Three-D Issue 28: Not the Brexit election many predicted, with events reshaping the campaign agenda

It was billed as the Brexit election, but events have influenced a campaign few predicted. I have been monitoring election coverage with a research team at Cardiff University, comparing TV news across the main UK evening bulletins. The opening part of the campaign began fairly predictably, with the Conservatives tightly controlling their rallies and walkabouts by limiting access to journalists. Brexit negotiations overshadowed the first week of our monitoring, with the Conservatives dominating coverage, particularly on the BBC.

However, the second week coverage become more balanced between Conservatives and Labour, with Corbyn often pictured in front of large crowds of people – notably students – cheering him on in rallies and walkabouts. But in focussing so much on May and Corbyn, the other UK parties received limited attention. Labour and Conservative, at this point in the campaign, made up 81.8% of airtime granted to all parties, yet in the 2015 election they only received 67.3% share of votes.

We also found a relatively light policy agenda in the opening two weeks of campaign. Most news items had either have no or just some policy information, with few ‘explainers’ unpacking the issues between parties. Experts were not used to explore the parties’ policies, as broadcasters choose instead to air – between a fifth and almost half of all sources – citizens’ views in vox pops. These were often short in length and substance, with the public mostly asked to respond to questions about the horse race, leaders’ personalities and, to a far lesser extent, the parties’ policies.

Once the parties’ manifestos were published – a week later – policy was pushed up the agenda. Close to 8 in ten items were primarily about policy issues, whereas the previous weeks of the campaign issues made less than half of coverage. Despite ITV’s leaders’ debates, which gave the Liberal Democrats, SNP, UKIP and the Greens UK prime time exposure, they continued to be largely peripheral actors in the campaign narrative.

After the Conservative’s manifesto launch, social care became the dominant issue as many voters and experts voiced their opposition to the policy. This forced a Conservative U-turn and led to a visibly shaken up PM battling it out with journalists claiming “nothing has changed”. Clearly it had, but the focus of attention was short-lived. The terrorist attacks in Manchester halted campaigning and the government’s response became the focus of attention. Shortly afterwards law and order issues, from terrorism to policing, were at the centre of the election campaign.

When social policy issues were at the top of the news agenda, polls appeared to show a bump in Labour support. Once the spotlight turned to law and order, the Conservatives were on safer territory. Although the election was meant to settle the Brexit debate, the campaign opened up new issues and debates that pushed how the UK will negotiate its exit from the EU off the agenda.

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