The Conservatives have scant grounds for complaint about the 2015 media election
1992 and all that?
Much has been said about the similarities between this campaign and the 1992 election. Loughborough University CRC began its ‘real time’ analyses of election news in that campaign, and, as someone who has been personally involved in all of our election studies, I can confirm that in media terms there is much that seems redolent of that distant election.
The return of aggressive partisanship
The first similarity relates to the return to aggressive partisanship of many sections of the national press. Throughout the campaign we measured the directional balance of coverage on a week-by-week basis. These results, that showed a consistent and widening gap between positively inflected Conservative and negatively inflected Labour coverage, were widely publicised as the campaign developed. On several occasions they received sarcastic comments on Reddit and other social media platforms, some alluding to the toilet habits of Bears and the religious orientation of the Pope. These comments miss the point. It is one thing to say that the ‘Tory press’ returned with a vengeance in 2015, after years of tepid engagement with New Labour, it is another to provide a rigorous measurement of the fluctuating extent and varying targets of negative coverage. For General Elections are no longer two horse races, and some of the most interesting findings here relate to the treatment of the new challenger parties. With the exception of Express group newspapers, UKIP gained consistently negative week on week coverage. After a brief honeymoon period following Nicola Sturgeon’s successful performance in the 2 April Leadership debate, the SNP had an increasingly rough ride in the press for the remainder of the campaign, at least south of the border.
Another familiar media controversy from 1992 that resurfaced in this election was the complaint about left wing bias among broadcasters, particularly the BBC. The implications of this charge could not be more serious, as, just as was the case in 1992, a review of the BBC Charter is about to commence. To assess whether these claims had any credibility we attempted to conduct a similar measurement of directional balance for TV coverage, but the results were inconclusive and we were unable to operationalise sufficiently reliable measures. This is not surprising. The editorial practices of broadcasters, and the controls upon them, are very different, and, given the particularly febrile atmosphere of this election, it is no surprise that journalists may have been especially circumspect.
Two elections for the price of one?
But of course, bias can manifest itself in subtler ways, such as in the over-accessing of some sources and the marginalisation of others. A key part of our research involved measuring these aspects, measuring the amount of direct quotation of party sources and the frequency with which they were reported. In this respect our research showed that there were effectively two media elections. In press terms, there was a clear ‘appearance gap’ and ‘quotation gap’ that worked to the cumulative advantage of the Conservatives. Put simply, Conservative sources were more frequently reported and quoted than their opponents. In broadcast terms, there was a different picture, with neither of the main contenders gaining a significant advantage. We are currently in the process of drilling down into these general figures to see whether particular news programmes had any notable imbalances on these measures. Although the provisional results show some variation in the extent to which different programmes focused on party leaders, but in broad party political terms, our analysis reveals remarkable parity between the news presence and news access of Conservative and Labour sources in TV reporting.
Having said this, we believe it is a mistake to overstate the distinctiveness of press and television coverage of the campaign. A key element of our media audit was to identify what issues were most frequently reported. As we have found for many previous elections, ‘meta-coverage’, that is attention to the electoral process itself and speculation about the outcome, clogged content like pond weed. But when we look at the substantive issues that received coverage there were remarkable similarities between TV and press agendas. Coverage of ‘Economy’ and ‘Business’ were consistently dominant throughout the campaign. In contrast, issues that many predicted would feature prominently were far more marginal. For example, ‘immigration’ failed to explode onto the news agenda in the way it did after the ‘Duffy-gate’ scandal of the 2010 campaign. The NHS featured comparatively low down the pecking order and ‘Education’ was signally marginalised (despite being consistently identified in opinion polls as one of the principal public concerns).
We contend there are significant political implications to this consistent patterning of coverage. This was an election fought on a terrain that traditionally favours the Conservative party. In short, the parlous potential for economic recovery trumped the pain of austerity and the prospect of further public sector cutbacks. Labour’s plans to ‘weaponise’ the NHS proved to be something of a water pistol. Furthermore, there were several occasions where newspaper editorialising played an influential role in ‘formatting’ follow on TV coverage. For example, the open letter from 103 business leaders endorsing the Conservative party published by the Daily Telegraph on 1 April was widely and prominently reported in many TV news programmes.
The primacy of the business voice
There were other implications for this dominance of debate about the economy and business in coverage. Inevitably, politicians hog the stage during elections, but when we look beyond the party political sphere we find that ‘business sources’ were quite frequently reported in coverage. In contrast, trade union representatives barely got a look in. Overall, business representatives attracted 7 times more coverage than unions.
The reduced newsworthiness of the Leadership events
A further assessment of the partisanship or otherwise of political coverage is offered by looking at the reporting of the various televised leadership events that were held, after tortuous negotiations. There is no doubt that David Cameron was the most opposed to any repeat of the 2010 leadership debates. In public he complained that these events had ‘sucked the life’ out of the 2010 campaign, in private he may also have had concerns about the uplift these events might deliver to opposition parties. But, whatever his real motivations, it is he that probably has the greatest cause for satisfaction about the outcome. This is not so much in the predictable plaudits he received from his allies in the Conservative press – and the lumps they took out of his opponents – but in the amount of follow-on news coverage generated by the events. In 2010, 25 percent of all election items made some reference to the leadership debates. In 2015, this figure had reduced to 8 percent. Cameron may not have succeeded in quashing the leadership events from the outset, but the complicated and crowded arrangements he finally signed up to did an effective job of quelling their news-worthiness.
In sum, our research findings show that the Conservative party has scant grounds for complaint about its treatment in the 2015 Media election.
This is the full text of a presentation given at the launch event of ‘UK Election Analysis 2015: Media, Voters and the Campaign’, edited by Daniel Jackson and Einar Thorsen. 27 May 2015, Churchill rooms, House of Commons