A tale of two kitchens, two jobs and two receipts
The General Election is now in full swing and the recent seven-way leaders’ debate has fuelled media interest in this most unpredictable of contests. The Communication Research Centre will be publishing the first of its ‘real time’ analyses of news reporting of the election on Monday 13 April.
Our media monitoring started with the dissolution of parliament on 30 March, but electioneering has been underway for months before that and news organisations have been in the thick of it. Last month provided three prime cases in point. There was the media furore created by the discovery of Ed Miliband’s two kitchens, after a photo-opportunity went badly off-message. A few days later, newspaper revelations emerged that Grant Shapps, Tory Party Chairman, had held down two jobs (under two names) in 2005-6, despite his initial denials. It was then UKIP’s turn to feel the editorial heat, when the Sun newspaper publicised a covert recording of staff working for the UKIP MEP Janice Atkinson, requesting the replacement of an actual restaurant receipt with a substantially-inflated counterfeit.
Spoiling the party
In their different ways, all three examples could be seen to contribute to diminishing public respect and trust in the political classes. But these media revelations also serve obvious, short term political purposes. Each was intended to embarrass the parties involved and disrupt their core narratives. How can Miliband claim to represent the interests of ‘ordinary people’ when he enjoys such personal privilege? How can Cameron deny his party is ‘soft’ on business regulation if his party chairman is widely portrayed as less than forthcoming in his own commercial dealings? And what do the Atkinson revelations mean for Farage’s repeated attacks on the integrity of mainstream politicians?
These exposés also create a conundrum for news organisations that align themselves closely with particular parties. To what extent do these political preferences affect their interest in a particular news story? As a simple exploration into the effects of political parallelism we quantified the number of words dedicated in national press coverage to each of these stories in the six days that followed their first publication.
It takes two…
Overall, Miliband’s kitchens commanded significantly higher levels of national press debate than the revelations about Shapp’s additional undeclared employment and Atkinson’s forged receipts.
When each of these statistics is broken down by newspaper, some telling variations emerge.
In the tale of the two kitchens, coverage was particularly high in several pro-Conservative titles, most notably the Mail, Telegraph and Times. The Guardian also gave comparatively high levels of column space to the story, but these figures are inflated by two lengthy discussions lamenting how media coverage of the topic exposed the limitations of contemporary political debate. In contrast, the pro-Labour Mirror made next to no reference to the matter.
A very different pattern emerges in coverage of Grant Shapp’s ‘two jobs’. All of the pro-Conservative titles gave significantly less column space to the story than their centre/ centre left competitors.
UKIP’s ‘two receipts’ attracted high levels of coverage from across the political spectrum and it is less easy to discern any consistent partisan trend. The word count for Guardian and Independent coverage exceeded that for the Times and, in particular, the Telegraph (which hardly mentioned the story), whereas coverage in the Sun exceeded that in the Mirror.
What to cover? Who to attack?
Of course, this is a limited exercise but it highlights issues we will explore further in our full news analysis. To what extent is press partisanship manifested as much in what issues are reported, as how they are covered? And if we are witnessing the re-emergence of a more clearly aligned party political press, how is the increasing complexity of the political mainstream affecting the different lines of attack? Life was so much simpler for editors when elections were just a two-horse race.