Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Friday, 23 February 2018

The persuasive power of the UK right wing press

“It would not have been possible for us to take power or to use it in the ways we have without the radio” - Joseph Goebbels

The first line of defence for the UK’s partisan right wing press (Mail, Sun, Telegraph) is that they do not matter. The opinions they express and the news stories they follow just reflect the views and interests of their readers. We now have clear evidence that this is simply not true for Fox News in the United States. As I describe here, the output of Fox News, which bears very little relationship to the truth, is designed to maximise its persuasive power. I think Obama summed it up quite clearly when he said even he would not vote for himself if he watched Fox News.

The presumption must be that the same is true in the UK in terms of the potential power of the right wing press. Most voters are not interested in politics, and so depend on limited sources of information to form their views about politicians and political parties. But I thought we had no comparable econometric or statistical studies to show this for the UK. I had noted that Scottish newspapers were much less pro-Brexit than their English counterparts, but maybe that just reflected different attitudes to Brexit north of the border. I did wonder whether Liverpool and the Sun (more specifically its absence because of Hillsborough) might be what economists call a natural experiment. The Leave vote in Liverpool’s districts does seem exceptionally low (my thanks to Ian Gordon here), but of course there are always other stories you can tell.

But then someone (alas I cannot remember who) pointed me to a paper by Jonathan Ladd and Gabriel Lenz in the American Journal of Political Science in 2009. They looked at another natural experiment: the endorsement of Labour by certain newspapers before 1997. To quote
“By comparing readers of newspapers that switched endorsements to similar individuals who did not read these newspapers, we estimate that these papers persuaded a considerable share of their readers to vote for Labour. Depending on the statistical approach, the point estimates vary from about 10% to as high as 25% of readers. These findings provide rare evidence that the news media exert a powerful influence on mass political behavior.”

So we do have evidence, comparable to that for Fox news, of how powerful an influence these papers can have. I suspect the endorsement per se is not doing the work here, but the more favourable editorial line and coverage that went with it. Blair never got the Kinnock or Miliband treatment

It is ironic how much we are currently obsessing about the influence of the new social media, when the problems with old media are likely to be quantitatively larger. Once you acknowledge this, explaining important political developments like public attitudes to austerity becomes much easier (see this paper by Timothy Hicks and Lucy Barnes for example). For so many things that political scientists and others spend a great deal of time analysing, like Brexit, the right wing print media is the elephant in the room.

It is in this context that we should view the latest attempt to smear Jeremy Corbyn in the print media, and the shameful attempts by Tory ministers to jump on the bandwagon. (I will leave it to Andrew Neil to explain what nonsense the smear is and who those ministers are, but watch Steve Baker use all the usual tricks (e.g. “questions to answer”) to try and make something out of nothing.) The 2017 election showed us the influence of the Tory press is not total, but May still won: its influence on older voters in particular is still strong. Despite its falling readership, this press still also has considerable influence over the broadcast media's agenda.

So when certain journalists call Corbyn’s response to these smears creepy and disturbing, this is the context in which to view such comments. To say it suggests an attack on our free press is nonsense, because the predominantly right wing press in the UK is not in any meaningful sense free. That these papers are owned by extremely wealthy people who can dictate these paper's political agenda seriously distorts democracy. It also means this press has considerable power over the government. The UK press will not be reformed under a Tory government: Leveson 2 has been shelved.

Those who want to go back to a world without Brexit and Trump have to ask why Brexit and Trump happened. There is no point treating the symptoms and not the disease. A key part of the reason we have Trump and today's Republican party in the US is Fox News, and a key reason we have Brexit in the UK and ministers calling the leader of the opposition a traitor is the right wing press.   


  1. It is important to change the incentives to get a more free and more independent media.

    We could give tax breaks to media outlets who are independent:
    1. not part of a conglomerate.
    2. with a fire wall between journalists and marketing (like for YouTube)

    We could give subsidies to media who are free (owned by the readers).

    In America public should be strengthened. Public media in Europe makes the price higher for commercial media to put out nonsense. Public media could be more independent in some countries. For example, my impression is that the BBC directly negotiates with the government over its budget; in Germany a commission sets the budget and (regional) politicians can only say yes or no.

  2. It’s doubtless true that without the right wing press we would not have had Brexit. But the opposite, so to speak, is equally true: i.e. had Remain won the vote, it would be have been true to say that without the left wing press, Reamain would not have won. I.e. the crucial question is: which are the worst bunch of liars – the right wing press or the left wing press?

    Personally I’m as tired of the pseudo-intellectual BS that appears in the Guardian as I am of the boring nonsense that appears in the Telegraph etc, and for the first time in my life gave up buying any newspaper about a month ago.

  3.    but May still won

    I have a lovely little song prepared for people who say that. To the tune of You're Not Singing Any More:

    No majority!
    No majority!
    No ma-jo-ri-ty!
    No-oh-oh-oh majority!

    1. So you dont believe in Proportional Representation. The major issue for this country is the lack of PR and 1000s of voters are disenfranchised. Just look at the mess that UK is now in with the majority of people now not represented. A majority purchased with the tax payers money may suit some but it stinks.

  4. As Thatcherism falls apart there will be many complaints from the Conservative elite about the destructive power of social media and simultaneously how free speech is being eroded in Britain.

    1. I had to laugh when Teresa May spoke up about how we need the print press to save us from misleading news and abuse in public debate. Presumably not the print press that lies about everything whenever facts are available, or who publicly branded people as saboteurs and enemies of the people.

  5. yes yes all very standard stuff. So what is your actual policy proposal? Should a Corbyn government ban certain people from owning newspapers? Should Corbyn introduce a Ministry of Truth that determines what news the People are allowed to hear? And what if people still, despite your best efforts, cling to incorrect beliefs; will they be sent to re-education centres to learn the error of their ways?

    1. Oooh, ooh! Go on, say Corbyn was a Soviet agent! Your boys are doing really well with that, lately, I hear. Maybe there'll be enough penalty costs donated to homeless charities to make up for all the people your policy actions have made homeless and hungry?

    2. You'd support strong sanctions and punishments for people trying to label high-ranking members of democratic institutions as enemies of the people, then, and would presumably consider an incitement to crush vaguely defined saboteurs as incitement to democide?

  6. I have to say that I enjoyed this and many of your other articles but on this particular article I have to say that I don't think it's necessary to make reference to all the research papers when it is something that is obvious to most people who have political sentiments that are left of centre.
    The recent Corbyn example is a classic right-wing campaign that has been undone. Not with the help of any of the mainstream media newspaper sources but with the help of Twitter and various blogs and perhaps the odd article on Facebook.
    It was perhaps at least a few days before the main political pundits such as Andrew Neil and 1 or 2 others got hold of the story.
    The panic that went out when it was suggested that we should bring in Levenson 2 was palpable. Out came all the trotted stories about press freedom.
    It is not surprising in a capitalist economy that it is so expensive in this day and age to print a newspaper and therefore it is not surprising that it is an industry that has been taken over by rich industrial/entrepreneurs who are mainly based overseas to reduce their tax liability.
    It would appear in the present Tory party that there is absolutely nothing wrong with the lies aand smears as they are panicking about the potential and possibility of a proper Labour resurgence.
    A decent Labour supporter also quite clearly points out firmly on Twitter that they do not like the return of the Blairites and other centrist supporters who are often in cahoots with the Tory party.
    One only has to do a brief investigation to see how there are certain people in the UK who are busy funding so-called central centrist parties and people that want to undo what Labour have achieved under Corbyn. They are terrified.
    It is also true to say that there is obvious evidence without reading research papers that the majority of the average worker within the UK does not have much to do with politics and simply relies on the right wing elements of press including the Mail Telegraph and the Sun fortheir political views.
    Another increasing source of these views is compounded and reinforced by talk radio shows where they reinforce and spout the lies and smears of the main right-wing press.
    The average comment that you hear on talk radio shows is that Corbyn and his supporters are all left wing loonies and that Corbyn is a communist.
    Unfortunately for common sense and democracy it is this and it might be unfair to say but politically uneducated mass of people in the UK who are influenced by the right-wing press in this country.
    Therefore effectively we have the same problem as large elements of the USA who rely on Fox News and similar.
    Again fortunately in this country there are an increasing large number of socially minded to protest against the inequity that is going on in this country.

    Even at a simple level one often hears that there must be something going on with for example Corbyn because they wouldn't bother to print such a story there must be some truth in the story. They don't realise what blatant rubbish they are subjecting to their psyche or whatever the clever word is.

    One only has to look at the rubbish that is now published by pro-Brexiteers and the way that they are turning more and more on ordinary British people under the banner that we are apparently not patriotic and we will have to rally round for the sake of the country. This is done under the banner of patriotic fervour.
    Personally I think the government are terrified that if they showed any support of the "remain campaign" there would be civil unrest because there are some very nasty elements that are coming out from under the bed that are increasingly being heard and supported both directly and indirectly by some of the mainstream media. This is not just newspapers but the general bias that is apparent in the right-wing funded talk radio and television shows.
    We are now getting extreme right-wing articles telling us all again how bad Levenson 2 would be and how we can't go back to that situation.

  7. Thanks Simon. From my own experience what adds potency to newspaper bias, and I know you've covered this, is when the BBC echoes, or al least gives credence to, their stories. Though, the BBC itself is multi-dimensional on this. I've a friend, who studied at Oxford so he's not easily fouled. The near unique aspect is that he does not have a TV and only listens to BBC Radio, and Radio 4 most of all. I mentioned about newspaper bias and the link with the BBC, and he replied the BBC are very even handed. Now I'm an not exclusive Radio 4 listener, but have noted it seems more even handed than its more populist channels. If that's so the why becomes a troubling question. I knew an old socialist who used to say the elite need accurate information, but push out propaganda to everyone else. He had in mind the Financial Times and Radio 4 as more reliable, but I've noted the Business section of the Telegraph sometimes contradicts the line taken by other sections of the paper.

    1. I seriously believe that the universities or at least many of the universities including some of the "elite" have let people down. The whole idea of going to university is to get an objective understanding of what is going on and to get at the facts to enable one to intellectually make up one's own mind accordingly. When I read stories as above I therefore come to the conclusion that if someone who is educated at one of the elite universities is happy with the "uneven bias" of the BBC then that proves the point that the universities have failed many if that is what they are turning out.

  8. So, just for the record, Corbyn hasn't stood on a platform with Hamas and Hezbollah. Didn't receive money from Iranian state TV or Russian TV. And those economic forecasts that we would have a recession and lose 500,000 jobs the moment we voted leave were all fake news were they?

    Who appointed you folks to be the arbiter of news? which election did you win? What was your manifesto other than banning things you don't agree with?

  9. I think Prof you are not following the logic of your own position.

    If The People when they cast their vote are simply reflecting back the media they have been fed as you seem to be stating, rather than making critical evaluation of the news they read, the experiences them and their communities have, and their own personal views, then surely The People are not adding any value to the process. The obvious conclusion of your position is not to control the media but to abolish elections.

  10. SWL, are you aware of Momentum's recent statements that negative headlines are correlated with increases in membership and activity? I'm curious what your take on it is, given this. My only hypothesis is that partisan reporting is polarising, rather than motivating.

  11. There is something running much deeper. Media content is in itself a medium. Advertising has become the real goal of all the media industry.
    The problem is that a rational discussion about a particular topic is boring and generates less interest. Less interest=less advertising. It si like a Darwinian process, rational discussions in the media environment are destined to disappear.
    In a peculiar way, right-wing media are better suited to play this kind of evolutionary game.

  12. I suppose many journalists see themselves as people who speak truth unto power. And yet Tory tabloids---designed to persuade their working-class readers to vote for a party dedicated to giving "just enough to just enough" voters to keep them in power---are surely speaking untruths to the powerless.


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