgets are all crippling Fleet Street’s fortunes. The election campaign ably reflected its declining role in British political life. But predictions that the internet would now pick up the baton proved illusionary. Instead, it was the television, a device launched in 1923, which dominated the campaign.

The leaders’ TV debates framed the election. The news cycle was subdued from Monday to Wednesday. It built up towards the debate on Thursday, then covered its aftermath on Friday, before assessing the resulting opinion polls over the weekend. The entire campaign was dominated by the debates, even if ‘Cleggmania’ later failed to translate at the ballot box.

Newspapers were left out in the cold, but blogs, websites and social media did not fare much better. Their influence was present, but unimpressive. Those who had predicted the social media election were left disappointed.

It’s possible that the election of Barack Obama last year, and in particular the way he harnessed social media to create a grassroots movement, has been over interpreted. His success was assumed to be a sign of technological advancement which could be transposed in other countries, during other elections. Instead, the success of this method may have been dependent, for the time being at least, on the specific characteristics of the candidate. Obama appealed to young voters, who happen to be the demographic most likely to use social media. With no candidate in the British 2010 election quite inspiring the young in that way, the power of social media was greatly reduced. In the future, when, as seems inevitable, it is used by larger cross-sections of the population, this will not be the case.

There was some effect from social media, however.

The UK has just started having TV debates. For many decades, US commentators have treated the post-debate spin as equally important – perhaps more important – than the debate itself. Britain followed suit and frantic spin rooms were set up for party spokespeople to convince journalists that their man had won. But these were largely ineffective. The high viewing figures meant much of the public came to its own conclusion rather than relying on a secondhand account from the media. Or, more importantly, it appears many people formed their conclusion from what they had been told of the debates by colleagues and friends.

But social media had a role too. The way Twitter, Facebook and the focus group ‘worms’ responded to the debates on a second-by-second basis had an influence on broadcast journalists on the night itself. They framed perception of how the events had gone. Instant opinion polling had a role too, but the real-time assessment being provided on the internet threatened to make it irrelevant. It gave us an early impression of how the new technology – and the new culture it has produced – might shape future campaigns.

Many of our assumptions about the media proved correct, most notably that print media’s influence is in decline, together with its finances. Some of our presumptions were broadly correct but premature, such as the influence of social media. Some facts of the campaign were entirely unexpected, such as the dominance of the TV debates.

Whatever else happens in the sector, it’s clear that the medium of TV is actually cementing its grip as the dominant form of influence in British politics. The effect of this was felt in party press conferences, where broadcasters always got precedence over newspapers, with websites coming a distant third. That fact alone tells us something of the current state of the British media. But like the Lib Dems and Labour fighting for second place, we should look to the next election to see if websites haven’t replaced newspapers in the pecking order by 2015.