“It would not have been possible for us to take power or to use it in the ways we have without the radio” - Joseph Goebbels
The first line of defence for the UK’s partisan right wing press (Mail, Sun, Telegraph) is that they do not matter. The opinions they express and the news stories they follow just reflect the views and interests of their readers. We now have clear evidence that this is simply not true for Fox News in the United States. As I describe here, the output of Fox News, which bears very little relationship to the truth, is designed to maximise its persuasive power. I think Obama summed it up quite clearly when he said even he would not vote for himself if he watched Fox News.
The presumption must be that the same is true in the UK in terms of the potential power of the right wing press. Most voters are not interested in politics, and so depend on limited sources of information to form their views about politicians and political parties. But I thought we had no comparable econometric or statistical studies to show this for the UK. I had noted that Scottish newspapers were much less pro-Brexit than their English counterparts, but maybe that just reflected different attitudes to Brexit north of the border. I did wonder whether Liverpool and the Sun (more specifically its absence because of Hillsborough) might be what economists call a natural experiment. The Leave vote in Liverpool’s districts does seem exceptionally low (my thanks to Ian Gordon here), but of course there are always other stories you can tell.
But then someone (alas I cannot remember who) pointed me to a paper by Jonathan Ladd and Gabriel Lenz in the American Journal of Political Science in 2009. They looked at another natural experiment: the endorsement of Labour by certain newspapers before 1997. To quote
“By comparing readers of newspapers that switched endorsements to similar individuals who did not read these newspapers, we estimate that these papers persuaded a considerable share of their readers to vote for Labour. Depending on the statistical approach, the point estimates vary from about 10% to as high as 25% of readers. These findings provide rare evidence that the news media exert a powerful influence on mass political behavior.”
So we do have evidence, comparable to that for Fox news, of how powerful an influence these papers can have. I suspect the endorsement per se is not doing the work here, but the more favourable editorial line and coverage that went with it. Blair never got the Kinnock or Miliband treatment.
It is ironic how much we are currently obsessing about the influence of the new social media, when the problems with old media are likely to be quantitatively larger. Once you acknowledge this, explaining important political developments like public attitudes to austerity becomes much easier (see this paper by Timothy Hicks and Lucy Barnes for example). For so many things that political scientists and others spend a great deal of time analysing, like Brexit, the right wing print media is the elephant in the room.
It is in this context that we should view the latest attempt to smear Jeremy Corbyn in the print media, and the shameful attempts by Tory ministers to jump on the bandwagon. (I will leave it to Andrew Neil to explain what nonsense the smear is and who those ministers are, but watch Steve Baker use all the usual tricks (e.g. “questions to answer”) to try and make something out of nothing.) The 2017 election showed us the influence of the Tory press is not total, but May still won: its influence on older voters in particular is still strong. Despite its falling readership, this press still also has considerable influence over the broadcast media's agenda.
So when certain journalists call Corbyn’s response to these smears creepy and disturbing, this is the context in which to view such comments. To say it suggests an attack on our free press is nonsense, because the predominantly right wing press in the UK is not in any meaningful sense free. That these papers are owned by extremely wealthy people who can dictate these paper's political agenda seriously distorts democracy. It also means this press has considerable power over the government. The UK press will not be reformed under a Tory government: Leveson 2 has been shelved.
Those who want to go back to a world without Brexit and Trump have to ask why Brexit and Trump happened. There is no point treating the symptoms and not the disease. A key part of the reason we have Trump and today's Republican party in the US is Fox News, and a key reason we have Brexit in the UK and ministers calling the leader of the opposition a traitor is the right wing press.