University of Leicester
One remarkable feature of the 2019 General Election so far is the amount of controversy there has been about the mainstream media’s role.
It started with the Lib Dem and SNP’s unsuccessful legal challenges to ITV’s decision to exclude them from the first televised leaders’ debate on 19 November. Then there was Labour’s complaint to Ofcom about Sky TV using ‘the Brexit election’ as the strapline for their electoral coverage, thereby presuming the principal emphasis of the campaign.
Days later, the Conservatives were also knocking at the regulators’ door, complaining about Channel 4’s decision to replace the Prime Minister, who had declined to participate in their televised debate on the climate, with a melting ice sculpture. (Both complaints were rejected.)
During the final week of November, #BBCimpartiality was trending on Twitter, as a range of editorial decisions and errors were widely condemned as demonstrating the Corporation’s cumulative pro-Conservative inclinations. That Fran Unsworth, the BBC’s Director of news, was moved to write a detailed rebuttal in the following week’s Guardian suggests that this campaign had gained sufficient momentum to become more than a storm in a social media teacup. We could go on, but you get the point.
But why is there such a fuss? Aren’t we supposed to be witnessing the rise of the disintermediated campaign, in which the most important battles are fought out by ‘one-step’ campaigning in social media platforms, via a blizzard of viral videos, memes, bots, targeted ad spends, social media campaigns, fake news and the like? Aren’t traditional media just ‘dad-dancing’ at the margins of a full-on digitalised, democratic disco?
You don’t have to deny the growing significance of social media to accept that legacy media continue to play a very important role in informing and priming public opinion during elections. Furthermore, both worlds are deeply imbricated and the boundaries are fuzzy. Fewer and fewer people may be buying newspapers but plenty are accessing the same content online. Broadcast and newspaper content is click-baited, clipped and recirculated constantly. Research continues to show that TV news remains the principal source of political information for most UK adults.
Crucially, it is professional journalists who, through their privileged access, provide the news and insights about political elites that provide so much of the grist to the social media mill. How many Instagram influencers have you seen interviewing Boris Johnson in this campaign? (Not that this is a shoo-in for even the most established of journalists – ask Andrew Neill.)
The Centre for Research in Communication and Culture, Loughborough University has been conducting a real-time news audit of the 2019 General election, as it has for every first order UK political campaign since 1992 (see https://www.lboro.ac.uk/news-events/general-election/). We produce weekly reports of our analysis of election coverage in weekday prime time television news and paid-for national newspapers. It’s a tough old job, but someone’s got to do it.
What are the stand-out findings so far? One of the most striking relates to the prominence of Brexit as an issue in coverage. In a recent interview with the Sun’s political editor, Boris Johnson lamented: ‘people have slightly lost their focus on the political crisis that we face… And I think maybe we need to bring that back’. Our research suggests that he has grounds for concern in media terms, as Brexit as a substantive focus for debate has receded in prominence week-by-week (see figure 1, which includes a comparison of the two next most prominent substantive policy issues: Business/ Economy and Health and Health Care).
Brexit is of course still there, haunting the hustings like Banquo’s ghost, but our analysis of manifest content shows it has become increasingly part of the background context of the campaign rather than its focal point. This may well change in the coming days as the vote approaches, but the 2019 General Election has been anything but a one-issue campaign.
In other respects, the Conservative party has been able to rely on some significant media support. If there is one predictable feature of recent British electioneering it is that most national newspapers titles will endorse the Conservative party. Nevertheless, there have been some major changes in the national newspaper industry since the 2017 election – a new editor at the Daily Mail, the Mirror group have bought out the Express and Star, the i and the Telegraph are up for sale and overall circulations have reduced by another 2 million.
Have these tempered the vehement partisanship noted in 2015 and 2017 campaigns? The short answer is ‘no’, as Figure 2 shows. High levels of negative coverage of Corbyn and Labour in the first week of the formal campaign have only intensified in the following weeks. It may seem scant consolation to the main opposition, but it is noticeable that levels of aggregate negativity to the Conservatives sharply increased over the last week.
While fluctuations and changes within campaigns are important, it is also necessary to consider changes over time. For all the oft claimed uniqueness of this ‘Brexmas Election’, some striking continuities are evident. Women remain marginalised in coverage: accounting for less than 20 percent of politicians appearances down from 37 percent in 2017. The reason for that retrograde step is Theresa May’s replacement as Prime Minister before the 2019 campaign. This in turn, reveals how profoundly presidentialised UK election news reporting continues to be. The much-vaunted advent of multi-polar politics in the 2015 General Election is now but a distant memory. The Liberal Democrats and SNP have commanded some breathing space in TV news, but both have been squeezed breathless by the two parties’ dominance in press coverage (who command 90 percent of all coverage).
But one particularly lamentable aspect of the gender politics of this campaign is the marginal representation of women in categories outside of the party-political sphere. Women only appear more frequently than men as citizens in ‘voxpops’. In all other categories – as business representatives, think tank spokespersons, academics, media commentators, etc. – ‘mansplaining’ dominates the story. This is particularly indefensible, for if editors and journalists have no control over who the parties put at the forefront of the campaign, they have undeniable gatekeeping power over the non-party voices they select. Women’s voices deserve recognition beyond the personal sphere.
So that’s where we are at the end of the fourth week of the campaign. There is one week to go, which, as the old saying goes, is a long time in politics. Tell us about it.
Our thanks to Dominic Wring, Cristian Vaccari and John Downey who are also contributors to the GE2019 Election news audits.