As I’m sure we all know by now, the General Election of 2017 was one driven as much by spectacle as it was policy. From crowds of thousands chanting leaders’ names to grand debates between the biggest parties, throughout the election millions were fixated by the newspapers and television screens telling them that day’s updates. However, each of those sources told a different story, to different effect, influencing the electorate in different ways.
First of all, in the weeks leading up to the General election, I conducted a survey of over 300 people in order to see just how people viewed certain news sites, especially the BBC, being by far the most consumed website for news in the UK (survey here). As a result, I found that 33.8% of Conservatives thought the BBC was left wing, and 34.7% of Labour supporters thought it was right leaning. This leads us to the conclusion that if both sides see a source as unfair, it’s probably split down the middle, as was seen in how of the overall poll only 1.2% of people thought the BBC was the most biased source of news in the UK.
The main points of interest, however, come from the more biased sources. I collected data from eight main news sources in the UK, seeing how many positive/negative articles they published about each major political party in each given day out of their top ten articles.
The Sun was the most right-leaning news source and by a long margin. As seen in the graph below. The Sun held a heavy bias against Labour, which could arguably be said to be a trait of that newspaper in particular. It’s a good tactic to persuade voters that the opposition can’t be trusted and of course, with headlines such as “Don’t chuck Britain in the CorBin”, they’re showing a very clear message to their readers. The Labour Party is not one to be trusted. At the same time, the few positive articles put out are the only rivals to the Labour Party, the Conservatives, sending us a very clear message that there is one alternative.
Further proof of newspapers using this exact technique is seen in the furthest left leaning source. The Independent did essentially the same as The Sun, simply reversed. For example, on the 19th of May, the only party-political articles of their top ten Politics pieces were anti-Tory, with very little said about Labour. This is essentially proof that such negativity radiates throughout the news in the United Kingdom, with opposition to something being significantly easier to cultivate than agreement with its opposite.
Such negativity can be seen permeating through not only the news sphere but the political realm also. At Prime Minister’s Questions every week, the Prime Minister will very rarely tout her own achievements, choosing instead to attack previous opposition governments, as seen in this clip in which Theresa May chooses to target Tony Blair’s record in government, attacking opposition rather than rallying allies. This has however led to the public being quite disinterested in politics, with a poll in 2015 saying that only 37% of people found PMQs informative, and only 14% were proud of Parliament.
Thus, the permeation of negativity from the media into politics leads us to a big question. With the behaviour of Parliament arguably affected by the actions of media, do the media’s perceptions affect democracy in the United Kingdom? If every newspaper were to come down on one side, would an election be a landslide? According to an article from Ipsos Mori in 2010, readers of the Sun showed a 13% swing away from Labour towards the Conservatives as the newspaper changed allegiance between 2005 and 2010. As much as there is an argument that some read what they agree with and will move from source to source (Selective Exposure Theory), there is quite clear evidence that some people are stuck in their ways, will keep reading what they have always read, and their opinions may be swayed by this. Such stubbornness gives media organisations significant power over the electorate, especially news sources with huge readerships.
Overall, given that news organisations can sway the views of the public, often without people realising, the power that these organisations hold is arguably excessive, and potentially dangerous for modern democracies, with the opinions of millions of voters held in the hands of less than a dozen extremely well-off editors, however, no matter how much of a worry this situation can be, there is very little that can be done about it without damaging free speech. The only thing the public can do is read responsibly, learn multiple different points of view, and hope others do the same.
By Joe Blackburn
Twitter: Joe Blackburn