The Election, The Press and The BBC

The nation has spoken (well 66% of them) and a new Conservative government is being formed.

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For more front pages of the national press reporting on the results – click here

As Murdoch (and Viscount Rothemere, The Barclay Brothers and Levedev) ‘called it’, questions are already being asked as to whether or not the press’s political allegiances have an undue influence on voters. It is too easy to assume that audiences are so unthinking that they would ‘do as they are told’ by a daily newspaper but the newspapers haven’t suddenly declared a political position as the election came close, they have reported on events, policies, politicians and personalities in ways that have shaped the political narratives for the past five years. Although the messages across the media are subtly different, the vast majority of newspapers and news outlets support neoliberalism and the right-wing UK parties. Despite the drop in sales of traditional newspapers, the mainstream press can still set the agenda for online news reporting, for TV news and for social media discussion. They may not have the same amount of influence as they used to, but the UK newspapers create narratives, repeat these narratives over time and in so doing set the framework for debate.

Social media does provide an alternative source for voices and opinions but there is no clear political narrative across social media, people of similar values tend to ‘find each other’ and so confirmation bias can set in. It is easy for audiences to think that their thoughts and their communities are representative of other people’s too. Gathering in like-minded communities can hide the fact that other communities are thinking and feeling differently. Social media allows communities to gather around all points of the political spectrum and so movements forward by one group can be matched (or surpassed) but movements forward by counter-groups. The idea that the power of social media can act to drown out the voice of the mainstream press can’t yet be fully supported. The narrow communities and the multiple voices of social media does not get the control the message for the mainstream in the way the press can. Amplification may make it appear as if ‘everyone’ thinks in a certain way. Loud voices may make messages appear more dominant than they really are. This video by John Harris (whose series Anywhere but Westminster is essential viewing) shows two things that have been reinforced by the election result: Labour were unwilling to connect with voters and the ‘fear of the SNP’ tactic was immensely effective. The demonising of the idea of Scottish power was a strategy employed by the Conservative party that was taken up and repeated by the vast majority of the mainstream press.

This of course is not new. Newspapers, like any business, have always had their values shaped by their own financial interests. When it suited The Sun to do so, they were happy to back Blair’s New Labour despite having supported the Conservatives in the 80s and early 90s and currently being staunchly Conservative again (apart from in Scotland). News UK’s interests are currently best served by a Conservative government. There is no darkened room where plots and conspiracies are put together but institutions are unlikely to speak out against things that would threaten their shareholders’ profits. With no shareholders to please and a requirement to be ‘balanced’ the BBC should be the best place to go to for honest, un-spun reporting but the fact that the government (whoever is in power) holds the BBC’s future and funding in its hands means they are never going to be a voice for anything other than the establishment position. Socially the BBC is ‘left-wing’ (with liberal values of tolerance and inclusion written into its charter) but economically and politically it is neoliberal. When seeking an opposition voice to give balance to governmental policies on immigration or Europe it turned to UKIP. When looking for an opposition voice to scientific concerns about global warming, it turned to climate deniers (usually representatives of big business like Nigel Lawson). As modern politics has moved to the right, so too have the ‘oppositional’ voices heard at the BBC.

The General Election that was ‘too close to call’ both was and wasn’t. After the votes were counted The Conservatives had won clear majority of seats. They did so by winning just short of 37% of the votes. Labour won 30% and ‘others’ won 33%.

The % to seats breakdown for the 6 main UK parties was as follows.

  • Conservative 36.9% – 331 seats
  • Labour 30.4% – 292 seats
  • SNP 4.7% – 56 seats
  • Lib Dem 7.9% – 8 seats
  • UKIP 12.6% – 1 seat
  • Green 3.8% – 1 seat

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If the seats were split by the % of the vote, the House of Commons would have looked very different. The two main parties and the minor parties’ combined have almost 1/3rd of the total vote each.

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Days after the election, there is a debate is being held about the issues inherent in the amount of people whose views are not represented by the UK’s first past the post system. The BBC reports on the data but most of the active debate is on social media rather than in the mainstream. Those who benefit from the system appear to have no interest in changing the system.

s@albionmill

Who owns the UK newspapers and who do they want you to vote for?

According to the data, ‘research finds 95% of tabloid’s editorials in runup to election have been anti-Labour, with most of those directly vilifying the Labour leader

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Despite this, the two main parties are neck and neck in the polls. Of course things can always change on election day but the campaign against Labour hasn’t reduced Labour’s support – nor increased support for the Conservatives.

Is this more evidence that the mainstream media’s political power is in decline?

All of the newspapers have now declared their political allegiances. It is interesting to look at who owns the UK’s mainstream press and to consider what interests their political affiliation might reflect.

(All biographical and business information provided by Wikipedia)

The Independent – backed a Conservative/Lib Dem coalition

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Owned by Evgeny Levedev via Independent Print Limited (he also owns Evening Standard Ltd.) 

‘Evgeny Lebedev (born 8 May 1980) is the Russian-born British chairman and owner of Evening Standard Ltd, the publisher of the Evening Standard, which he bought in January 2009 and of Independent Print Ltd, publisher of the Independent, the i and the Independent on Sunday, which he bought in March 2010.’

The Daily Mail – backed Conservative/Lib Dem

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Owned by Viscount Rothemere via DMG Media

DMG Media, formerly Associated Newspapers, is a national newspaper and website publisher in the UK. It is a subsidiary of DMGT. The group was established in 1905 and is currently based at Northcliffe House in Kensington. DMG Media is a leading multi-channel consumer media company which is home to some of the UK’s most popular brands, including the Daily Mail, MailOnline, The Mail on Sunday, Metro, Wowcher, Jobsite and Jobrapido.

Harold Jonathan Esmond Vere Harmsworth, 4th Viscount Rothermere (born 3 December 1967) is a British viscount and inheritor of a newspaper and media empire founded by his great-grandfather Harold Sidney Harmsworth.’

The Telegraph – backed the Conservatives

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Owned by The Barclay Brothers via The Telegraph Media Group

‘The Telegraph Media Group (previously the Telegraph Group) is the proprietor of The Daily Telegraph and The Sunday Telegraph. It is a subsidiary of Press Holdings. David and Frederick Barclay acquired the group in July 2004, after months of intense bidding and lawsuits, from Hollinger Inc. of Toronto, Ontario, Canada, the newspaper group controlled by the Canadian-born British businessman Conrad Black.’

The Sun, The Times – both backed The Conservatives

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Owned by Rupert Murdoch via News Corps UK 

‘News Corp UK & Ireland Limited (trading as News UK, formerly News International and NI Group), is a British-based American-owned newspaper publisher, and a wholly owned subsidiary of the American mass media conglomerate News Corp. It is the current publisher of The Times, The Sunday Times and The Sun newspapers and its former publications include the Today, News of the World and The London Paper newspapers. Until June 2002, it was called News International plc. On 31 May 2011 the company name was changed from News International Limited to NI Group Limited, and on 26 June 2013 to News UK.’

The Guardian – backed Labour

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Owned by the Scott Trust Limited

‘Guardian Media Group plc (often referred to as GMG) is a British mass media company owning various media operations including The Guardian and The Observer. The group is wholly owned by Scott Trust Limited, which exists to secure the financial and editorial independence of The Guardian in perpetuity.

The Scott Trust Limited is the British company that owns Guardian Media Group and thus The Guardian and The Observer as well as various other media businesses in the UK. In 2008 it replaced the now-defunct Scott Trust, which had owned the Guardian since 1936. The Trust is responsible for appointing the editor of The Guardian (and those of the group’s other main newspapers) but apart from enjoining them to continue the paper’s editorial policy on “the same lines and in the same spirit as heretofore”, has a policy of not interfering in their decisions. This arrangement tends to give editors a long tenure – for example, the past incumbent, Alan Rusbridger, had been there from 1995 until 2015.’

The Mirror – backed Labour

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Owned by Trinity Mirror

‘Trinity Mirror plc is a large British newspaper, magazine and digital publisher. It is Britain’s biggest newspaper group, publishing 240 regional papers as well as the national Daily Mirror, Sunday Mirror and People, and the Scottish Sunday Mail and Daily Record. Its headquarters are at Canary Wharf in London. Listed on the London Stock Exchange, it is a constituent of the FTSE SmallCap Index.’

The Express, The Star – backed UKIP

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Owned by Richard Desmond through Northern and Shell

‘Northern & Shell is a British publishing and television group. The holding company name is Northern and Shell Network Ltd. Launched and founded in December 1974 and currently owned by Richard Desmond, it publishes the Daily Express, Sunday Express, Daily Star and Daily Star Sunday, and the magazines OK!, New!, Star, and TV Pick Magazine. Northern & Shell also owned three entertainment television channels: Channel 5, 5* and 5USA. The company also owns Portland TV,[1] which owns the adult TV channels; Television X, Red Hot TV, and others.

Richard Desmond (born 8 December 1951) is an English publisher and businessman. He is the owner of Express Newspapers and founder of Northern & Shell, which publishes various celebrity magazines, such as OK! and New!, and British national newspapers Daily Star and Daily Express. Northern & Shell also owns Portland TV which, in turn, owns the adult TV channels Television X, Red Hot TV, and others.

In 2010, Desmond was ranked the equal-57th richest man in Britain according to The Sunday Times Rich List, with a net worth of £950 million. He was once again listed on the 2011 Sunday Times Rich List, with his fortune still at £950 million. In 2014, he was ranked 78th and worth £1.2 billion.’

s@albionmill

Democracy, Politics, Russell Brand and the Media

No electoral system is perfect but the UK’s first past the post system can often alienate voters who do not fall into the simple political binary offered by a two party political system. Minority parties can take power, parties with good levels of support can be marginalised and those with non-mainstream perspectives can find themselves without a voice at all. Add this to the fact that many politicians were born into wealth and privilege and have been educated in the same schools and universities (33% of currrent politicians attended private school) it should perhaps not be surprising that the percentage of people who don’t vote has been increasing election after election. It is not always apathy that keeps them away from the polling booth. Feeling that their views go unheard or are disregarded puts a lot of people off. For example:

  • In the 2010 election, 64% of voters did not vote for the Conservatives but the country has had a Conservative led coalition government for 5 years. 36% of the votes gave them just below 50% of the seats;
  • The Liberal Democrats’ popularity increased in the last election. in 2010 they received 23% of the votes but only won 9% of the seats;
  • Safe seats account for 56% of constituencies. People whose political belief differs from their immediate neighbours may feel their vote is a waste of time;
  • Safe constituencies are not a priority for parties – there is no need to work hard there as the seat has already been won or lost. Of more importance are ‘marginals’. Constituencies where there is no clear favourite;
  • The only important voters here are the ones who are ‘undecided’ during the campaign. These are the people politicians are interested in because elections are decided by people who don’t have a clear party allegiance;
  • Those who have a party allegiance may find themselves needing to vote tactically. When asked who he was going to vote for, comedian Stewart Lee said he had the luxury of living in a safe Labour seat so he could vote for the party that he didn’t feel angry with (The Greens) - but only because he need not worry that ‘something awful was going to happen’ if he did so.

The fact that no political party was a clear winner in the last election seemed to take politicians, the media and voters by surprise. The current electoral system has meant that the UK is used to having a binary system at work within politics where the ‘left wing’ challenges the ‘right wing’ and the mainstream news media reflects this (now outdated) relationship. Most UK newspapers have an allegiance to a specific party or political perspective. The UK has seven ‘right wing’ papers and two that support Labour (one tabloid and one broadsheet). The whole of mainstream politics has, however, moved to the right in the last few decades. The Labour Party are barely more left wing that the Conservatives and the Lib Dems have been dragged right by dint of being in coalition with a Tory led government.

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The ‘left’ and ‘right’ positions of the UK parties at the time of the 2015 election. From Political Compass

These political divisions were once seen to be very important as print news media was seen to hold a good deal of political power. Newspapers have always endorsed parties and individual leaders they still spend a lot of time putting a specific political spin on the stories of the day and creating hatchet-jobs to try to discredit or undermine individuals they don’t like (for example, Ed Miliband’s father Ralph). Some newspapers have seen themselves as definers of political perspectives and as ‘King Makers’ – for example The Sun took the credit for the Conservative win in 1992 declaring ‘It’s the Sun Wot Won It’ on its front page.

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However, that was 13 years ago and the press and politicians find themselves in a different world. Newspaper sales are falling, successful ‘news’ sights offer gossip, scandal and scare stories rather than real political debate and audiences access their news and political insight from any number of sources rather than the traditional mainstream press. The power of the mainstream media is definitely in decline and the two-party system of power they represent is no more. A stark indication of this can be seen when looking at images of the televised debates. in 2010 power was being fought for by three grey suited men. By 2015 the political system is clearly more fractured and fragmented with upwards of seven parties appealing for votes. The 2015 debate line-up looked very different to the one five years before, especially with the inclusion of three female party leaders (from ordinary family and educational backgrounds).

The 2010 Debates

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Participants in the 2015 Debate

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People are no longer divided into two simple political groups. The reasons for this are varied and complex but changes in the media have been influential to these political changes. The rise in digital media has meant that people get information from a variety of sources, they are able to get involved in issue based politics and they are not reliant on the mainstream press for information in the way previous generations were. The mainstream media is clearly struggling to keep up with the fast moving debates that unfold on social media and traditional news media has been slow to respond to the changing nature of politics.

Russell Brand has used social media to voice a range of non-mainstream political perspectives via Twitter and, since February 2014, his YouTube channel. He has been highly critical of the mainstream political classes. He has identified and given a voice to the feeling a lot of people in this country have had that there is no point in voting. It is not surprising that people feel there is ‘no point’ if they want a green government, if they believe in proportional representation or if they disagree with neo-liberal economic policies. Brand pointing this out on Newsnight in 2013 attracted a lot of criticism.

Brand represents a new phenomenon – grass-roots politics using non traditional media platforms to broadcast, publish and interact with their audience. Brand is now a one-man (with a great team behind him I’m sure) politics machine with a book (Revolution), a film (The Emperor’s New Clothes), 9m+ Twitter followers and over 1m subscribers to his now 300+ video channel. This makes the comedian, actor, broadcaster and activist a politically powerful person. His YouTube channel is dedicated to analysing contemporary culture and the way the mainstream media reports on it. He has supported activists fighting for affordable housing (amongst other things) and has been involved in internet arguments with Fox News on numerous occasions.

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His YouTube videos, his book, his film and his perspectives have, however, been mocked by media outlets of all political persuasions so when Miliband was ‘spotted’ leaving Brand’s house (and ‘Trews HQ’) on Monday night, press speculation went into overdrive. Cameron declared that ‘hanging out’ with Brand made Miliband ‘a joke’ and most of the press united in treating the fact that Brand had interviewed the leader of the Labour party as something quite ridiculous. The general tone was dismissive at best and much of the commentary ended up being nothing more than personal attacks on Brand and his troubled past.

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 Celebrities to hang out with that don’t make you a joke… (apparently)

When reading and listening to the mainstream news media this week there was a clear sense that Brand has stepped outside the position ‘allowed’ to him. Being a celebrity, a state educated Essex boy, a womaniser or an ex-addict shouldn’t stop him having a political voice but perhaps it is not just his personality and background that offends. Brand is a clear indication that the mainstream media’s power is slipping away. The ‘old boys’ network of political power held by the BBC and print media journalists is being eroded and their dismissal of Brand feels like the media establishment desperately trying to drown out any challenge to its dominance. Cameron may not have grasped this yet but Miliband, Bennett and Lucas have. Power in politics may have to be shared more as more political voices are heard. The mainstream media may have to accept it is losing it’s position of power to multiple voices using multiple platforms for debate, discussion and, in some cases, dissent.

Here is the Miliband interview

… and Brand’s discussions with Bennet and Lucas from the Green Party

In the spirit of balance, here is his take on The Conservatives. The Liberal Democrats and UKIP.

s@albionmill