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 , 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
 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.