Very few people are really interested in politics. When Tony Blair was elected three times, only a small proportion of the population was aware of the detail of Labour’s manifesto and policies. What is always far more decisive are general perceptions, images and brief messages. Much has been written on how much Tony Blair’s 1997 election victory was thanks to his having first won the support of right-wing media baron Rupert Murdoch, whose tabloids suddenly stopped their long-time bashing of Labour and emphatically endorsed Blair and his “New Labour” manifesto.
The Johnson government knows well the importance of managing public perception with eye-catching headlines and positive slogans. Messages are simple and repeated – “Get Brexit Done”, “Build Back Better” – and images are vital. Johnson is followed by a photographer, and those pictures link the PM with good news stories. He is repeatedly photographed in hospitals and with samples of the vaccine, so that the image of the PM is inextricably linked to the success of the vaccine rollout. By contrast, he will not appear when there is a bad news story, eg no visits to areas devastated by floods.
The effectiveness of these strategies depends on a supportive media. Owners of newspapers are cultivated and consulted on policies. Deals are done – eg access to the ‘inside story’ of the PM’s wedding may have been traded for soft-pedalling on bad news stories on the handling of Covid. There are ongoing negotiations, deals and trade-offs. By contrast, the Labour leader is given little coverage and nothing on front pages unless linked to a bad news story, such as poor results in elections or some crisis in the party. He is deprived of the oxygen of positive publicity.
In the UK, newspapers are extremely important in determining support for political parties. The process may be seen as working on three levels.
Firstly, those who read the overwhelmingly Conservative-supporting newspapers are provided with (particularly in the run-up to elections) a daily diet of largely one-sided coverage. Key editors and the vast majority of columnists on mass circulation newspapers such as the Sun, Mail, Express, Times and Telegraph are Conservative supporters. To compound Labour’s problems, the BBC now has a chairman who has been a donor to the Conservative party and a chief executive who was previously a Conservative Party councillor.
Secondly, front page headlines appear all over the UK, like propaganda posters. They are visible in service stations, supermarkets, newsagents, and are seen by others when read on trains, buses and planes. Indeed, they are more effective than propaganda posters in that newspapers carry an illusion of neutrality. For every one person who buys a newspaper, perhaps twenty or thirty see its front page headline and image as they shop, travel, mix with family members and generally go about their daily lives.
Thirdly, and most insidiously, the outputs from these newspapers generate and frame what constitutes (and doesn’t constitute) ‘news’ and is picked up more widely on media outlets. Radio and television news programmes discuss what is in the newspapers and this, in turn, frames journalistic topics and agendas.
Leading politicians are aware of this. Tony Blair, as a Labour leader, knew he could not win unless he got at least some newspapers on his side, and he put much effort into successfully courting Rupert Murdoch, owner of the Sun and Times. With Murdoch’s backing he won three elections. However, Murdoch decided not to back Blair’s successor Gordon Brown nor any subsequent Labour leader, and Labour has not yet won a general election since Blair.
As long as this situation continues, Labour will never win power, whatever its policies or leader’s competence, especially given our distinctly undemocratic First Past the Post voting system, which currently greatly favours the Conservatives in general elections. Johnson has many personal failings, and his government’s record has been patchy, to say the least, with enormously serious issues of incompetence in its handling of Covid. However, he and his successors are likely to remain in power unless Labour can find a way to counter this media machine.
I can only see two ways this can be done. One is to again woo a major newspaper owner (eg of the Sun or Daily Mail). However, billionaire newspaper owners’ interests are normally best served by the Conservative Party and there would have to be a very serious level of disenchantment for support to be switched (Murdoch turned against the Conservatives under John Major owing to his stance on Europe). Moreover, there would have to be a degree of trade-off that would be unacceptable to many on the left.
Another would be to confront the issue directly and make addressing bias a central pillar of Labour’s election strategy. Curiously, a lesson may be learned from Trump who was faced with a roughly proportionate level of bias, with perhaps 70 or 80% of national media running against him. He called out and neutralised this by characterising it as ‘fake news’, generating a sense of scepticism about the negative coverage he received daily from CNN, MSNBC, the New York Times etc. Many of Trump’s characterisations were very crude, inappropriate and lacking in credibility but, in electoral terms, it proved an effective strategy.
I would not suggest Labour used such a belligerent and disingenuous approach, but rather that it communicated in a very honest, blunt and regular way about the level of bias faced and how it is manifested. Questions could be raised repeatedly, in all available forums, about links between the government and newspaper owners and clear messages given to the public about the interests served, and mechanisms behind, tabloid headlines. To be effective, this calling out would have to be persistent and clearly presented along with a sustained effort made to engender national debate on this topic.
Neither of these approaches are by any means certain to bring success but may offer the best, perhaps only, chance Labour may have of ever regaining power.
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