To answer this question it will be necessary to consider how the media has affected and shaped the course and direction of politics today in Britain. I will therefore be considering how powerful the different forms of media are at conveying political messages and the extent to which these affect the voting public. A case will be argued that media does indeed have a profound effect, however this is countered by the showing that the power of the media is limited by the fact that by its mere nature is to mirror public opinion.
Barely after the ballot box’s had been closed on Election Day 1992, The Sun newspaper ran the headline proclaiming “it’s The SUN wot won it” referring to John Major’s victory over Neil Kinnock in the polls. This is just one of many examples of the apparent power that the media has in British politics -to what extent this power is merely perceived or in fact real, will be discussed in dept in this essay.
In today’s society, media, especially television, has undoubtedly become the most effective way to spread messages. These messages could be asking you to buy a certain car, a brand of washing powder, subscribe to a religious persuasion, or merely showing you how to decorate your front room. Is it just coincidence that children can often recite advertising jingles they have heard on television or radio long before they can construct a proper sentence?
Before media was embraced into British politics (i. . before the event of high circulation newspapers, radio and television), communication was mainly verbal – therefore political ideals would have to be spread by word of mouth, which could in theory of lead to a “Chinese whispers” phenomenon, where the message is constantly changing. This is one of the great political powers of the mass media – a source of media (i. e. a paper or TV programme) can create one uniform message and broadcast it to millions of people.
Many people often argue that the media, especially television has had the power to completely change the criteria of what makes a successful politician, therefore redefining politics itself. Image is now considered all important in politics, the days when a politician was allowed the time to fully purvey his point of view are long gone- in order to satisfy the modern television watchers increasingly short attention span political messages now have to be squeezed into two or three minutes or into “soundbites” lasting just a few seconds, as Bill Jones says in his book Politics UK, “Orators are obsolete”(Jones et al, 2001).
With such a short time to judge a politician (and therefore the party / policies that he or she stands for) other things apart from their ideals become far more important, such as the way he or she may look, their tone of voice or even accent. Bill Jones goes as far to say “some politicians are arguably barred from the highest office on account of their looks” citing the fact that “Labour’s Robin Cook’s red hair and gnome-like appearance are said by some experts to disqualify him from the partys’ leadership” (Jones et al, 2001)..
We have to ask ourselves is the house of commons really filled with brilliant political thinkers – or merely people who have the panache and style to appeal to the media? Officially Television reporting of politics has to be neutral, however, inadvertently or not, the medium (together with all types of media) exhibits a certain degree of political bias. This is most effectively demonstrated by the fact that programme makers, especially news programme editors always have to decide what angle to report a story from, with the resulting angle often taking on one political message or another.
A poignant example of this was during the miners strike in the early 80’s when many editors choose to run segments concerning police brutality against the strikers, its alleged because it was sensational and made good television, what was rarely shown was the scenes of peaceful protest. This resulted in a lot of anti (Tory) government sentiment at the time. An eyewitness of the strikes who was later interviewed for Scottish television commented: “when I saw the TV pictures I thought it was terrible because I thought it was really violent.
Every time it came on I would just walk away and not watch it. Then most of my friends at work, their husbands are miners at the Polkemmit pit – they stood at the picket lines and there was never any violence, never any. The camera men must have deliberate filmed the violent bit for television”(Philo, 1995) Although it’s not fair to say that the programmes adopted the position for political reasons (in fact, its more than likely that they were trying to increase ratings), it is clear to see how the coverage could have been deemed as politically biased.
The news editors further have power because they decide what political views get aired (called gate keeping) and how much time to devote to a particular political issue (called agenda setting), therefore there is definite scope for someone’s political bias to influence what the perceived political persuasion of the programmes they produce. The most recent scandal concerning politics and television was the appointment of Greg Dyke as BBC director general in 1999, Tory’s thought that it was absurd that a supposedly politically independent body such as the BBC could be headed by a man who as recently as 1997 gave a £50,000 donation to a political party (in this case labour).
It is, however, very hard to prove whether Dyke’s appointment has lead to any deliberate bias in political coverage. It is obvious the media’s ability to give story’s a considerable slant, together with the capacity to agenda set and gate keep – makes editors (from all forms of media) very politically powerful indeed. However, one can argue that the true purveyors of power are the large media corporations, who own the newspapers, TV networks and other forms of media simultaneously.
The classic example of one of these corporations is Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp – which owns The Sun and The Times newspapers along with the B Sky B television network. In theory this makes Murdoch a politically, very powerful man, many argue that his own political ideas infiltrate to the media he owns – weather it be broadsheets (the times), tabloids (the sun) or news (sky news). Over the years, political party’s, seeing the political power that the media holds have slowly begun to adopt the media as their most potent political weapon.
Accusations of politicians manipulating the media have become commonplace – “spin doctors” such as new labours Alastair Campbell, have become some of the most important people in government, with little or no political experience but not surprisingly a wealth of experience in the media, in Campbell’s case as a journalist. In an article in the guardian, Simon Hoggart went some way to explaining the power that media man Campbell had over politician Blair by saying “he writes most of what Tony Blair says” and then goes on to say the he also “writes almost everything that appears under Tony Blair’s name” (Jones et al, 2001).
In the Glasgow media group reader, Greg Philo goes as far to suggest that one of the main reasons why labour were unable to gain office in the early 80’s was because they “did not have a well developed communications strategy”, which “affected its ability to offer clear messages”(Philo, 1995) whereas the Tory’s had a “sophisticated communications machine”(Philo, 1995) and even went as far as to hire advertising agency Saatchi and Saatchi to purvey their ideology.
With political parties allowing these media men such influence, it is not surprising that political parties have grown very close to the media – press releases are often “leaked” to friendly publications first. The media and politics relationship has become so incestuous that the media can no longer claim to be any sort of watchdog of the government as it once was. Historically, newspapers have had a huge influence in politics – indeed, originally, many papers were in fact owned by political parties- some go as far to argue that these could be classed as propaganda.
While over the years, all national papers have lost their political ownership – it is undoubted that nearly all have political affiliations and unlike television, printed media in Britain doesn’t have to portray a politically neutral message. This leads to today’s printed media being much more open in its political views than its Tele-visual counterpart; editorials, especially around election time often actively support one party (below, the political affiliation of all the major national papers are listed).