Brian McNair Writes About the General Election and the Media

Modern elections are media elections, fought and won, or lost, on the pages of newspapers, on TV screens and radio, and on the internet. Two recent media stories tell us that the 2010 General Election campaign is now truly underway.

The 'Sun sets on New Labour', and backs Cameron’s Tories. Twelve years after the Sun backed Tony Blair on the eve of the 1997 election campaign, Rupert Murdoch’s flagship Red Top returns to its traditional ideological home.

And the party leaders, including, for the first time, the Prime Minister, who has traditionally pulled rank and refused to participate in such a potentially risky confrontation, are reported to have agreed that there will be head-to-head TV debates during the campaign proper.

Not before time. Voters have grown used to seeing and hearing senior politicians being grilled by rottweiller journalists. For ten years, they saw Blair as Prime Minister facing the nation live on TV, being interviewed usually by a man called Dimbleby. They have seen a Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, punch a man full in the face, right there on Channel 4 News. We have seen Gordon Brown on YouTube.

The age of deference is long gone, and we demand access to our politicians, albeit mediated access. We want to hear what they have to say and get a sense of how they come over as people.

Leaders’ debates are the last frontier in this process of widening access, hitherto resisted by whoever has been PM because it was felt that there was too much to lose. This time around, Brown appears to have decided that there’s nothing to lose and everything to gain by debating Cameron and Clegg on live TV.

Will it make a difference to the outcome? Probably not, since most voters will have made their minds up before the debates are broadcast. Presented with politicians trying to win them over, they will hear what they want to hear. A few floaters may be influenced by the cut of a suit or an eloquent response to a difficult question, but the majority will have their convictions confirmed, their biases reinforced. It’s good for our democracy that it will happen, and Brown is to be commended as the first serving PM to agree to it.

In the same way, the Sun’s endorsement of Cameron’s Conservatives doesn’t gurantee them victory in 2010. Contrary to legend, Britain’s top-selling Red Top doesn’t win elections by telling its readers what to think and how to vote. What it does do is influence the political environment by signalling where a large chunk of the British people are right now. Murdoch’s Sun is a follower, not a leader, moulding its editorial policy to where its managers judge its readers to be. That’s why the Scottish Sun takes a different line. Its readers aren’t nearly so interested in the Tories as their counterparts down south.

The Sun’s editorial shift is significant, because it is evidence that we really are at the end of an era. The defining moment of  the 1997 election campaign was when the Sun backed Blair, ending eighteen years of support for the Tories. The declaration became the major UK news story for a day or two, bestowing momentum on what was already an unstoppable New Labour campaign, throwing the Tories onto the defensive.

The Sun’s editors probably wanted to do the same thing again this time – to set the news agenda with a bold declaration. And the agenda was indeed set for a day or two, in part from the podium of the Labour party conference (taking place at the same time), when a trade union leader ripped the paper in half, crying out: “We don't need some Australian-Americans coming over here and telling us how we should run our country” – as if Murdoch's nationality had anything to do with.

I was reminded of the petulant anger which led to Kinnock’s disastrous boycott of News International in the late 1980s, and look where that got him. It seemed as if the Labour Party thought it had a God-given right to the Sun’s support, which is almost funny when you think about how the left has regarded Rupert Murdoch.

They should get over it. The Sun isn’t nearly so important as a political weathervane as it was in 1997. Its circulation is down by a third since then. The media market is transformed, and no single outlet commands the influence wielded in the past by the big national newspapers in the 1990s.

What the Sun says matters less than it ever did. What Labour’s campaign managers should ask, if they want to rescue their situation in the remaining months before polling, is why Murdoch’s managers seem to be so sure the election is already over.

Brian McNair is Professor of Journalism & Communication at the University of Strathclyde.