Three-D Issue 24: All to Play for?

Ivor GaberIvor Gaber
University of Sussex

 A few weeks ago David Butler, the doyen of academic pollsters who has been following and writing about elections since 1945, said: “I have been watching elections for the past 70 years and this is, undoubtedly, the least predictable and most interesting one I have ever been involved with.”

I would not attempt to put myself in the David Butler class, except to paraphrase his words, and say: “I have been following and writing about media coverage of election campaigns since 1979 and this is the least interesting one I have ever been involved with.” A slight exaggeration I know but, apart from the ongoing shenanigans about the TV debates, little of interest appears to be happening in terms of the traditional media – the social media is perhaps a different kettle of fish.

Let me begin with the press, reports of whose demise have been greatly exaggerated. This is for two main reasons. First, because of the sheer numbers reading a newspaper on a daily basis. According to the Audit Bureau of Circulation(ABC) , the combined daily and Sunday sales of national newspapers in Britain is around 7 million and once we add in readership, as opposed to circulation, we get to something like 15 to 20 million people seeing a print newspaper every day. If we then add in the online audience we get a daily readership figure, not of 7 million, nor of 15 million but one, according to the ABC, of 70 million.

The second reason why the press remains important is that newspapers still play a key agendas setting role with the rest of the media. The broadcasters, all of them, still remain ever willing to follow newspaper agendas. The BBC’s Business Editor, Robert Peston, recently spoke of his “frustrating” in the way BBC News was “completely obsessed by the agenda set by newspapers” particularly the Mail and the Telegraph. And much the same would go for ITV and Sky News.

A similar charge can be levied against the blogs and social media. For whilst they play an increasingly important role in breaking new stories and giving space for voices to be heard that are normally shut off from the national conversation, nonetheless an enormous amount of social media traffic is devoted repeating, or commenting on, what the newspapers are, or are not saying.

So what’s new in terms of the media? Not a great deal. Newspapers’ political sympathies (and concomitant levels of political distortion and abuse) have returned to their pre-Blair norm. (It’s worth noting, in passing, that those newspapers that supported New Labour were supporting New Labour’s leader rather than the party). It is now back to business as usual with the Tories having an overwhelming lead. The 70 million daily readership figure breaks down to 52 million seeing newspapers and websites that support the Conservatives and 18 million that doesn’t – although that does not necessarily mean that these newspaper are committed to Labour.

The personal abuse, which was far less of a factor during the Blair years, and began to creep in during Brown’s tenure, is now firmly back on the agenda. Ed Miliband is having to endure, particularly from the Mail and the Sun, Kinnock-level torrents of abuse. A Nexis search of the use of the term ‘Red Ed’ over the past 12 months reveals that the Mail (print and online) carried 243 articles using this term and the Sun 178. And it’s worth recalling that this abuse both predates and follows the furore that engulfed the Mail’s after it attacked Miliband’s father as, ’The Man Who Hated Britain’ (conveniently overlooking the fact that, during the Second World War, he spent three years in the Royal Navy as a volunteer)

The broadcasters, to their credit have not fallen for the ‘Red Ed’ line’. They are legally obliged to demonstrate impartiality during election campaigns, and for the most part they do. However, their eyes, understandably, has been firmly fixed on the diminishing prospect of leaders’ debates. Hence it is difficult to envisage their non-debate coverage of the coming campaign as being ground-breaking. Certainly, in 2010 coverage of the three leaders’ debates dominated the broadcasters’ output both editorially and quantitatively.

So what of the new, or now not so new, boys on the block – the social media? In the run-up to the 2010 election some foolish commentator (this author included) suggested that this would be a campaign in which the political blogs would pay a crucial role. They didn’t. As the election approached the blogs, or at least most of them, fell into line and became cheerleaders for their respective parties. This time round we are witnessing much the same. It is particular disappointing to see the Guido Fawkes blogspot, usually outrageously anarchic (albeit with a strong right wing/libertarian tinge) has become little more than a mouthpiece for Conservative Central Office.

So if not the blogs, what about the social media? Well, along with colleagues from Sussex and the Demos think tank, this author will be investigating the role of the social media (and in particular its interactions with the politicians and the traditional media) in a number of key marginals in the South of England. We will mainly be focussing on Twitter, because the overwhelming majority of its traffic is public, but we will also be keeping an eye on public Facebook posts as well.

For those inclined to dismiss Twitter as the Westminster bubble taking to itself its worth pointing out that in the UK there are an estimated 15 million users. Even before the campaign had started Demos logged 10,000 tweets every week from MPs and a further 10,000 from prospective parliamentary candidates. As for the public, Demos found that were sending around 300,000 tweets a week, either to politicians or about them. And it’s worth noting that during the television coverage of one of the Scottish independence referendum debates last year, there were 150,000 tweets just during the debate itself.

Of course a Twitter reality check is also in order. The profile of the 15-million Twitter users is markedly different from that of the population as a whole being skewed towards the younger, more affluent and better educated. Nor do the 15 million tweet equally, indeed Twitter is dominated by a few ‘noisy individuals’ talking a lot. So it is not representative but given the (admittedly now slightly dated) two-step theory of communication, which suggests that certain individuals are more influential with their peers than others, then heavy Twitter users, apart from having their voice amplified by the traditional media, might also be making greater impact with friends, family and workmates.

So maybe, in terms of the media, things might turn out to be a little more interesting than they first appear. Stay tuned.

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