Last week saw the publication of Margaret Beckett’s report into why Labour lost last year’s the general election. The report can be read in a number of ways to confirm your own views about what Labour did wrong. During this period of Labour Party soul searching it is worth remembering what the weeks leading up to last May’s election were actually like. Immediately before the election the right wing press were full of images of Ed Miliband looking weird eating a bacon sandwich, front page articles about how his economic policies would bankrupt the country and how Labour had let an army of migrants into the country to simultaneously steal your job and claim benefits.
The Beckett report confirmed the perception that Labour was out of step with what most voters wanted, especially in terms of the economy, benefits and immigration. I find myself asking: were Labour out of step with public opinion, or were the public told Labour was out of step by the right wing media? Miliband committed to austerity, and controls on immigration, but it did not make a difference at the ballot box. Was this because the right wing papers rubbished Miliband from the start and never allowed his policies to have a fair hearing?
The power and influence of the nebulous right wing media are often cited by lefties on both sides of the Atlantic as the reason for electoral failure. Surely the masses would embrace nationalisation and higher taxes on the wealthy if only someone would explain to them how this is in their interest, preferably in words of three syllables or less. Maybe the left should stop using the right wing media as an excuse and confront its lack of popularity? After all, circulation of newspapers is declining. In Britain we have (largely) unbiased TV news coverage, and social media offers a far greater ability to reach people directly and convince them to support left wing policies.
When looking at this argument, it must first be said that there is clearly an overwhelming right wing bias in the print media. This is not imaginary. Apart from the Guardian and the Mirror, every mainstream daily paper supported a ring wing party in the last election - they all supported the Tories apart from the Express, which supported UKIP.
The coverage of Cameron and co. is generally favourable. The most glaring example of this is the press’s reaction to the comprehensive spending review in November. In the run up to the election, Labour campaigned on less austerity, higher corporation tax and a mansion tax on expensive homes. The papers’ reaction was that this would be the end of Britain, capitalism would crumble as incentives to be successful were removed, the rich would all move overseas and take their money with them, the deficit would swell and we would face an economic crisis of the same magnitude as Greece’s. Labour’s policies were a socialist dagger aimed at heart of Britain.
Then along comes the comprehensive spending review and George Osborne puts back his own deficit reduction target as well as raising corporation tax and stamp duty. The papers praise him as a level-headed chancellor, a moderate liberal claiming the centre ground of politics. Labour’s grab at the homes of rich would have put grannies onto the street. Osborn’s is a sensible policy for a more prosperous Britain.
John McDonnell did not help matters by waving around Chairman Mao's Little Red Book, but even so, the magnitude of Osborne's U-turn on working tax credits, on tax cuts and clearing the deficit went entirely unacknowledged. The Independent tried to draw everyone's attention to the gaping silence over Osborne’s back and forth on the economy: “George Osborne executes a tyre-melting U-turn over tax credits, and the nation’s ears are drawn away by the gentle thud of a little red book landing on a table.” However there was little open criticism of the government. Another painful example is when during the election campaign Cameron forgot his supposed football allegiance, saying he supported West Ham when in 2010 he claimed his team was Aston Villa. Could you imagine what would happen if the Labour leader had made this mistake in the weeks before an election? The front pages would be filled with photoshopped images of Miliband in different team’s stripes or probably as a giant ham.
The circulation of newspapers is declining steeply. In 1997 The Sun sold an average of 3.8 Million papers a day. Today it is less than 2 million. Over the same time period the Guardian’s circulation fell from 430,000 papers a day to 185,000. However these papers still have a lot of influence. Millions of non-purchasers still absorb their headlines in the newsagent’s queue. The power of their brands has made them very competitive in the growing space on online news and social media. People trust established papers and its shows in the fact that the Mail online is the most read news source in the UK. The Sun as a million Twitter followers, whereas the Carny (a new online only, left wing news source) has less than 4 thousand Twitter followers. The power of established newspapers brands to decide what is news and what is talked about is still very high.
The question is, does any of this influence the way people vote? Most news and commentary is read by people who follow politics regularly and most of these people have a set party affiliation. Social media - for all its ability to take left wing message directly to those who can benefits from them - is in reality a vast echo chamber, bouncing people’s own opinions back at them. Guardian editorials attacking the savagery of benefit cuts are shared and read by people who were going to vote Labour anyway. Telegraph editorials about the need to reduce the deficit are ready by Tory voters. Biased words falling on biased ears.
The newspapers do shape public opinion but they are also shaped by public opinion. Case in point is the Daily Mail putting a drowned Syrian refugee on their front page. The huge swell of support for the refugees in public opinion forced a newspaper that is typically strongly against immigration to take, for a time, a more compassionate line.
The right wing media also back the party that is going to win, whatever that party is. Despite headlines about Ed Miliband being in Nicola Sturgeon's pocket, The Scottish Sun endorsed the SNP in the general election, because they were going to win whatever happened.
My view is that the right wing media is not an impassable bar to left wing progress. The media follows public opinion as much as public opinion follows the media. I believe that the right wing press makes it harder to put left wing arguments across, but not impossible. When used properly, social media and online news can reach people directly and circumvent the right wing dominance of the printed media. When the left is doing badly then the press will be an obstacle to electoral success. When the left is doing a good job of getting our arguments across, then the press will fall in line behind popular and successful arguments.