Perspective: Beware of the Press Gang; Chris Game Tries to Predict the Impact on Voters of Political Power Playing by the National Newspapers

Article excerpt

Byline: Chris Game

Reports are that, for the very first time, The Times will at least qualifiedly endorse Labour. This would give Tony Blair - rumoured to have assured Mr Murdoch that there would be no early Euro-referendum - the backing of an even bigger share of the national press than he enjoyed, unprecedentedly, in 1997.

If the Express too maintains its own recent conversion to Labour, the party would have the support of nearly three-quarters of national press circulation and an even higher proportion of readership - a remarkable reversal, as we see in Table 1, of the 1983 position.

The question is, of course, does it matter? Wasn't it The Sun 'wot won it' for John Major in 1992? Are readers influenced by the politics of their newspapers, or do they choose papers that reinforce their already formed political views? Are most of them even aware of their newspaper's politics?

I'm pleased to say that these are issues on which my colleagues in academia can shed some useful light. A recent study, for example, found that people with Conservative values reading a Conservative paper voted Conservative in significantly greater proportions than those with the same attitudes and values but who are 'cross-pressured' by reading a Labour paper or who read no paper at all.

The equivalent was true for those with Labour values and views - the Labour Sun reader in 1992 being the typical cross-pressured voter - but, and this is perhaps the most interesting bit, more so.

It seems that, in both 1992 and 1997, reading a Labour newspaper was a more important reinforcing agent for Labour sympathisers than reading a Conservative paper was for Conservatives.

If, as such studies suggest, there is an independent press influence on voting behaviour, we must keep it in perspective. It is a small influence, making at most perhaps a five per cent difference to voting patterns. But then that would have been enough to affect the outcome of every election in the past half-century, except 1983, 1987 and 1997.

To judge from the polls, it may not be decisive next week either. But it certainly could have been in the elections of 1951, 1964, 1974 and 1992, when the results were very close and the Conservative circulation advantage over Labour was between 15 per cent and 39 per cent.

Supporting a party means, obviously, very different things to different papers. Some are as one-sided in their reporting as in their editorials. A recent monitoring of the Daily Mail, for instance, showed 76 per cent of stories about Labour were slanted unfavourably, compared to just two per cent of Conservative stories. The Mirror was much the same in reverse.

The broadsheets are much more neutral in their actual reporting, and their increasing numbers of columnists have a completely free rein. Whatever The Times eventual editorial endorsement, it was in its pages that Tony Blair's election launch address to schoolchildren was described as 'breathtakingly, toe-curlingly, hog-whimperingly tasteless'.

By most western standards, we do have a highly partisan national press, but party bias is only one of the accusations that can be levelled at its campaign coverage. There is its reinforcement of the presidential tendencies of our politics by focusing overwhelmingly on the three main party leaders - accounting for more than 70 per cent of all election news items.

There are the corresponding areas of neglect - of other, even frontbench, politicians; of women (under ten per cent of news appearances); of minor parties; and, above all, of important issues.

Of nearly 2,000 election news items analysed by Loughborough University's communications research centre in the second week of the campaign, housing, transport, employment, the environment, defence, the arts, information technology and e-commerce accounted between them for just four per cent of stories. …