Issue 197 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published May 1996 Copyright Socialist Review

Feature Article: The Sun worshippers

A review of: Was it the Sun wot won it? by Martin Linton, (Oxford Univerisity Press) Labour's last chance? by A Heath, R Jowell and J Curtice (Dartmouth 17.95)

Chris Nineham

New election, same old arguments. Once again we are being told by Labour supporters that the media, particularly the tabloids, are going to be decisive in determining who wins. Journalist Martin Linton has produced well publicised research that suggests that it was the Sun that won the last election, and that its attitude will be critical again this time around.

Incredibly the Labour front bench are using such arguments to justify campaigning for a loosening of rules on cross media ownership in order to please the big media companies. But there's more at stake here than media policy. Linton's argument provides the Blair leadership with a perfect rationale for its 'modernising' project. If Rupert Murdoch is going to decide the outcome of the election, then Labour must do everything possible to placate him.

Linton's argument is that there was a late swing to the Tories in the months before the 1992 election among Tory tabloid paper readers but not among pro-Labour Mirror readers. This, he claims, shows the power of the tabloids. Research into media effects is notoriously difficult. Different research methods produce radically different results. Experts even disagree about the extent of the late swing in 1992 and while Linton claims the majority of Sun readers voted Tory in 1992, the authors Heath, Jowell and Curtice, who produced Labour's Last Chance? - up to now the most authoritative study of the 1992 election - put the figure at 38 percent.

Faced with this level of variable result there is no way the research can claim to be much more than speculative. The interpretation of data poses another problem - how do you solve the riddle that Linton himself mentions, 'whether people buy the paper they agree with or agree with the paper they buy'? It must be said, however, that most research into the 1992 election has concluded that the Tory press had little influence on the outcome. Labour's Last Chance? for example found that, compared with 1987, Labour support rose by the same amount among readers of pro-Conservative tabloids as it did among readers of non-partisan papers. The authors concluded that 'the pro-Conservative tabloid press was politically ineffective'. The 1993 British Elections and Parties Yearbook comes to similar conclusions in its examination of media coverage of the economy: 'The notion that the economic coverage of the major national dailies has any sort of direct impact on the level of support for the government is directly contradicted by our findings.'

Linton's research is based on ICM and MORI polls of voting intentions which should immediately set alarm bells ringing. We know people often lie in these polls - they were 8 or 9 percent out in their predictions of the election result. They are based on short questionnaires with no follow up. Linton's analysis of changes in voting intention is based on a series of answers from different people!

Previous research on the other hand has been based on more in depth interviews with controlled panels. Labour's Last Chance? was based on the academic British Election Survey, and involved a series of phone and face to face interviews with the same group of over 1,000 people conducted between 1987 and 1992. This method is much more likely to produce reliable results.

We must therefore be very dubious about Linton's conclusions. The inclusion of over 100 tabloid articles from 1992 in Linton's study reinforces the suspicion that he is swayed by the purely emotional, common sense argument that the press was so hostile to Labour in 1992, it must have made a difference.

All the evidence shows tabloid papers play a minor role in shaping political attitudes. After all, the overwhelming majority of Sun and Star readers are Labour supporters most of the time (all the time according to most research). And the myth of an all powerful Murdoch press just does not stand up. In 1970, Murdoch's Sun backed Labour - the losers in the general election. In 1974 and 1975, the Sun stayed neutral while Labour won. The Sun backed the poll tax until popular opinion forced it to change its line, and then backed Thatcher when she lost the Tory leadership election in 1991.

Most people read tabloids for entertainment and rely on broadcasting for news - 62 percent quoted television as their main news source in a 1985 survey and only 23 percent the papers.

People actively evaluate political parties during elections, and one of Labour's problems in 1992 was not so much that it was under attack from the media but that its response was so feeble.

The problem with those who make great claims for the media's power is that they treat voters as mindless dupes. In fact most people are highly critical of the media.

Linton himself provides overwhelming evidence of this in his study. He shows that by the beginning of 1995 the majority of Times readers and just under half of Daily Mail readers had decided to vote Labour. Meanwhile there has been a 14 percent swing to Labour among Sun and Telegraph readers and an 11 percent swing among Star readers.This seismic shift in opinion cannot possibly be explained by changes in editorial policy, since most of these papers have remained basically hostile to Labour.

Far from moulding public opinion, the tabloids have had to make all sorts of twists and turns to keep up with it. A few months after telling us to vote for Major in 1992, the Sun responded to widespread anger over Black Wednesday by apologising for its advice. In October 1992 all the tabloids had to reflect outrage at pit closures by attacking Heseltine and Major and applauding mass demos. As the opinion polls turned decisively against the Tories, Rupert Murdoch swung Today behind Labour and started giving Tony Blair space in the Sun. Along with all the other papers, the Sun has had to attack Tory sleaze and managing directors' payouts.

It is the record of the Tory government that will determine the outcome of the next election, but trying to court Murdoch will make it harder for Labour to expose that record. Time after time election studies (including Linton's) show that 'commitment' and 'involvement' best overcome the influence of the media, and that it is the 'politically unengaged' who are most open to media persuasion. Mobilising people against the Tories strengthens opposition throughout the working class. Attacking activists inside the Labour Party and trying to please media tycoons does not therefore make sense even in electoral terms.

What is more, the press cannot be trusted to play ball, even with Blair. The Sun and the Mail have celebrated Blair's 'modernisation' of Labour to keep the pressure up against the left, but they are right wing papers. The Sun backed Redwood in the Tory leadership election and recently both papers joined the smear campaign against Cherie Booth.

The left should be clear that loving up to Murdoch can make no contribution to winning the next election. The argument that the right wing press is going to decide the next election is only useful for those who want to shift the party further to the right and abandon all commitment to change.

Return to Contents page: Return to Socialist Review Index Home page