Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Tuesday, 22 June 2021

What attitudes to lockdowns tell us about the right wing media

When I talk about how important the media is in forming political opinions and attitudes, some people tell me the causation is all the other way around. Their argument is that the press in particular reflects the views of their readers and not vice versa. It is certainly true that good newspapers are aware of what their typical readers think, and that going radically against that could harm the newspaper. Imagine what would happen, for example, if a newspaper declared football to be the work of the devil.

But media influence rarely works like that. Instead it influences views about things that most readers have little idea about, or it amplifies some views at the expense of others. For example, most people have a natural fear of the other. So when certain newspapers started talking about hordes of immigrants flooding the country, that had an influence on readers who were not accustomed to following the actual data. These readers generally knew that immigrants were not yet flooding their own town or neighbourhood, but they also thought they knew it was happening elsewhere because of what they had read, and feared it might be just a matter of time before it happened on their patch. There are plenty of other examples on a similar theme. For example people often wildly overestimate the amount of benefit fraud because of stories in the papers.

But, like declaring football was the work of the devil, there are limits to what the media can do to influence their readers. An interesting case study is the merits or otherwise of lockdowns during the COVID pandemic. Few will have escaped the fact that the right wing press has been full of articles about why lockdowns are unnecessary and harmful. So did that just reflect the views of their readers, and if not was this anti-lockdown campaign able to substantially shift public opinion?

On both counts the answer appears no. Consider the period of September 2020. We had already had one lockdown, so the public knew the arguments for them, and the right wing press had had plenty of time to present their anti-lockdown message. Here is a poll focused on the very limited measures the government had taken so far. What those answering the poll would not have known is that the government had recently rejected advice from its scientists for a much stronger lockdown.

Half of those answering thought the government had not done enough, and of course they proved to be right. But only 13% of people were following the line pushed by many in the right wing press that nothing needed to be done. Furthermore that anti-lockdown view was stronger in younger people, while newspaper readership is concentrated among older people.

So right wing papers were not reflecting their readership, and their ability to persuade has had at best limited success. The reasons for this are fairly obvious. The case for lockdowns is fairly obvious, and most people (particularly of an age that reads newspapers) are pretty cautious about the prospect of catching a life-threatening virus. Trying to persuade people to carry on mixing socially during a pandemic which is highly infectious is in the ‘football is the work of satan’ category.

So why are newspapers pushing this line, if they normally have a good idea of the limits to their persuasive powers. One reason is fairly obvious: lockdowns are very bad financially for newspapers. Sales collapse when people stay at home.

However a more interesting answer is that newspapers were not so much trying to persuade their readers so much as trying to persuade those in power. I noted recently how journalists at Fox sometimes talked directly to Trump (who famously relied on information from Fox rather than his civil servants), and how if you believe Cummings Johnson too was and is influenced by what he reads in the press, and particularly his old newspaper. It is more reasonable to see right wing newspapers championing an anti-lockdown approach as an argument among the governing right wing elite.

So what can we conclude from all this. First, the right wing press do not always follow their readership. That is why politicians are so keen to meet the editors of these papers on a regular basis, and don’t just look at their polling and focus groups instead. Second, newspapers cannot tell their readers what to do when it goes against readers interest and understanding. Newspaper propaganda works best on issues where their readers are not well informed.

Whenever I talk about press propaganda recently, I get told that countering propaganda with better information will not work, because voters will believe what they want to believe. There is a lot of truth in that. When Fox News didn’t follow Trump in declaring he had really won in 2020, they lost many viewers. But there are two crucial caveats when we come to the UK. First, most Conservative voters are not nearly as radicalised as many Trump supporters, yet. Second, and just as crucial, elections work on the margins, and the margins here are voters that have not become radicalised.

Indeed, if selective or inaccurate information didn’t influence readers or viewers, we would have no reason to be concerned about media bias. In reality we now have considerable evidence that media bias does matter. For that reason we should be very concerned that a large section of the press now acts as the publicity arm of the Conservative party nearly all of the time. Having a free press is a great ideal, and we have departed from that in a big way. Press propaganda is an integral part of how a populist plutocracy can stay in power.

I am very pessimistic that this can change that in the short term. While new media like the byline group are great, the typical reader of the Mail, Sun, Telegraph or Express, who has little interest in politics, is not going to read media which is mainly about politics and contains no sport, celebrity gossip etc. In my view the only way to reduce the power of the right wing press is to bring it under the control of Ofcom, and for Ofcom to enforce balance. That can only be done when opposition politicians win power, and are prepared to look beyond negative headlines and act to change one of the main reasons why they find it so hard to win power.


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