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British newspapers are in decline but they still make the political weather

Pondering Prime Minister Miliband? Drew Angerer?EPA

Richard Desmond’s decision to donate £1.3m to UKIP’s campaign put the role of newspaper barons back on the election agenda. Having flirted with UKIP over recent years, and strongly campaigned for an EU referendum and tougher immigration laws, Desmond’s papers, which include The Daily Express, Sunday Express and Daily Star, may now endorse Nigel Farage’s party in the run up to election day.

Meanwhile, Rupert Murdoch has berated journalists at his tabloid stalwart, The Sun, for not going hard enough in their attacks on Labour leader Ed Miliband.

But what is the evidence that newspapers can influence readers over which party to vote for?

Although David Cameron is by no means adored by the press, according to research during the 2010 election he received a total of 72 positive evaluations in UK national newspaper coverage of the TV leaders’ debates, compared to Gordon’s Brown 21. The Labour leader was subject to 73 negative post-debate criticisms, more than twice his Conservative counterpart, who received 33.

While Gordon Brown had a rough ride with the press in his brief stint as PM, Ed Miliband has arguably had the kind of vitriolic coverage Neil Kinnock received more than two decades ago. As Ivor Gaber has pointed out, Miliband has been subject to sustained character assassination for several years since beating his brother in a leadership contest.

According to research examining the first two weeks of the 2015 campaign coverage, Conservative sources have been quoted far more than their opponents, with Cameron the most prominent party leader. Over consecutive weeks since the launch of the official election campaign, the Conservative Party has also consistently received positive evaluations in newspaper editorials, whilst Labour has been regularly attacked.

Whereas debates in previous elections might have focused on the potential harm the anti-Miliband commentariat will have on Labour’s electoral chances, curiously in 2015 it is about how Miliband is doing in spite of the press hostility towards him. Indeed, perhaps due to Miliband’s performances in the TV leaders’ debates, his personal ratings have not shrunk but increased over the campaign.

In a post-Leveson environment, perhaps this is understandable. After all, the deceitful practices by some newspapers were exposed in full glory and polls repeatedly show the public has little faith in tabloid journalists “telling the truth”. As a You Gov poll has revealed, a majority of people are well aware Miliband is being treated far more negatively than Cameron in newspaper coverage. In this context, it would appear newspapers’ highly partisan coverage and their endorsements no longer hold the perceived power they once did.

That’s not to say the influence of newspapers doesn’t remain important in today’s political culture. While readers might be able to see through the blatant anti-Milliband bias, newspapers play a more subtle and systemic agenda-setting role well before election day.

Debates about Europe, immigration and welfare, for example, have been furiously pursued by right-wing newspapers over many years. While polls show voters are concerned about these issues, research also reveals people are woefully misinformed about them. Many people drastically overestimate the amount of immigrants in the UK, for instance, or how much benefit fraud is committed.

Newspapers alone are not responsible, but they can raise the temperature of particular issues, and help shape perceptions and understanding of politics over time. They can also create a climate that legitimatises certain issues over others, setting the boundaries of policy debates that makes it difficult for parties outside this consensus to appear rational or credible. So, for example, while the Green party argues for an end to austerity, a new wealth tax on the top 1% of earners and a significant rise in the minimum wage, most UK national newspapers would simply characterise these policies as being too radical and potentially damaging to the economy.

The major parties instead compete on the centre ground of politics. As a Liberal Democrat election poster states, “Look left, look right, then cross with the Liberal Democrats”.

Since newspapers have long been in decline, their continued power might be questioned. But this ignores their online presence and wider impact on the media agenda. As our own research recently suggested, TV news has been influenced by the press’ megaphone over the election campaign so far.

For example, the Telegraph’s front page splash about a letter from 103 business leaders supporting the Conservative’s austerity measures was widely reproduced by other right-wing newspapers and led the major TV bulletins. But when The Guardian published a letter from 140 senior doctors criticising the coalition government’s handling of the NHS it did receive wider press coverage or merit prominent TV news coverage.

In supporting UKIP’s election campaign, Desmond knows he will not be endorsing the next government. But he also knows the real power emanates not from telling readers who to vote for, but from raising the political temperature on issues that reflect his own interests.

In forging a relationship with Nigel Farage’s party, Desmond’s partnership with UKIP could be a canny way of influencing the political weather in years to come.

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