Why the Labour party can't blame biased coverage from Sun, Mail and Telegraph for its general election downfall

Update: YouGov has published new information from a post-election poll on how newspaper readers voted, here, which suggests a bigger swing to the Conservatives among readers of the stridently pro-Tory newspapers.

Common sense would suggest that the right-wing press helped swing the general election for the Conservatives.

The Sun, Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail are the three leading newspapers in their markets and were all stridently pro-Conservative and anti-Labour in much of their political news coverage and comment in the weeks running up the election.

They all ran front-page stories attacking Labour and praising the Conservatives.

Between them, they have a combined readership of 10.2m, according to NRS. That’s more people than voted for Labour.

The Times was broadly pro-Conservative in its leader comments, but more even-handed in its news coverage and general comment. The Daily Express leaned to the right, but supported UKIP, which took votes from both Labour and the Conservatives.

The Daily Star did not declare a political affiliation. The Guardian and Independent are on the left, but again were more balanced in their coverage, with the latter providing a late surprise endorsement of the Tory-Lib Dem coalition.

The Daily Mirror is strongly pro-Labour in both its political stories and editorials.

So any analysis of the extent to which the press influenced the general election needs to be confined, in my view, to the most highly partisan titles: the Daily Mail, Sun, Daily Telegraph and Daily Mirror (I've only got data for the daily titles).

There's more detail here from the Media Standards Trust and here from Loughborough University providing evidence of general election press bias.

The great unknown is the extent to which papers reflect the views of their readers, and the extent to which they influence them.

But let’s make a big assumption and say that Telegraph, Sun and Mail readers buy those papers for reasons other than their politics and would vote in line with the rest of the population if they weren't influenced by what they read.

According to Yougov’s analysis (full table below), Conservative support among the three Tory press stalwarts in April 2015 was:

  • Daily Mail: 56 per cent
  • The Sun: 42 per cent
  • Daily Telegraph: 64 per cent.

Taking the somewhat generous NRS readership estimates as our guide – this suggests that between them they might have delivered around 850,000 votes to the Tories.

Taking The Sun as an example, Yougov thinks its readers backed the paper at a rate 5 percentage points higher than the general population – with 2.2m readers that's 265,000. I've added 703,000 for the Daily Mail, 324,000 for The Daily Telegraph and then reduced the total by a third to account for turnout.

In an election which the Tories won by 12 seats, 850,000 votes could make a huge difference.

But we have to remember that the Mirror is at least as pro-Labour as The Sun and Mail are pro-Tory.

According to the Media Standards Trust, its leader columns from January to May were the most partisan of any national newspaper with 109 bashing the Conservatives and 55 supportive of Labour.

According to Yougov, which lumps in sister title the Daily Record into its analysis, some 73 per cent of Mirror readers said they planned to vote Labour last month, versus the party's 30.4 per cent share in the general election.

Making the same big assumption again that Mirror readers would reflect the general population if they weren’t influenced by the paper, this means it could have delivered 600,000-odd voters to the Labour cause, taking the NRS total readership figure of 2.2m and assuming 66 per cent turnout.

So by this analysis, the net contribution of the highly partisan press to the Conservative cause is around 250,000 votes.

The Tories won 11.3m votes to Labour’s 9.4m, so the absence of this help would not have stopped the Tories emerging as the biggest party. But votes won by the partisan press might have helped swing the balance in some of the tight marginals and help the Tories to their 12-seat majority.

The big problem with this analysis is that Telegraph and Mail readers are likely to be the sort of better-off folk who would vote Conservative in the first place. Similarly, the Daily Mirror is traditionally well read to begin with by the sort of union-joining, working class voters who back Labour.

Yougov put Conservative support at 33 per cent in April 2014 versus 37 per cent in the general election.

Its survey of newspaper reader voting intentions saw Tory support among readers of the partisan tabloid press increase more sharply than among other titles – but in line with the general swing:

  • Daily Mail readers went from from 51 per cent in April 2014 to 56 per cent
  • Sun readers went from 37 to 42 per cent.

But Tory support from readers of the Daily Telegraph actually dropped in the Yougov survey from 69 per cent to 64, with the Lib Dems going up from 5 per to 9 per cent among Telegraph readers.

Leader comments in The Times were broadly pro-Conservative. But according to Yougov, Tory support among Times readers stayed more or less level going from 54 per cent in April 2014 to 52 per cent in April 2015.

As we now know we have to be careful how much to read into opinion polls, but the Yougov surveys had large samples (38,524 UK adults in 2014 and 25,252 in 2015).

Newspapers undoubtedly have huge influence – otherwise why would anyone advertise in them and why would the multi-billion pound PR industry exist? And coverage must have swayed some voters.

But my quick analysis of the numbers (and I am sure dissertations will be written on this subject) suggests that negative press coverage was very far from being the decisive factor for Labour. The party will have to look elsewhere to find out why it lost the 2015 general election so badly.

General election voting intentions (source, Yougov)

April 2015

Fieldwork 6-30 April 2015 (25,252 GB adults)

  Con Lab Lib Dem UKIP Other
Daily Express 48 17 8 13 11
Daily Mail 56 16 5 19 3
The Mirror/ Daily Record 8 73 57 5 8
Daily Star 22 43 5 23 8
The Sun 42 27 4 21 6
Daily Telegraph 64 10 9 12 5
Financial Times 45 23 17 8 7
The Guardian 4 58 10 1 27
The Independent 11 46 15 3 25
The Times 52 23 14 5 6
Actual result 37 30.4 7.9 12.6 12.1

May 2014

Fieldwork 1-30 May 2014 (36,524 adults)

  Con Lab Lib Dem UKIP Other
Daily Express 49 21 6 14 9
Daily Mail 51 19 6 20 4
The Mirror/ Daily Record 9 71 4 9 7
Daily Star 22 46 7 22 3
The Sun 37 31 5 21 6
Daily Telegraph 69 9 5 13 3
Financial Times 38 22 20 12 8
The Guardian 7 59 13 3 17
The Independent 18 42 19 5 15
The Times 54 20 12 7 9
General public 33 36 9 14 9

 

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