British Election Update, Part IV: Understanding the Media
by Ben P, Tue Apr 26, 2005 at 11:13:52 PM EDT
Anyway, while American conservatives have been screaming about "liberal media bias" (in print and television media) for decades, perhaps left-leaning Brits should be complaining about just the opposite in their homeland. Simply put, the national print media is distinctly right wing, with a heavy Rupert Murdoch presence. The Sun, the "colorful," controvertial tabloid famous for its topless "Page 3" girls, is Murdoch's flagship in Britain. The Sun has the highest circulation of any paper in the country, and I have heard it is the highest circulating English language newspaper in the world (not sure if the second is true - more on The Sun further down). Murdoch also owns The Times, which is the oldest and (used to be) most venerable of the national dailies. Its editorial stance is center-right, and is somewhat similar to the Economist. It used to be a "broadsheet," but has recently switched to a tabloid format to boost what are dwindling sales figures. Beyond Murdoch's two papers, there are several other important right wing dailies: the Telegraph (or "Torygraph"), the "highbrow" organ of "respectable" Tory Britain (a number of people in family read it, even though they are to its left personally - a frequent phenomenon in Britain I can't really explain) owned by Murdoch wannabe, the recently convicted Conrad Black. Then there is the Daily Mail, a reactionary scandal sheet for the anti-intellectual middle classes, and the Mail's less strident (and less popular) rival the Daily Express.
So what's "left"? Well, there are (barely) three major left leaning dailies. The first, most folks here probably know, is the Guardian, the paper of record for the "chattering classes," New Labourites, the professoriate. It used to be, and still for the most part is, a strong backer of the New Labour project, even though it broke with Blair over Iraq. While the Guardian is in some ways the most influential left-leaning daily, the Mirror is the most widely read. Along with the Sun, it is one of Britain's famous "red top" tabloids. Traditionally, it was the highest selling paper in Britain until the more salacious, media-savvy Sun overtook its circulation figures in the 1970s under Murdoch's auspices. The Mirror has been and still is a strong Labour Party backer: Old Labour, New Labour, Future Labour, whatever. In recent years, it has somewhat imitated the Sun by adopting a more media-savvy, "celebrities, sensation, and football" approach, but with a left wing edge. The Mirror is what I buy when I'm in Britain. Good for reading while in transit. Finally, there is the Independent, the reason for my "barely" comment above. Started in the early 1980s as a competitor for the Guardian, it is easily the national daily with the lowest circulation and there are always rumours about its going bust. It, like the Times, has also recently switched to a tabloid format to attract more readers. Unlike the Mirror and the Guardian, the Independent is not traditionally a backer of Labour and is often a savage critic of New Labour and Blair.
Below are some very interesting statistics that outline the voting preferences of the various papers' readers, based on data compiled by the British pollster MORI:
HOW NEWSPAPER READERS VOTED IN 2001
The Sun: Labour 52%, Conservative 29%, LD 11%, Others 8%
Daily Mail: Labour 24%, Conservative 55%, LD 17%, Other 4%
Daily Express: Labour 33%, Conservative 43%, LD 19%, Others 5%
Daily Mirror: Labour 71%, Conservative 11%, LD 13%, Others 5%
Daily Star: Labour 56%, Conservative 21%, LD 17%, Others 5%
Daily Telegraph: Labour 16%, Conservative 65%, LD 14%, Others 5%
The Times: Labour 28%, Conservative 40%, LD 26%, Others 6%
The Guardian: Labour 52%, Conservative 6%, LD 34%, Others 8%
The Independent: Labour 38%, Conservative 12%, LD 44%, Others 6%
Now, based on my above descriptions, none of the following numbers would seem to surprising, except perhaps those of The Sun. Ah, good question. Why does an essentially right-leaning paper like The Sun have so many Labour voters? Who reads the Sun? Well consider it is a tabloid, so its readers tend to be working class. But even more they tend to be younger men. Think football hooligan. Although "football hooligan" is a bit of an exaggerated description of the average Sun reader, the kind of people who read the Sun are also the kind of people who are into getting drunk and watching football. Many tend to have definite right wing tendencies (ie "law and order," macho posing, etc.). The Sun backed Thatcher in the 80s and ran a vicious campaign to prevent Labour from winning the 1992 General Election, a campaign Labour looked like it could win. While the impact of the Sun on the outcome is not known, many claim that the Sun was the reason Labour did not win that election. In part, this is key for understanding Blair's rather unhealthy relationship with Murdoch, whom he has wooed, and in return has received its backing in '97, '01, and recently, after a clever, classic Sun storyline imitating the papal selection, in '05. What this relationship - and what is clearly Blair and Labour's fear of the Sun - means in terms of policy is not certain. However, it is rumoured that Blair only received the Sun backing for the general election in 8 days time in return for guarantees from Blair that Murdoch could get the License for British Channel 5. Also, I should note the Sun - like the rest of the Murdoch media empire - strongly backed the Iraq War, and is now using Blair's backing for it as a key reason for backing Blair's re-election bid
Say what you want about Murdoch, but his ability to produce media that appeal to specific demographics is brilliant. I think Murdoch is a figure we on the left side of the 50 yard line would do well to look at more closely. Because simply put, the Sun would not be a successful paper in the United States, just as Fox News would not be a successful news channel in Britain. But they are very successful at appealing to their intended demographics: in the case of the Sun, working class men under 50; in the case of Fox News, angry white men over 50.
Next time: with the election only 8 days away, I will be turning towards predictions and prognostications in my next post. Stay tuned!