Labour leaders have exhibited varied responses to the UK press. Tony Blair had an intuitive understanding of the power of the tabloid media, and chose to accommodate it, if at times uneasily. Jeremy Corbyn, in contrast, chose to ignore both right-wing and some mainstream titles during his leadership, betting that social media and alternative media would provide a counterweight. Starmer’s Labour has decided to re-engage, while attempting to avoid the excessive closeness during the New Labour years documented by the Leveson report. As Labour appears closer to power than at any time during the past 13 years, what do we know about the media’s ability to shape public opinion today? And what can parties and governments learn from political science research if they want to effectively shape public opinion in their favour?
Thirty years ago, when Labour was, as now, in opposition, political scientists were generally sceptical of the notion that media outlets were a powerful force for shaping public opinion. After all, voters choose which papers they read: a left-wing liberal is likely to favour the Guardian over the Mail, and a copy of the Morning Star will very rarely find its way into the hands of a true-blue Tory. Since then, with media markets fragmenting further and social media algorithms tailoring content to our political leaning, how much space is left for media outlets to influence voters?
There are current trends that deserve attention: for one, the number of campaigning TV channels in Britain is growing, and most of them are located on the right of the political spectrum. While GB News was roundly mocked for its amateurish production values, the launch of Murdoch’s TalkTV has been smoother, and both channels appear to have found a comparatively small, but growing, audience.
Not only have we seen a growth in Fox-inspired TV channels, but Britain has the most significant right-wing tabloid media of any country in the world
Moreover, robust evidence has accumulated over recent years that is changing the scientific consensus on media outlets’ abilities to shape public opinion. We also know more about the circumstances under which influence is likely to materialise. Empirical evidence from different countries suggests that media outlets, especially on the right, do indeed influence viewers. Fox News in the United States is the most important case study, and for good reason: research examining the roll-out of the network, and a study by Berkeley and Yale Professors David Broockman and Josh Kalla that experimentally incentivised some Fox viewers to watch CNN instead, both found that consuming Fox News makes voters and legislators take more right-wing positions.
The effects identified by this research could have profound implications for the UK. Not only have we seen a growth in Fox-inspired TV channels, but Britain has the most significant right-wing tabloid media of any country in the world. Thanks to Prince Harry’s bestseller, their unscrupulous methods and potential influence are in the spotlight again, 10 years after Leveson and Hacked-Off. But beyond the rich-and-famous, do tabloids matter politically? Studies found that the Sun switching its endorsement from the Conservatives to New Labour in 1997, and back to Cameron’s Conservatives in 2009, affected readers’ voting intentions. Moreover, in a study of public opinion towards British European Union membership conducted with my colleague Daniel Bischof, I found that the ongoing boycott of the Sun in Merseyside – beginning in 1989 in response to the tabloid’s reporting on the Hillsborough disaster, in which the paper blamed the disaster on fans and made shocking false allegations about fan behaviour – led to a significant reduction in Euroscepticism and bolstered the 2016 Remain vote in the area.
It seems, then, that under certain conditions a change in media slant or media consumption can shape public opinion. What are these conditions? Our research suggests that campaigning tabloid media appear to be most successful in shaping public opinion when they push on relatively low salience issues and do so persistently for a long period of time. In the late 1980s, the European Union was generally not at the top of voters’ minds. What issues are comparable today? Certainly not issues such as inflation or mortgages. In contrast, the debate around transgender rights is a good current example of how campaigning right-wing media outlets attempt to influence public opinion on issues that are relatively low on the list of voter priorities.
If elected, Labour politicians from the prime minister to backbenchers should feel more confident about using media appearances to influence public opinion
Another factor is the format and content of different media products. It is fair to assume that, prior to the boycott, many read the Sun not because of its Euroscepticism, but because of its football coverage and gossip; slanted political news came to readers as a by-product, bypassing concerns that readers select the papers they want to read on political grounds.
How about social media? Should Labour worry about the likes of Cambridge Analytica and the Conservatives’ ability to spend big on digital ads? The best empirical evidence we have from the United States suggests that digital ads have minimal or very small effects on behaviour. That applies to vote choice, but limited evidence from England also suggests that progressive causes such as voter registration are not exempt (although we recently showed that SMS text messages appear to work when sent by local government). While digital ads are probably not the game changer that some campaigns and marketing agencies appear to believe they are, it would be beneficial to produce more robust evidence in the UK. And the evidence that exists on ads certainly does not mean that there are no worrying trends on social media, like the spread of misinformation, fake content and online hate speech, which are real and deserve sustained political attention. Political scientists have much to say on these questions, and have suggested practical interventions to counter some of the worst problems.
What are the implications of research on media influence for Labour? And what can the wider Labour movement do to engage with the media landscape as it currently exists and shape public opinion in the future? Our study of post-Hillsborough Merseyside suggests that communities coming together to change the media landscape can be a powerful force. But the Sun boycott is, of course, the result of a specific event and unlikely to be replicated at scale elsewhere. As a result, in the short term, Starmer’s decision to take the media landscape as a given and present Labour’s best case on various mainstream platforms is without serious alternative. If elected, Labour politicians from the prime minister to backbenchers should feel more confident about using media appearances to influence public opinion, even on issues where voters might not yet entirely agree with them. The political scientist Gabriel Lenz showed that, in some instances, voters first decide which party or politician to support and then change their views on specific issues accordingly; it seems, then, that voters are more willing to follow their party or party leader than most politicians assume. If in government, Labour will also have the chance to scrutinize and potentially address some of the most problematic tendencies in the British media landscape. It should revisit ‘Leveson 2’, the cancelled second part of the Leveson inquiry, which was due to examine corporate governance at news organisations and the relationship between journalists and the police. Media regulations in Britain remain relatively weak, especially compared to other European democracies, and there is ample evidence of continued wrongdoing. If this inquiry could be expanded to look at social media companies as well, as some Conservative politicians have suggested in the past, that would be a welcome development.
Research further suggests that Labour should continue to invest in real-life encounters with voters. In 2014, I conducted several studies with Labour parliamentary candidate Rowenna Davis on political persuasion. The evidence was promising back then and has since been replicated in a different country, Germany. Parliamentary candidates can change how voters view them and their party by building relationships and listening to voters’ concerns and grievances. Going beyond the Labour party, the broader Labour movement in Britain should attempt to engage voters on political issues that they care about, ranging from economic issues and union rights to immigration and the type of relationship the UK will have with the EU. There is scientific evidence from the United States that these conversations persuade voters. While some of these topics might be deemed too difficult for the party to address in opposition, independent groups within the broader Labour movement should feel free to go out and make the case. If they do so, they should team up with researchers who can evaluate the impact of these conversations. While media titles are powerful in Britain, and Labour needs to engage to be able to govern again, Labour should not underestimate its ability to change voter opinion. This might take place though the media, or circumvent it: as we approach the next election, talking to voters directly is what Labour parliamentary candidates and members will be doing day-in and day-out on the doorstep. Either way, taking voters and their views seriously and engaging with them might still be one of the most powerful tools that a party has in its arsenal. It should be high on the agenda for the next election and beyond.
Image credit: Sharon Hahn Darlin via Flickr
Image credit (pinned news and insight): JC Burns via Flickr