A close look at coverage of the election
THE QUESTION before the July meeting of London Freelance Branch was: what trends can we identify in media coverage of the election campaign?
Tim Gopsill - our Branch Secretary and also volunteer editor of Free Press for the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom introduced our speaker. First, he noted that the reason our other hoped-for speaker couldn't make it was "a symptom of the world we find ourselves in" that Eleanor Penny and everyone else at Novara Media was "in the office fighting a Twitterstorm".
Novara, Tim observed, "are part of a big change that has happened in this election". It's right to be a bit cautious - "but it is certain that if the spell of the right-wing popular press has not been broken, it's at least been called out." It may well be seen as a turning point that "the millions who voted Labour against every forecast were getting their information from social media and independent online portals of one kind or another," Tim suggested.
So much news online is shared from existing commercial media: the next bridge to cross is the generation of news from outside the corporate media. Radical journalists need to be better remunerated, and to get involved in the National Union of Journalists, Tim said.
We did welcome Professor Dominic Wring who, with a team at Loughborough University, has closely monitored coverage of elections and a referendum for a quarter century. He was pleased to be speaking to fellow trades unionists - he's active in the University and Colleges Union.
Loughbrorough is one of the UK universities that closely monitor the media. In 1992 the Guardian commissioned a report on what was going on, what was reported, what wasn't, and wanted to know how "presidentialised" campaigning was becoming. The team did reports on the 2015 general election and on what turned out to be the Brexit referendum. Their summary of the 2017 election was that it was "a two-horse race with no winner".
What was striking was the dominance of two parties and the diminution of the Scottish National Party and UKIP, which were to the fore in the 2015 election - and to some extent that of the LibDems. We have "not seen such a binary campaign since the Blair era." And this time there was "major prominence" for the party leaders Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn.
Research showed that those over 47 were more likely to vote Tory. Has age replaced class as a pivotal demographic in political as well as media terms, Dominic mused. He observed that the readership of the traditional popular newspapers - what we used to call the "tabloids" - is largely people in their 50s and 60s. The centre-right newspapers still obviously reach a critical mass of voters.
One of the great things for Dominic about such research is "finding things that we weren't looking for when we started". For example there was barely any mention of the Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland in the major UK outlets. They may have been discussed in social media; but the newspapers' narrative was "one party's going to win it" and they gave no serious attention to the possibility of a hung parliament. Events turned out differently.
The team tallied positive, negative and neutral stories about parties and their leaders. Dominic showed a chart of such stories, weighted by the newspapers' circulations. This showed "mostly a story of papers attacking Labour and ignoring the others" - except in week three of the campaign, with the Tories' "dementia tax" debacle the likely cause of a small net negativity for the Tories and the heat taken off Labour.
It's maybe not surprising that the Financial Times was broadly neutral: it is perhaps more surprising that the Daily Star was "the most neutral".
QHow did the stances of the newspapers compare to the 2015 election?
AWhat changed was a lack of positivity toward the Tories.
QWhat is the popular response to satire - is it a subversive space?
AWe looked at the news sections, and this was a quantitative analysis. Kay Richardson at the University of Livepool has done work on that, which is necessarily qualitative.
QWhat do you think was the influence of broadcast media on voters' choices?
AWe did TV - covering the main terrestrial channels and Sky. We used to do radio, but not this time. There was a noticeable similarity between television and press in terms of the issues covered. It is interesting to speculate why this might be. It is noticeable the extent to which programmes like Andrew Marr still privilege and review the traditional newspapers over other forms of journalism.
QYou mentioned the Star's neutrality - but how much electoral coverage did it have?
AIt was perhaps a flippant comment that the Star was most neutral. Of course it was a vehemently right-wing newspaper in the 1980s. But on the final day of this year's campaign it produced an almost public-service overview of the party policies, with no slant. We would have classified that as a neutral piece. Where it did do politics - it seemed to be trying for a youth audience perhaps, to get away from partisanship. And, no, it didn't run as much electoral news as the Mirror or the Sun.
QHow do you see certain newspapapers' negativity towards Labour changing?
AIt was more pronounced this time; what was most striking was a lack of positivity toward the Tories.
QSo does the press no longer structure people's opinions as much as it used to?
AWho in the audience can guess which year was the high point for UK newspaper circulation? (The Freelance"1907?") It was 1955. There's been a febrile debate among political and media academics over whether press influence has been declining since then. In the EU referendum 55 per cent of Mirror readers were going to vote Brexit, when the paper was pro-remain. More research is required.
QDid you analyse the Metro? On the Tube I see nine people reading that for every one reading a different paper.
AIt is interesting as a new-ish newspaper that's grown. We did look at it in 2015. Is it owned by the Daily Mail? (A: the London edition is, others are complicated.)
QWhat conclusions did you draw from looking at the Liberal Democrats and their then leader Tim Farron?
AIn 2015 we couldn't call them "a smaller party" - this time we could. What struck me was that Farron might have had a problem positioning the party. The issues that came out were their commitment to a second referendum on the EU, and legalising cannabis - and Farron's own religions beliefs, as you suggest. So they were reported as a single-issue party. In fairness they were marginalised following their collapse in 2015.
QRemember "Brenda of Bristol and her "Oh no, not another one!" reaction to news that there was to be an election. Many seem to feel the same way - did resentment drive votes? Was the idea of having a second referendum a turn-off?
ATim Gopsill answered that he didn't think we find voting that much of a burden. He observed "the extraordinary inefficacy of the attacks on Corbyn". The Daily Mail had six pages and plugged a line that Labour were "apologists for terror". He think that "people had a sense of the 'Tabloid Tigers' being unfairly loaded - and even of Jeremy Corbyn's good sense in approaching Republicans in Northern Ireland.
And Tim pointed to "the value of Public Service Broadcasting regulations" that demand impartiality in election reporting. "Statistics show that the national broadcasters were much fairer to Labour than they were before the election. The BBC had Laura Kuenssberg and Andrew Marr asking sensible questions - through gritted teeth - and they had to stop patronising Corbyn, which was worse than attacking him."
QDid you look at fabricated or over-hyped statements - for example Corbyn "not bowing" to the Queen?
AAgain, this was a quantitative analysisother colleagues look at it more qualitatively. It'd be interesting to ask whether it made a difference that people are cross-referencing sources, since they have access to so much online rather than reading just the one paper.
QIs it that young people don't know about Hamas & Sinn Fein?
ATim Gopsill observed that "the IRA thing is a visceral thing for people over 47... and there's the answer that as a Tory Minister Willie Whitelaw met the IRA and came out shining."
QLaura Kuenssberg's coverage seemed to me fairly one-sided at the beginning - when it was obvious that wherever Theresa May turned up there were six hand-picked people to meet her, and Jeremy Corbyn was being mobbed. Does it seem to you that perhaps the media decided they had to reflect the clear message being given by the public and the youth - that they followed, rather than being responsible under the Public Service Broadcasting regulations?
AWhat struck me was when Jeremy Corbyn went to a music festival at Tranmere football ground in Liverpool and they were screaming for him. Compare that to the much younger Ed Milliband seeking to be down with the youth with Russell Brand and how that went. On the other hand, Michael Foot did rallies like Corbyn's and lost.
Dominic noted that coverage has changed again since the election, likely as a result of the hung parliament"what struck me with the Grenfell reporting was seeing journalists being visibly moved and not caring who their paymasters were - with a relative freedom to editorialise."