Three-D Issue 28: The impact of impartiality

At the beginning of this election campaign it looked as if it might be the most lop-sided contest since 1945. Polls showed Labour lagging behind the Conservatives by a 16% to 22% margin – a level of Tory supremacy that even surpassed their landslide victory in 1983, when the Conservative’s won 42.4% of the popular vote to Labour’s 27.6%.

The media landscape has been equally lopsided. Veteran broadcaster David Dimbleby is the latest to criticise media coverage of Labour under Jeremy Corbyn – both for its right-wing bias and its “lazy pessimism” about Corbyn’s viability as a potential Prime Minister. While press bias against Corbyn has been both predictable and overt (as documented by an LSE study), the BBC has also been criticised for lapses in impartiality. In January the BBC Trust reprimanded the BBC’s political editor Laura Kuenssberg for editing an interview with Corbyn on the Six O’Clock news in ways that gave a false and negative impression of Labour’s leader.

Meanwhile the Conservative Party – and Theresa May – have been given a much easier ride. In a series of articles, economist Simon Wren-Lewis describes how the broadcast media’s coverage of the Conservative’s economic record has, by and large, taken Conservative claims about their ‘strong and stable’ management of the economy at face value. This is in spite of a wealth of data suggesting that the government’s austerity policy has, by many measures, hindered economic growth, producing the slowest economic recovery on record, a worse record on GDP per capita growth than any previous Labour government, and a stagnation on earnings that puts the UK behind every wealthy country other than Greece. By repeating rather rather than interrogated a simplistic narrative about the need for austerity, the media allowed the Government’s questionable economic record to become their strongest suit. ‘Strong and stable’ is, he suggests, a media construct.

At the time of writing, we do not know if the much anticipated Conservative landslide will materialise. But polling data, read alongside research by Cardiff and Loughborough, suggests that a more interesting story may be emerging, one which tells us about the importance of our broadcast media and the nature of impartiality.

Both Cardiff and Loughborough showed that the Conservative Party dominated coverage at the beginning of the campaign. This was, in many ways, a continuation of a long-standing trend. Cardiff’s data also showed that reporting focused on broad issues like ‘leadership’, while being very light on policy. This suited a Conservative Party campaign based on promoting Theresa May’s leadership qualities and denigrating Jeremy Corbyn’s.

But election campaigns put the broadcaster’s commitment to impartiality under close scrutiny, and as the campaign wore on we were likely to see some ‘rebalancing’ of the broadcast coverage. Accordingly, both Cardiff and Loughborough found Labour receiving more coverage from week two. While some of this was negative – based on judgments about the leaking of Labour’s manifesto – it also became more policy oriented, allowing a number of popular policies in Labour’s manifesto significant airtime. This was arguably the first time since Corbyn became leader that Labour had received as much coverage as the Conservatives on policy issues – in a way that allowed both sides to set out their stall.

In the week that followed, all the polling companies – ComRes, ICM, Kantar, Opinium, ORB, Survation and Yougov – reported what David Butler called the biggest poll shift in any election since 1945. The Conservative lead was cut dramatically to between 5 and 14 points. While this could still give the Conservatives a comfortable majority, it opened up a possibility that was unthinkable two week earlier – the idea that the Government could lose their overall majority. This shift is both significant and revealing.

It speaks, first of all, to the continued importance of broadcasting. As Loughborough’s research shows, press coverage has remained consistently and overwhelmingly anti-Labour throughout the campaign. Broadcasters have by no means given Labour an easy ride – so for example, last night’s (May 30) BBC News at Ten led with Corbyn’s failure to recall specific figures in response to a question, while Theresa May was shown returning to her main campaign themes. But they have done what news providers are supposed to do in a democracy, and given both sides roughly equal time to make their case.

Anyone familiar with research about the complex relationship between media coverage and public opinion will know that you are unlikely to significantly change public opinion in the space of a week. Jeremy Corbyn, in particular, has a very short space of time to try to reverse negative perceptions of him built up over a two year period. But, I would argue, a greater parity between the two main parties of the right and left is a better reflection (than a Tory landslide) of public attitudes in the UK across a wide range of issues.

But the shift in support also raises questions about the nature of broadcast coverage over the last year, where politics has been dominated by the ability of the two main party leaders to control their parties. By this measure, May clearly beats Corbyn. But this has meant insufficient attention has been paid – until now – to the very real policy choices that will impact peoples’ lives.

So, for example, there is a very real difference between a macro-economic strategy that uses public investment to stimulate economic growth (and thereby increase the tax threshold for public services) and one that focuses on a short to medium term reduction in the public deficit. The prevails of party leadership may be a ‘good story’, but the fact that this debate has – as Mike Berry’s research shows – received remarkably little coverage since the financial crisis is hard to justify.

Stephen Cushion’s research on the broadcast coverage of the 2015 campaign found the press played a significant role in setting the broadcast agenda in the final week, allowing the Conservative Party to emphasize its campaign themes and pushing Labour onto the back foot. If this happens in 2017 Labour’s move towards parity in the polls will probably subside. But if both parties are given a genuinely equal platform, the election will be closer than most people expected two weeks ago.Justin Lewis

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