British Press still wields clout as Tories pick PM

There is a long history of the British news media — particularly the tabloid press – influencing politics; their combined daily circulation has dwindled in recent years, but remains in the millions

By Prasun Sonwalkar

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Published: Sun 17 Jul 2022, 10:11 PM

Hell hath no fury like a British tabloid scorned. Recent received wisdom has it that the print medium is in decline, if not dead, due to the rise of the Internet, social media, and new ways of telling stories that use a combination of media platforms: audio, video, text, graphics, to engage young audiences. But scratch the surface and a different reality emerges in one of the most Internet-saturated societies: United Kingdom, where the tabloid and broadsheet newspapers continue to exert a major influence in the cut-and-thrust of politics, including in the ongoing election for the next leader of the Conservative party, who will take over from Boris Johnson as the next prime minister in September.

There is a long history of the British news media — particularly the tabloid press – influencing politics; their combined daily circulation has dwindled in recent years, but remains in the millions. That ability to influence appears to retain its salience alongside the growing Americanisation of British politics, best reflected in live television debates between candidates since the 2010 general election, and now a key part of election campaigns (Margaret Thatcher had resisted such live television debates on the ground that presidential-style debates were alien to Britain). Nick Clegg, leader of Liberal Democrats who was not exactly in the same league as Conservative leader David Cameron and Labour’s Gordon Brown, was catapulted to the centrestage when he performed the best in the live debates, and went on to be the deputy prime minister to Cameron in his coalition government that lasted until 2015.

Johnson, a former journalist himself, has his supporters in the mass circulation tabloids that reach a wider audience than others, such as The Guardian. Rishi Sunak, now one of the frontline candidates, has been at the receiving end of screaming headlines in Daily Mail, the tabloid’s line seen as part of moves to demolish his chances to be the next Tory leader. He and others who had deposed Johnson were branded ‘Tory traitors’, while its front page headline said when Johnson resigned: “What the hell have they done?” According to the tabloid, the ‘Tory traitors’ had opened the door to Labour’s Keir Starmer entering Downing Street as leader of ‘a coalition of chaos’ after the next general election. The Daily Mail’s editorial line is seen as fitting with the message pushed by Johnson’s allies, who blame Sunak for bringing down the prime minister, and have reportedly committed themselves to pushing an ‘anyone-but-Rishi’ candidate. Days later, the Daily Mail plugged Liz Truss (seen as a ‘continuity Boris’ candidate) with the front page headline, “Truss: Back me or it’ll be Rishi”. There have been similar pro-Johnson and pro-Truss headlines in the Daily Express: “Boris loyalists backing Truss to ‘stop Rishi’”.

Some leadership candidates, including Sunak, launched their leadership campaigns through the columns of The Daily Telegraph, which has a reputation of being a pro-Conservative daily. Sunak’s first campaign interview was to The Daily Telegraph, in which he pledged to run the economy like Thatcher did. A major reason the candidates court and try to win the support of newspapers such as The Daily Telegraph, Sun, The Times, Daily Mail and the Daily Express is the hope and belief that many of their readers are among the 160,000 members of the Conservative party, who will have the final say in the leadership election. As in previous years, the support of The Times and Sun will be influential, but have not made their preferences clear so far. At the other end of the spectrum, The Guardian, the left-liberal newspaper, has a distinct pro-Labour line that highlights the challenging quality of Tory candidates on offer.

The most known symbol of tabloid newspapers’ influence on British elections is the Sun’s gloating headline when the Conservative party won the 1992 election: ‘It’s the Sun wot won it’, claiming credit for the party’s win. The tabloid had relentlessly campaigned against the Labour party, then led by Neil Kinnock. On election day, its headline was: “If Kinnock wins today will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights”, with Kinnock’s portrait in a lightbulb. Kinnock later blamed the Sun and other pro-Conservative newspapers as a major factor in his election defeat, denouncing their use of what he called “misinformation and disinformation”. Rupert Murdoch, whose friendship with Thatcher and ownership of British titles has been the subject of controversies, years later described the ‘Sun wot won it’ headline as “tasteless and wrong”, but continues to wield influence in British politics, making his preference known on the eve of elections. After supporting the Conservatives in 1992, the Sun switched sides and supported Labour Tony Blair in the 1997 election, which he won handsomely. Over the years, several prime ministers and ministers have courted Murdoch to win the support of his titles.

For the ‘red top’ tabloids, any subject that can pander to the largest common denominator is good enough to be transformed into screaming, lurid headlines. Accuracy, nuance or ethics have not been their strongest suits, reflected in the sensational coverage of members of the royal family, sensitive issues such as immigration, membership of the European Union, and politics. At many levels, the tabloids reflect the likes and dislikes of the working class, resonating with beliefs and confirming biases, delivering content that is small in size, easily digestible and identifiable by celebrity culture and intrigue, steeped in gossip and dogma, at times provoking anger and influencing choices. The Conservative leadership election is the latest canvas on which tabloid tales are once again at play: a scan of tabloid headlines of the day is a key indicator of which way the wind is blowing in British politics.

The writer is a senior journalist and researcher based in London

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