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Political Parties and the Media

The Media and the Campaign

The impact of the media on people’s attitudes is much debated. Attention has often focussed on the media’s ability to change people’s views by the way they ‘frame’ issues. An election campaign is probably too short to do this effectively but the treatment of topics and party leaders over a longer period of time is important.

Media Impact

Pippa Norris (British Politics Vol 26 No 1, 2006) divides media impact into three types:-

  • Agenda setting, by choosing which issues to cover and in what way
  • Persuasion, by influencing voters’ perceptions of the parties and their leaders. 1983 is the best example when, partly because of the difference in the qualities of the parties’ management of the media, Margaret Thatcher was shown in a few appearances in front of cheering crowds and Michael Foot was shown walking along deserted streets or being heckled from small groups of voters
  • Mobilization, by encouraging people to take an interest in the campaign and its issues and so increasing turnout, or depressing it, if the media present an election as boring, with little difference between the parties, or a foregone conclusion

Three types of Media


The Newspapers have experienced a gradual decline in readership but are still important and stories appearing in the newspapers are taken up by television.

The British newspapers have been among the most partisan in Europe although their editorial endorsements of which party to vote for has gradually become more half-hearted, perhaps mirroring increased public dissatisfaction with party politics.

The Daily Mirror has always supported Labour but the other tabloids were Conservative in the 1980s though The Sun switched to Labour in 1997, perhaps following the voters, and remained so until 2010.

The swing to the Conservatives in 2010 among Sun readers was 13.5%, much larger than the national swing, although this may reflect the greater swing among the skilled working class. In 2010 the Guardian and the Independent supported the Liberal Democrats and The Times and The Financial Times had shifted from Labour to Conservative.

Despite the tabloids backing the Conservatives, they remained half-hearted in their support for Cameron because of his social liberal and green policies and because they felt he was not strong enough on immigration and Europe.

Television and Radio

Television (and radio) continued to dominate the media coverage of the election, especially because of the first ever Leaders’ debate, which became the media event of the election, although normal TV programming was also important.

Attempts at previous elections to get a debate had failed, because of arguments about details, so this time Sky News campaigned for a debate and threatened to go ahead with which ever leaders turned up if there was no agreement. The debates then eclipsed the early morning party press conferences which had previously been a major way in which the parties communicated with the media.

The format was remarkably similar to the US Presidential debates and Conservative advisers studied these and tried to get Cameron to look presidential, probably a mistake because he is best in his informal style, and it was Clegg that was able to take up this style instead.

Given that the mood of the electorate was ‘time for a change’ Clegg was able to appear as an alternative ‘change’ candidate to Cameron. 9.6 million people watched the first of the three debates, Clegg was seen as the winner by 61% of the viewers and the Liberal Democrats shot up in the opinion polls.

The Conservative newspapers started to shift to attacking the Lib Dems. Media coverage was dominated by analysis of the debates and over 60% of the public were then able to say that they had seen or heard about the debates.

Cameron did better in the other two debates and the Liberal Democrat surge faded on election day but the first debate probably lost Cameron a majority in Parliament as the Liberal Democrat vote went up slightly compared with 2005, when it might well have been squeezed by the Conservatives. Annette Brook, who held the marginal seat of Mid Dorset and Mid Poole for the Lib Dems against a Conservative challenge, recalled that things were very difficult locally before the first leaders’ debate and then they changed.

Social Media

There were suggestions that the social media would have an influence as they did in the American election of 2008 but there is little evidence of this (but see Andrew Chadwick Parliamentary Affairs Vol 64 No 1, 2011 who shows how they took up the Leaders’ debate and counteracted the Daily Telegraph attack on Clegg)

There were two possible vehicles for social media effect:-

  • The use by the parties of websites, emails, Facebook, tweets etc. People used the party websites (43% of 18-24 year olds accessed them) but parties still basically use the social media to convey messages to voters rather than to interact with them
  • The social media would generate stories which the mainstream media would have to take up but this does not seem to have happened.

A significant subject in British Politics

The role of the media in British politics has become a significant issue in recent months. Take a look at our university study portal for more on this subject.