A journalistic cliché we’re likely to hear a great deal more- and it has already been said- is that this General Election is the most important in a generation. But it is often difficult to gauge the significance of a particular election until sometime after the event. What is not in doubt is the outcome in 2015 remains very difficult to predict due to the workings of a UK voting system that now actively conspires against the return of a majority government it once routinely delivered. This is because the two leading parties can currently rely on roughly the support of only a third of the electorate whilst backing for the Liberal Democrats has dramatically collapsed. Allied to this the performance of what used to be referred to by pollsters as ‘others’ (if they were acknowledged at all) has further helped transform the political landscape.
There are likely to be plenty of graphs and statistics in the news media over the coming months explaining the various permutations and scenarios if, as currently seems likely on the available forecasts, another coalition government is formed on or after 7th May. The rise of the anti-European integration United Kingdom Independence Party has made journalists and other commentators far more sensitive to the potential power brokering role of what were once termed ‘smaller’ parties. How many people, even experts, can remember that Lord Pearson was UKIP’s leader in the last General Election? Not so his successor Nigel Farage who has become a household name. This has also helped the Greens, UKIP’s counterparts on the left, to gain more exposure and the party now regularly polls above the LibDems having beaten them in the EU elections. Added to this there is a rampant Scottish Nationalist Party that appears to be on course to win the General Election north of the border for the first time ever and moreover by a substantial margin that could give its MPs real leverage in the next Westminster parliament.
The fragmentation of traditional voter allegiances has happened alongside significant changes in the way audiences consume news, particularly during campaigns. There has been a marked decline in newspaper circulation, notably among those ‘popular’ national titles such as The Sun, who notoriously liked to boast of their supposed ability to ‘win’ elections. Clearly if the redtop ever had any impact on voter perceptions it is more likely to have been a generation ago when it was selling many more copies (over 4 million in the 1983 General Election down to just below under 2 now) and its polemical coverage more black and white in both a literal as well as figurative sense. This was during the late 1970s and 1980s when The Sun (in)famously became the epitome of the ‘Tory press’ through its devotion to Margaret Thatcher. The intensity as well as the direction of this partisan allegiance (if not the underlying ideology) changed as the title joined the so-called ‘Tony press’ of the 1990s and the paper became more notably qualified in its endorsement for Blair if not necessarily his party.
2010 saw something of a reversion to type when Rupert Murdoch overcame his initial ambivalence towards David Cameron and his redtops subsequently returned to supporting the Conservatives. This culminated in the kind of more committed Sun support not seen since the infamous 1992 anti-Labour front-page. The newspaper’s change of allegiance had been brokered by Cameron’s chief spin-doctor Andy Coulson who was appointed to the job because of his considerable experience as editor of Sun stablemate The News of the World. The Prime Minister has understandably been keen to play down his past associations with Coulson, who he brought into Downing Street as his Director of Communications before the latter’s resignation and eventual imprisonment over phone-hacking. But the impending resumption of the legal marathon surrounding former Scottish Socialist leader Tommy Sheridan, himself the subject of a lurid NOTW expose, will put the disgraced former spin-doctor back in the public spotlight when he stands trial in Glasgow on perjury charges arising from the aforementioned case just weeks before the General Election.
The timing of the Coulson trial threatens to reignite the controversy over the past conduct of Murdoch and his newspapers at a time when the proprietor would likely want voters to be focused on the apparent shortcomings of his leading critic ‘Red’ Ed Miliband. Public consciousness about the workings of newspapers, limited as it might be, has arguably never been greater due to Leveson and the reasons behind the Inquiry. This provides an interesting backdrop to an election where the press might be subjected to more concerted scrutiny by rival commentators, particularly on social media. This has, to an extent, already started to happen and might be the most significant input of the newer digital platforms during the forthcoming campaign. When, for instance, the Mail attacked Miliband’s father for being ‘The Man Who Hated Britain’, Twitter responded by publicizing a photograph of the newspaper’s former proprietor with his then friend Hitler. Some posts were accompanied by images of Miliband senior from his wartime service in the Royal Navy during the Normandy landings. The moral authority of the once seemingly omnipotent partisan press has been diminished. But this is not to say it can’t or won’t play some role in the forthcoming campaign.
If the newspapers face heightened public scrutiny, their ability to influence the agenda with invective against a particular party is lessened by the forging of a political landscape where there are multiple rather two dominant electoral alternatives (or targets). In 2010 the outbreak of so-called ‘Cleggmania’ caused The Sun and other pro-Conservative titles to shift their focus from attacking Labour to the LibDems. Moving forward to 2015 there is now another significant third party alternative in UKIP that right-wing newspapers actually sympathize with but are, with the possible exception of the Express, disinclined to formally endorse. Once again the clarity of any editorial message threatens to be diluted by negotiation of more complex reality. Allied to this 2010 was in some ways a ‘television election’ if largely because of the leader debates. And of course, as the classic Leeds studies involving Jay Blumler and his colleagues first demonstrated, broadcast campaign coverage tends to favour third party(ies) because of the requirement to ensure greater parity of treatment between rival contenders in terms of their share of coverage. Nick Clegg’s equal billing on the debate platform in 2010 took this to another level. This is a lesson not lost on some and is a key reason why further encounters of the same kind might not happen this time.
In ratings terms alone the first ever leaders’ debates in 2010 were a success with nearly 10 million seeing the opening encounter, the second most popular programme after Britain’s Got Talent that week. But it should be remembered the debates only happened because of an unprecedented consensus between the three protagonists who had a different but nonetheless compelling reason for wanting them. Several previous attempts to hold debates stretching back decades failed because (certain) leaders found it expedient not to participate. This factor could still scupper them with Cameron reportedly the most reluctant to participate following the trauma of ‘losing’ the first encounter to Clegg last time round. The Prime Minister might be particularly exercised by the prospect of facing off against his UKIP, Green, Plaid and SNP counterparts in two of the three planned encounters. The widening of the debates in this way is a radical step away from the three-person format last time.
The inclusion of seven leaders raises the possibility that one or more parties might challenge the formula by sending an alternative spokesperson for various reasons such as the Greens potentially seeking to share the platform between their leader Natalie Bennett and her predecessor Caroline Lucas who is the party’s only MP. Similarly the SNP leader, who is not actually yet a candidate in the General Election, could make a plausible case for nominating a substitute standing for a Westminster seat such as her immediate predecessor Alex Salmond, himself fresh from the Scottish referendum debates. Either of these or other similar scenarios would give a reluctant debater like Cameron an excuse to send Conservative Chairman Grant Shapps in his place so as to avoid the ignominy of being ‘empty chaired’. Could the broadcasters really send Shapps, Salmond, Lucas or any other prospective stand-in packing? The debate over the debates is far from over.
Dominic Wring is a member of the Loughborough Communication Research Centre which will be conducting a British Academy funded audit of news media coverage during the 2015 General Election.