Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Monday, 7 August 2017

The media cannot reform itself until it acknowledges its power

As regular readers know, I have for the last few years been banging on about the importance of the media in influencing public opinion. (It formed a key part of my SPERI/News Statesman prize lecture.) It is not a partisan point about whether the media is politically biased in a particular direction. Instead it is a claim that the media can and sometimes is profoundly important in influencing major political events. I think it is fair to say that such claims are often dismissed, particularly by the media themselves.

Take the Brexit vote, for example. A general view is that it is down to a dislike of immigration, but few people ask whether the concern about immigration was to a considerable extent manufactured. The left has decided that Brexit reflects the revolt of those left behind by trade and technical innovation, largely ignoring the evidence that this was only part of the story. You will find extensive studies of why the UK voted to leave the EU, some of which I reviewed here, but none to my knowledge look at the influence of the tabloid press. Although my own immediate reaction to the vote put the press at centre stage, I faced a problem that anyone who blames the media faces. How do you prove that the media are not simply reflecting opinion rather than molding it?

We are now seeing studies that attempt to get around that problem by looking at what economists call natural experiments. The most well known found that “Republicans gain 0.4 to 0.7 percentage points in the towns which broadcast Fox News”. Here is another that argues that the media has combined with special interests to misinform voters about climate change. The evidence that the media does not just reflect but also influences voter opinion is mounting up.

I argued in a post immediately after the 2017 election that this event also showed how powerful the media’s impact was in the UK. Since the second Labour party contest in 2016 until shortly before the 2017 general election, the public’s view of both Corbyn and the Labour Party was largely intermediated by political journalists. The polls showed that labour was unpopular and Corbyn even more so. During the general election campaign, both Corbyn and Labour gained direct access to voters. The popularity of both surged.

Now it is possible that both Corbyn and the party underwent some huge transformation in those election weeks: the manifesto surprised everyone by including popular measures, and the party surprised everyone by being totally united behind it. I just do not believe this can account for the extent of the surge we saw. A much more likely explanation is that Corbyn and Labour had been portrayed by the media in a negative light until the election.

It might be tempting to suggest exactly the opposite: that the Labour surge shows the diminishing power of the Tory press. However, as Roy Greenslade notes, these papers are mainly read by the old not the young. Furthermore, among those aged 65%+, the share of Labour voters between 2015 and 2017 was unchanged. Instead the Labour surge showed not only the importance of social media, but also how the broadcast media can have considerable independent influence when it does not follow the Tory press.

The Corbyn surge need not reflect any deliberate anti-left bias, but just a self-reinforcing process. The disunity within Labour until the second leadership election had a large negative impact on the polls. Political reporters took these polls as evidence that Labour and especially Corbyn could not win, and this influenced the way both were reported until the general election. Pretty well everyone, including myself [1], took the pre-election unpopularity as reflecting informed voter opinion rather than an impression largely manufactured by media coverage.

The Labour surge was also a reflection of May’s awful election campaign. But exactly the same points can be made here. May did not suddenly become robotic and unresponsive during the campaign. The serious faults that were portrayed then were also clearly evident in the year before, and during her time at the Home Office. But rather than investigate these, political reporters chose to focus on the polls and believe that her position was impregnable.

Gary Younge has described the failure to at least investigate the possibility that Corbyn might gain in popularity during the election as “the most egregious professional malpractice”, but as far as I can see he is virtually alone among journalists in thinking how the Labour surge might reflect on their own reporting. Instead the tendency has been to focus on the inadequacy of the polls (which is quite unfair because the differences in the polls largely reflected quite understandable different views about expected turnout among younger voters) and more generally journalists failure to predict the result.

Indeed I think Younge understates the lessons of the surge. If the media was able to convey a largely false impression of Labour, Corbyn and May before this election, it seems reasonable to suppose that there have been other episodes where the media has had a large influence. The list in my lecture cited above could just be scratching the surface. This potential power often used without awareness or responsibility breeds mistrust, as Andrew Harrison relates here.

One of the unacknowledged problems in the broadcast media is the perpetual focus on Westminster, which was one of the factors that led to discounting Corbyn. Which naturally leads us to Brexit. I’m constantly told that any challenge to the referendum has to wait until public opinion turns. And looking at all the facts available it should turn: real wages are falling and output is stagnant as a direct result of the Brexit decisions, there will be less rather than more money for the NHS, and so on. But we should have learnt from the 2015 general election that this kind of simple economic determinism does not always work. Then real wages had fallen by much more, we had the worst recovery from any recession for at least a century, and the Conservatives won on the basis of economic competence.

The Westminster focus means that on Brexit the 48% get largely ignored. The right wing media that gave us Brexit are continuing to mislead as they always have. On the broadcast media that most people watch, there is no one championing a second referendum. Instead the presumption is that Brexit has to go ahead because ‘democracy’ demands it. There is the danger the media that created Brexit will sustain Brexit, just as the media sustained a view that Corbyn was hopeless and May was masterful until people had direct access to both. As a result, those pushing the idea that a second referendum should only be held if the public demand it are in danger of being as naive about the power of the media as those who wrote off Corbyn’s chances

[1] To some extent this was, I’m afraid to say, a classic example of not having faith in my own ideas. But I was also surprised at how quickly the broadcast media was able to swing from Corbyn bashing to focusing on May’s inadequacies. The problem the Conservatives and their press backers had was that scare stories about Corbyn were ‘old news’, whereas seeing the Conservative election machine fall over itself was a new experience, and therefore far more newsworthy. But, once again, this poor performance was also very clear from various decision taken in Downing Street in the year before.


  1. If there is a second referendum, unlike the first where Mossack Fonseca junior and his sidekick Oligarch Boy did not want to upset Johnson of the Monaco Telegraph and Gove of the Yankee Murdoch, this time I think the issues rather than Cameron's popularity would come to dominate the vote.

    Brexit is a weird policy without a leader (just as Trump is a weird President without a policy), and the cowardice the BBC had shown since 2010 by failing to separate itself from the rightist pressmen looks in 2017 to have been curbed.

    It looks like, similar to the 1975 Europe referendum, one third of voters will be Leavers whatever, but the rest are up for grabs.

  2. Interesting article. Some of my experiance is that people tend to read what they want to hear. If you have extreme views you will read the daily mail. I think whats also important is your own experiance in life and people who were able to influence you when you were young. I believe there are a large section of the population who once veiws have been formed find it very difficult to analyse facts and form a more informed decision.
    Its also interesting that now alot of the original brexit leave arguments have been shown to be false that new more reasoned arguements are gaining prominence and which are less revolutionary, one such argument is opening trade with third world countries to help them provide better market access. The £360 million is now just a concept idea but now we three brexitiers have fooled you daily mail readers here are better less extreme arguments.

  3. I think you are overlooking the far from exceptional, but nevertheless significant, mainly English, but not exclusively so, deep-seated resistance to having any involvement in the making of laws that govern them by people whom they cannot eject directly via the ballot box. This resistance runs right across the political spectrum. It informed the Bennite opposition in the 1975 referendum – and we can be reasonably sure it influenced Corbyn’s lack-lustre campaign (since he appears incapable of original thought) – and informed the “taking back control” slogan of the Tory Brexiteers. One should not underestimate the amount of economic pain that many of these voters are prepared to bear. And when the inevitable economic pain has to be borne it all will be the fault of Johnny Foreigner being beastly to the freedom-loving Brits.

    I suspect very few people voted with enthusiasm for the UK's continued membership of the EU. For those of us who have been exposed to the antics of pompous and arrogant Eurocrats and anally-retentive ordoliberals it was simply the lesser of two evils. There really is no going back. This tragicomedy has to be played out. But there is still a lot to play for in terms of how it will be played out. And I fear Mr. Corbyn, given the era in which his views were formed, has very little that is positive or useful to contribute.

    1. By lacklustre campaign I hope you don't hold Corbyn responsible for a lack of Remain votes. The right of the party took that attitude after the result. But 2015's Labour voters voted Remain at the same proportion as 2015's SNP voters, and no one but no one has called for Sturgeon's head over it.

  4. Alexander Harvey7 August 2017 at 16:16

    You wrote:

    "How do you prove that the media are not simply reflecting opinion rather than molding it?"

    What business is it of theirs to reflect opinion?

    What gains are there from their reflecting public opinion or airing the opinions of the self-serving?

    "Facts not Opinions"

    Events, Facts, Explanation, and Analysis.

  5. The problem you have is that once you acknowledge power you lose some of it (because open bragging isn't done)and also tempt the political structure to interfere at some stage to control that power. Silence and humility are very effective weapons.

    However, the rise of the internet and social media generally has disrupted your view somewhat and I would guess will disrupt it even more in the years ahead. There is a much greater diversity of opinion around than there was even twenty years ago and, although I don't doubt you are right, what you might have asserted, or at least speculated on, is whether this power is in decline: I think it is.

  6. I've said this before: as March 2019 approaches it may be that the public suddenly starts getting collywobbles after two years of pessimistic news about the post-Brexit economy.
    Will we then see the "Sun", "Mail" and "Express" being given away free every day as their owners try to stiffen their readers' resolve for Brexit ?
    "The Sun" may even drop its paywall to its online edition.

  7. Another way to feel the power of the red-top tabloid press is to have casual conversations direct with white van drivers. The tabloids-overwhelmingly Mail, Sun and Express- are read every working day in the working man's cafes. Often dismissed as anecdotal or 'non-rigorous' by academics, but in such conversations one so often hears the tabloids being echoed, even specific (invariably erroneous) headlines, there does appear to be a 'ground truth' that more formal methods from more genteel academics find harder to detect. Just get to know many people from that white working class demographic well and then any doubt about the power of the tabloids goes.

    And the visceral anger in some quarters of society is dismissed too lightly by many in more rarefied strata, it will not be middle-class white academics that suffer from 'betrayal backlash' if the referendum is ignored, but it is also true that BREXIT will ultimately disappoint so any feasible BREXIT will not eradicate the more general feeling of 'being ignored and marginalised in my own country'. An inevitably complex Brexit, with the fudge of a long transition followed by a reappraisal of where that takes us when the demographics (allowing 16/17's to vote would help)and a percentage of voters' views have changed and events will have tempered expectations could well be the safest route to reversal of BREXIT or an 'in EU in all but name' outcome. Goading a large section of people with the 'threat' of over-riding their 'victory' with a second referendum at this stage risks hardening support for BREXIT and increasing anger levels- just see how the tabloids use such calls to rally support for Brexit!

    1. SW-L has talked about the power of the tabloids for a long time but I fear a "metropolitan elite" does exist and he's in it. Educated liberals have been feted as the decisive votes for decades and the working class were assumed to have "nowhere to go" and had to hold their nose and vote Labour, as the American Democrats would put it. But Miliband said the core vote was a floating vote, went left a bit and still lost over the SNP and austerity. And SW-L is pro-immigration. After 20 yrs of saying ppl would have to put up with immigration it isn't working. The tabloids redirect workers' sense of powerlessness into the Thatcherite agenda, the left can't dismiss this, instead it must always offer policies which will make a difference in those voters lives WHICH THEY CAN SEE AND KNOW ABOUT. A hundred fiddly initiatives in the background calibrated to keep middle class votes or big business support won't do it. If that means losing some affluent suburbanites who read the Torygraph or Times (or indeed the Guardian) then so be it. "Tough shit, people need these benefits for good reason" and "if we don't have these policies then wages won't grow so shut your hole" should be the order of the day: it isn't 1997.

      Ireland's Taoiseach has just suggested the EU and UK having a customs union with each other, because the EU already has one with Turkey. And having a "deep free trade agreement" or the UK joining EFTA. In which case that's not quite the EU in all but name but would avoid the sudden break with all the economic disruption that would cause to our economic entanglement with the EU. Hopefully no Brexit-recession, then.

  8. There's a good article relevant to this piece in "The Guardian", posted 30 July:

  9. Firstly to say that the media is powerful and does have massive influence has been known for many decades now. The obvious fact that the smears aimed at Jeremy Corbyn directly were not done to win support for him but to destroy him.

    What is never or shall I say rarely ever recognised by established views, is that the Neo-Liberal bandwagon is coming to a close on it's projected agenda, the Tories have nearly completed the transformation of the British society into a corporate state.

    They no longer care so much about retaining power as they have virtually transferred the public sector into private hands, thereby relegating government to obeying the demands of the private sector.

    Control of the economy no longer rests in the hands of government but is subservient to the private sector, Thatcher spelled all of this out in the 1980s when she attacked the Unions saying "Management must have the right to manage". The problem has been that too few understood the language and merely took her literally.

    The rise of the Corbyn phenomena as I see it, is "that you can fool some of the people some of the time, but you can't fool all of the people all of the time". Most people understand that there is something radically wrong with the story politicians have been telling us now for over forty years, along with bribery and corruption they have during that time bought success for themselves, but now greater numbers have become affected by the policies they previously chose to ignore, instead now they can't afford to ignore them any longer.

    Jeremy Corbyn started with the Labour Party by expounding the views they themselves held, except the careerist Neo-Liberal wing of the party, that saw the gravy train passing them by.

    The general public have over the past two years heard the messages that Jeremy Corbyn put over and won over by the fact that everything he said made sense and those that opposed him relied on smears and passed misinformation (readily debunked) to denigrate him.

    The simple facts are that the establishment can be seen to support failed ideas and policies and fall back abuse and denigration to win
    naked power, and you don't have to be an Einstein to see through it.

    The other link in the chain overlooked by those opposed to Jeremy Corbyn is the left wing social media that provide access to information denied to us by the mass media, genuine information that have successfully forced Newspapers to withdraw their bogus claims and
    printed retractions, albeit buried insignificantly on the inside pages, an old media tactic.

    For years I have personally campaigned to save the NHS from the Tories, we have provided media outlets with inside information, including the BBC locally only to face a brick wall, they blocked all reference to privatisation of the NHS, even to this day the BBC still denies that the Tories are privatising the NHS. Again you can only fool people for so long, as they are the users it doesn't take long for them to experience for themselves the issues we raised.

    In short the establishment don't care, they think they have won the war, but Jeremy Corbyn is the thorn in their side that they will try to get rid of by fair or foul means, and people are increasingly seeing that. When he gets into office, which I am sure he will, he must move swiftly to control the commanding heights of the economy, in order to carry out his very moderate social programme.

    The establishment believe the old Goebbels premise, that if a lie is big enough, and you keep repeating it often enough, eventually people will accept it, what they have forgotten is that when everything you say is a lie, then even the most gullible can see through it.

    1. Nationalising the commanding heights, along with strong unions, a big welfare state and Keynesian full employment policy, was tried before and didn't work i.e. the Tories came in 30 yrs later and started dismantling it. Business stays in place and so does middle class greed waiting to seize the moment. The middle class person with significant wealth wants higher profits to see it grow. And lower income tax on their high pay. Sod the working class. Has happened around the world, Thatcherism isn't particularly British. Labour should be getting worker-owned businesses, if the party's job is to set the workers free. Harder for the Tories to destroy by just changing labour and tax law and privatising stuff and gets rid of the middle class Thatcherite vote and the nervous working class who buy the tabloids blaming the immigrants and benefit claimants for everything.

  10. I think widely that news entertainment media is the widest indicator of voting practice. Beyond age (the second widest) and beyond education or class or geography (the old indicators).
    Where does this correlate? In the access to news information. Older votes (7/10 conservatives) get their information in large from newspapers; middle age voters 6/10 conservatives from television news and print; younger working age, from news and online sources and under 30s, from online sources almost exclusively. But, which tail is wagging which dog?

    This has been explored in the below paper, - looking at the isolated influence of The Sun from 20 years of elections. (It's a little old, sorry)

    I think it is no small joke that every time the news entertainment industry fears a call that it dictates democracy , it runs a column or talk show or pundit, to insist that this simply isn't the case (with no evidence, mind you). They are terrified that people will think they are pushing democracy to their own gains; playing their own games. But honestly I can't fathom why this is such underground knowledge.

  11. As a journalist I have found that the media isn't especially adept at directing opinion - given that the majority of journalists and editors I've worked with identify as left wing, you'd think the electorate would be influenced by them somehow. Instead my experience reflects what is often described as framing theory - the media is adept not at telling people what to think, but what to think *about*. If every day you write horror stories about immigrants taking jobs and clogging up the NHS, it doesn't matter whether these stories are anecdotal and not representative, and whether all the evidence is on the side of austerity as the true cause. If nobody's talking about it, odds are nobody's thinking about it.

    Where this is relevant to Corbyn is that the media was very focused on his competence as opposition leader, and let's be honest, he was terrible at holding government to account in terms of making a splash in question period, of directing the media narrative around Tory policies, and of getting his own policies on the agenda. The discussion had little or no time for Momentum and the strength of the Corbynistas' ground game, which turned out to be considerable. A lot of apologists for journalists' failure to predict Labour's election result shrug and point to social media, but more likely the media was focused on the wrong things, in terms of relevant determinants of who would do well in an election.

    To me the challenge for economists, and journalists who aren't happy with the current state of play, is how do you focus the discussion on things like whether austerity has worked or what's driving inequality? Is it a question of packaging the debate tantalisingly to convince editors and other decision makers that people will be interested? Or is it something more fundamental about how those arguments are conceived?

  12. "Where this is relevant to Corbyn is that the media was very focused on his competence as opposition leader, and let's be honest, he was terrible at holding government to account in terms of making a splash in question period, of directing the media narrative around Tory policies, and of getting his own policies on the agenda."

    This of course shows you actual political leanings, not on the left as you would say but firmly on the right. Most left thinkers understood perfectly that when Jeremy Corbyn landed punches on Cameron or May.....because they refused to answer his questions or the very pertinent points he made, the media praised their perforformance and denigrated his, just like you have done.

    The fact that prime ministers have lied at the despatch box and continue to lie is never raised in the media, perhaps you could throw light on the reasons why that could be, such as the Tory claim they are not privatising the NHS.

    The corrupt media is in hoc with the establishment who are determined to impose the corporate state from above, and the Tories are delivering it to them on a plate.

    If you are proud to being a journalist, why aren't you in the forefront pointing this out like the rest of the social media that most of us rely on to pass factual information into the public domain?


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