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UK General Election Campaigns – Three Types of Media

The Newspapers

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 & Radio

Television (and radio) continued to dominate the media coverage of the election, especially because of the Leaders’ debates, 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 previously been a major way in which the parties communicated with the media.

The Debates

The first format in 2010 was remarkably similar to the US Presidential debates and Conservative advisers studied these and tried to get David Cameron, leader at the time, to look presidential. This was probably a mistake because he was at his best in an informal style, and it was Nick Clegg, then leader of the Liberal Democrats 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 Liberal Democrats.
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 social media would have an influence as they did in the American election of 2008 but in 2010 there was 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.
As social media overall has risen as the place where people access news and comment so has the use of social media by political parties.
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