It Won't Be the Newspapers Wot Won It; History Shows There Are Limits to the Press's Influence in Elections -- Even before Lib-Dems' Shock Rise in 2010; MEDIA ANALYSIS

Article excerpt

Byline: Roy Greenslade

IN 1945, when the first post-war election was held, it was assumed by most of the press barons of that era that Winston Churchill would win. However, their newspapers were not exactly complacent during the campaign, pouring daily scorn on the "evil socialists" who dared to oppose the man hailed then, as now, as Britain's greatest prime minister.

As we all know, Labour won by a landslide.

Yet the winning party and its paymasters, the trade unions, were not content with having won in the face of newspaper hostility. They demanded, and got, a royal commission to inquire into press ownership and its political influence.

Given that the only non-print media of the time was BBC radio and television (then in its infancy), it may be unsurprising that people were convinced that the barons wielded all-conquering power. But Labour's 1945 election win should have given them pause for thought.

In every general election since, and there have been 16 more, the evidence that points to newspapers being the key instrument forging election victories has been anything but conclusive.

Far and away the best attempt to prove it was made in the wake of the 1992 election, in which John Major decisively beat Neil Kinnock, when a certain red-top boasted: "It was The Sun wot won it."

I don't think I am revealing any secret by saying that Rupert Murdoch was less than delighted with the claim and, after his phone call to the editor, the piece was discreetly moved in later editions from the front page to page two. Martin Linton, then a Guardian journalist and now, just about, Labour MP for Battersea, spent a year at Oxford University doing his level best to show that The Sun had indeed swung the election. His 1995 paper and lecture were very persuasive but, ultimately, his thesis was just as much open to doubt as less academic contentions by rival commentators.

In this millennium, with the media landscape having enlarged to such a degree, the idea that a few newspaper barons call the political tune seems hopelessly far-fetched.

Indeed, in this general election campaign, the papers -- and their owners and editors -- were blindsided by television.

The leaders' TV debates, particularly the first one, have set the agenda as never before.

No newspaper has managed in a single article to add 11 points to a party leader's poll rating, and seen it sustain for so long. Yet that's what happened to the Liberal Democrats' Nick Clegg after a 90-minute appearance.

No paper, not the Daily Mirror in the early 1960s nor The Sun in the 1980s and 1990s, has single-handedly changed the nation's political direction in so short a time. Papers, by their nature, rely on relaying the same message day after day. They build an agenda over time, which is one of the reasons that election endorsements a couple of days before polling are wholly irrelevant to the outcome.

No paper has really championed the Lib-Dems since the decline of the old Liberal party.

The News Chronicle, which vanished in 1960, was its last genuine newspaper champion, though The Guardian has been a regular supporter over 65 years. But, with the greatest of respect to that paper (for which I write a daily media blog), its influence on its relatively small, affluent and educated audience is nothing like as potent as that of a popular paper on its readership. …