Over the last two parliaments, the press has increasingly taken to discussing its own role as the real opposition in politics. There is often weariness in the way a leading article or a columnist will take on this task. But they soldier on, bearing their self-appointed commission with fortitude. While the politicians are busy perjuring, scandalising and corrupting themselves, the press act on our behalf.
It is certainly true that there are deep problems with the way our democracy is working. The fall in turnout is well documented. At this election, mass postal voting and fiercely fought national campaigns only staunched the drop; they did not take us back towards mass-participation democracy. No one should assume that politics is not in trouble. The press itself is often at pains to point this out. It is also not shy in proffering solutions. But does its own situation generate confidence in its diagnosis?
Since 1990, the circulation of national newspapers has fallen at least one per cent a year. While little more than a third of young adults voted at the election, the picture is not so rosy for newspapers, either. A Channel 4 survey of attitudes among 15 to 24 year-olds, released this May, showed that only 60 per cent ever look at a daily newspaper, down from 80 per cent for the same age group in 1990. Admittedly, with both voting and newspaper reading many will pick up the habit later – but these are low bases to start at. The survey also shows young people are not wedded to traditional TV channels and are wholly at home watching niche channels or surfing the internet for information.
At the general election, the newspapers were as convinced of their centrality to the political process as ever. One of the biggest political stories the Sun covered was its own vacillation over which party to back. But at the same time as feeling that they can convincingly direct their readers on how to vote, the papers are increasingly aware that they cannot seem to find a way to talk engagingly enough about politics to avoid losing readers.
As the Guardian has noted, during the campaign 87 per cent of red-top front pages were not election-led. The Mirror put in a noble effort to resurrect itself as a popular campaigning newspaper during the Iraq conflict. It lost circulation over the whole period.
On the other hand, it sold 250,000 extra copies the day it scooped up Paul Burrell’s autobiography. No wonder that the tabloids were frequently distracted from matters of public policy to debate the Beckhams’ marriage.
On the other hand, somewhere between 10m and 11m newspapers are sold most days. Each of those may be read by three people. And all of those people may go on to talk to others who read no newspaper at all. It is a formidable number. Recent Mori polls on readers’ politics confirm some strong affiliations between titles and parties. In March 2005, only five per cent of Guardian readers intended to vote Conservative. On the other hand, 61 per cent of Telegraph readers thought Howard was the man for the job. Surprisingly, perhaps, for a newspaper that claims to shepherd its readers to one party or the other, the Sun’s readers were split 31-41 between Tories and Labour.
The picture becomes even cloudier looking at the differences between now and five years ago. Both the vehemently anti-Labour Mail and the pro-Labour Mirror now have fewer readers who support Labour. In each case, it is exactly the same drop in support: 10 percentage points. Meanwhile, the Express noisily changed its support back to the Tories and the number of its readers who support Labour is unchanged.
When it comes to trust, the press is in as much trouble as the political parties. The Eurobarometer poll shows 74 per cent of people distrust political parties. It also shows that 74 per cent distrust newspapers.
So why do politicians bother to woo the press? Why are modern campaign headquarters stuffed with people cooing to and cajoling journalists? Why did Lynton Crosby start the day awarding a standing ovation to the staffer who had engineered the best headline? Why did we learn, during the Hutton inquiry, that one of the chief concerns of the prime minister’s senior staff during the preparation for war was the next day’s headline in the
It certainly does not always help to listen to the press too much. The Tories ran perfect campaigns in 2001 and 2005 – if your idea of perfect is following the newspapers’ agenda. Hague ploughed on day after day on the preoccupations of the ordinary, run-the-mill, average Joe newspaper columnist. Europe and a frisson of panic about losing the British identity were his themes. This time round, Howard joined the breast-beating of journalists (one of the least ethnically representative of all professions) about immigration. He and the editors played throw and catch with each other for an entire year. ‘Here, catch this issue, it’s news for you to talk about.’ ‘Thank you, take this column approving your outspoken bravery.’ And so on, back and forth. The result we know: the Liberal Democrats, who nobody mentioned, did rather well.
So are parties too conditioned and structured by the press? Anyone who has worked for a politician of any party will know their frantic interest in the press. Politicians are (rightly) haunted by the need to know what the people who vote for them think is important at any given moment. In the absence of the people turning up, en mass, with a list of points to ponder, there is the press. MPs themselves read the paper and track their own career through it. It is a fair bet that when the newspapers’ readership finally falls down to the last 650 readers, those readers will be in parliament. And where else is there to look for that all- elusive zeitgest? But, given the weakness of newspaper circulation, are parties chaining themselves to a vicious, dying beast?
How else can parties connect to the public? It is not time to close the press office or to give up on getting the best possible coverage – no one should be giving opposition parties a free punch by neglecting the media. But it’s time to look for other channels of communication with the public. In the US, there has recently been a lot of debate about the future of the media, picked up by Rupert Murdoch, among others. Philip Meyer’s The Vanishing Newspaper predicts an end to the printed newspaper by 2040. Merill Brown, in a study for the Carnegie Corporation, finds that during the last election more young people got their election news through online sources than newspapers. He also discovered that Jon Stewart of Comedy Central channel was as trusted a source of information as any of the greybeards of the major network news. That’s like putting Rory Bremner up with Newsnight.
Some of the answer for Labour will lie in mastering digital news sources and blogs – and in finding the right language to use in them. Another, more imaginative way, is encourage the kind of mass participation politics that communicates itself. Gordon Brown talks about the Drop the Debt campaign as an example of a progressive consensus, where people, civic institutions and politicians work together. If Labour can refresh of the mass membership party for this age, and can perform politics with the people, not to them, there may be a hope that politics and the press don’t continue tumbling down to the bottom of the ocean, furiously wrestling each other on the way. This election had more than its fair share of losers. The press was one of them.
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