Media power: a myth

Pollster Peter Kellner says the Sun and other newspapers have less influence than we think
July 20, 2011

It is surely good that politicians have lost their fear of the Murdoch empire. But they shouldn’t have been afraid in the first place.

The impact of our more raucous newspapers on British politicians is like that of scary movies on their audiences. Think of Rupert Murdoch as Alfred Hitchcock. Celluloid images and sound effects cannot inflict harm in themselves. Their potency lies in the terror they induce in our minds. If we wanted to, we could shrug off our fear. So can politicians when they are attacked by newspapers.

This is true even of the 1992 general election. The headline “It’s the Sun Wot Won It” is seared in Labour memories. The belief that the Sun delivered John Major his unexpected victory was widespread—from Lord McAlpine, then Conservative treasurer, thanking the paper, to Neil Kinnock, blaming it for his defeat. Kinnock’s bitterness was understandable: the Sun had pilloried him for years, culminating in its election-day front page showing his head inside a lightbulb with the headline: “If Kinnock wins today will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights.”

Two years later, after the news caravan had moved on, the truth emerged in the definitive study of that election. Labour’s Last Chance?, edited by Anthony Heath, Roger Jowell and John Curtice, contained the results of a panel survey, in which people who were interviewed after the 1987 election were re-interviewed in 1992.

Not surprisingly, it found that most Sun, Mail and Express readers voted Tory, while most Mirror readers voted Labour. The question is, did they cast their vote because their newspaper told them to, or did they choose the paper that matched their outlook? The evidence is overwhelmingly the latter.

The data showed that the shift in attitudes between 1987 and 1992 among the readers of the Sun and other pro-Tory tabloids was much the same as among the rest of the electorate. In both groups, Labour’s support rose by four percentage points. The study compiled a composite approval index for each leader, on a scale of 0 to 4. Among the electorate as a whole, Kinnock’s rating slipped from 2.4 in 1987 to 2.3 in 1992. It was lower among readers of the Tory tabloids, 1.9 in both elections—but with no sign of decline between the two elections. The authors concluded: “Neither the Sun nor any other of the pro-Conservative tabloid newspapers were responsible for John Major’s unexpected victory.”

So why did the myth of the Sun’s influence take hold? One reason is that the opinion polls made a mess of that election, exaggerating Labour’s support for months. The Conservatives were always on course for victory. The academics repeated their exercise in 1997 election, when the Sun backed Blair. Did that make a difference? No, according to John Curtice: “The pattern of vote switching during the campaign amongst readers of the Sun or any other ex-Tory newspaper proved to be much like that of those who did not read a newspaper at all.”

Curtice did conclude that “the Sun appears to have made a difference to voting preferences in the twelve months of the 1997 election… But that [difference] was a small one.” In other words, the Sun may have helped Labour—but only slightly, and only before it publicly backed Blair.

Newspaper campaigns, then, have little effect on readers’ political views. They may reinforce existing attitudes; they seldom change them. What can shift views is the news itself. The winter of discontent did for Labour in 1979 (and for years afterwards); Black Wednesday made the 1997 election unwinnable for the Conservatives.

Indeed, nothing has really changed. In 1932, Franklin Roosevelt won the presidency in the teeth of opposition from most US newspapers. Their editorials, urging voters to re-elect Herbert Hoover, cut no ice. But the papers did have an impact. Their daily depictions of the slump prompted millions to vote for change.