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Surprised at the election? Not if you were listening to radio phone-in shows

Here’s a frightening thought: I have been involved in covering general elections for the past 40 years. In 1979 I was a gofer on ITN’s then innovative phone-in segment on their general election results programme and in 2015 I was one of ITN’s editors responsible for getting the results on to the screen as quickly and accurately as possible – a role I was supposed to fulfil this time round, until a bad fall confined me to bed for the duration of the campaign with a ruptured tendon in my leg.

There are many ways of following an election – through the newspapers, the TV bulletins, online or any combination of the three. But my lack of mobility meant I was giving perhaps more attention than is healthy to the phone-ins on the talk radio shows. Whatever negative effects I might have incurred as a result of all this radio listening, it did give me two insights about the media, the polls and politics that until now had alluded me.

It was a very different way for an old political hack-turned-academic to follow a campaign but it suddenly assumed a greater significance following the launch of the Conservatives’ manifesto. It contained a series of measures that, to put it at its mildest, were unlikely to appeal to their core older demographic – reducing the worth of their old age pension, means-testing their winter fuel allowance and most importantly of all the so-called dementia tax, on social care.

Listening in the wee small hours to Veronica in Stockton or Edward in Stourbridge, I was genuinely taken aback by the ferocity of the backlash, particularly about the dementia tax, among older people who described themselves as “life-long Conservatives”. I thought this would be a very big story the following day and very soon the polls would start to shift – in the immediate aftermath of the manifesto launch, however, nothing much appeared to change.

But I thought I knew better, so I tweeted about Veronica and Edward and predicted that the undergrowth was stirring – only to receive a series of gentle rebukes from my fellow academics and journalists reminding me that phone-in contributors were anything but typical of the population at large. They might not be but there is a well-established theory of media effects – the “two-step flow” – that suggests that Veronica and Edward’s views should be taken more seriously than is the case.

Loudest voice in the room

This theory, first developed by Paul Lazarsfeld in his landmark study of the 1944 US presidential election, The People’s Choice, suggests that one mechanism of media influence on voting behaviour can be found by looking at so-called opinion-formers in society. They monitor political news more closely than most and the convey their version of events and their opinions to whoever is available to listen.

These opinion-formers might be the obvious people in positions of community leadership – local politicians, teachers, for example – but can also be the person in the bar or staff room who speaks most authoritatively, or simply most loudly – today, perhaps their ilk is the phone-in contributor. They might not be particularly knowledgeable about politics but it is not what they know that counts but their determination that everyone else should also know what they know that is the decisive factor.

And sure enough, after two or three days, as the full import of the Conservatives’ proposals sank in the and media picked up on the story, the polls began to shift and then, five days later, so did Theresa May.

The approved narrative

The second “insight” I gained was the relevance of other media theories - the notions of dominant narratives, framing and indexing.

During the campaign, I heard countless radio and TV vox pops of “staunch Labour voters” in what were considered to be safe seats in the Midlands and the north, saying that they couldn’t vote for a Corbyn-led Labour party. Presumably these packages had been based on editors responding to the dominant narrative that Corbyn was “unelectable” and assigning journalists to head out into these constituencies to produce radio and TV packages along these lines.

The basis of framing is, as defined by the US media scholar Robert Entman, that the media “select some aspects of a perceived reality and make them more salient in a communicating text, in such a way as to promote a particular problem definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation, and/or treatment recommendation for the item described”. In this case the overall frame was that the Labour vote was “soft” in its safer seats and this was due to the Corbyn effect.

It takes a courageous journalist, sent out to cover one story, to come back saying: “It’s not like that, I’ve done a different story.” Occasionally it happens but in the main it doesn’t – and hence we avid radio listeners and television viewers were left with the impression that Labour was collapsing in its core seats.

Dominant narratives come to dominate, sometimes because they reflect a reality but sometimes because they reflect something else: prejudice, political bias or just plain ignorance. Echo chambers can affect not just “them out there” but journalists, politicians, even pollsters (as they agonise over their weighting factors). This is the so-called Indexing Hypothesis, which argues that the narratives of the more elite groups in society, politicians, journalists and pollsters for example, will tend to dominate conversations within the public sphere.

When I heard these packages I took what they were telling me seriously because of what appeared to be the overwhelming consensus – but, along with my fellow pundits, I was wrong. I should have put more faith in the phone-ins, because it was rare indeed to hear contributors insisting that: “I’m a staunch Labour voter but I cannot vote for it while led by Corbyn.”

So, the lesson of my election campaign monitoring is that the wisdom of the crowds can’t always be divined via three-minute online poll – and a little listening can go a long way. Long live the wisdom of the phone-in crowd.

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