"It's The Sun Wot Won It" is a famous headline that appeared on the front-page of The Sun on Saturday 11 April 1992, and has since become a political catch phrase in the United Kingdom. The headline referred to The Sun's claimed contribution to the unexpected Conservative victory in the 1992 general election. It is unclear whether the newspaper had any significant influence on voters in the narrow Conservative victory, but the newspaper led a campaign against the Labour Party leader, Neil Kinnock which culminated in the election dayheadline, "If Kinnock wins today will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights". But in the 2008 US Presidential election campaign Barak Obama is supposed to have best harnessed the new media of email and Facebook to win grass roots support and bolster campaign finances.
Last week the Worshipful Company of Marketors, of which I am a Liveryman, held a seminar to discuss which of the parties in the 2010 British Parliamentary Election best handled new and old media and to what extent each played a part in delivering the result. Tom Chatfield, a senior editor at Prospect magazine who speaks regularly on technology and the future of media, and Jon Cross who works for Google and worked with all three main parties in the recent campaign were on hand to put the case for new media. Sir Paul Judge, former director general of the Conservative Party and more recently founder of the Jury Team party and political movement was there to give a more historical perspective. Appropriately enough, given the election outcome of a hung parliament, the seminar was ably moderated by David Hanger, former Marketing Director of The Economist and Chairman of the Marketors’ Think Tank.
Tom Chatfield made some interesting observations about the role of the internet in the election claiming that it has levelled the playing field. Two different kinds of information interest Web 2 users, Fun and Facts and both go viral. An example of Fun was the Brown gaffe in Rochdale which, though first published on radio as a result of a Sky recording, was subject to numerous visits on YouTube etc. An example of Fact would be the discovery by younger voters that the Lib Dems would only win a fraction of the seats that the Labour party would win with the same number of votes thus making a provisional case for Proportional Representation.
Jon Cross stated that the internet strategy was good across all three main parties but that the execution was poor and so limited in effect. On the internet an ad is only a gateway. The content was missing.
Sir Paul Judge provided some ballast to the seminar with astute observations based on thorough analysis. He made the point that politics is not that important to the majority of voters and that when he was involved in the Conservative party he would take great delight in demonstrating to senior politicians that they were almost unknown compared with soap stars. He also believes that most of us inherit our voting loyalties just as we inherit our religion and our football team. I am less sure of this as in the 1951 election only 3% of the electorate voted for parties other than Labour and Conservative. In the recent election nearly 60 years later that had grown to 35%.
The panel were all agreed that one form of old media had been trumped by new media in the campaign- that of posters. Each of the parties tried to launch a poster campaign only to see countless spoof versions appear on the internet turning it to the opponents’ advantage. It is unlikely that posters will be used as much in the future.
Sir Paul reminded us that only 120 of the constituencies change hands over time and so this is the battleground. The other 530 seats remain loyal to one or other of the main parties. In fact most of the battleground seats did change hands in this election with the Tories winning 90 seats. Sir Paul commented on the so-called Clegg effect in the TV debates which he thought entirely predictable. Three chaps all looking more or less the same performing more or less credibly divided up the ratings more or less around the mean of a third, a third, a third.
But I asked Sir Paul if this was not compounded by the role of newspapers. The actual audience for the first debate on ITV had been 10 million, admittedly a large number by today’s standards but still only a fraction of the electorate. Indeed that figure would have been a gross figure including those not entitled to vote so the voting proportion of the electorate watching might have been less than 20%. But the approval ratings for Clegg rose by 10 points on the night which suggests that at least 50% of those who watched were impressed by Clegg. What is more likely is that the newspapers acted in a reinforcing capacity as is their more customary role today. This is the role they play on reality and celebrity TV programmes. TV is the medium of entertainment. Newspapers act as cheerleaders and help people articulate their thoughts.
Sir Paul agreed and added that not only do newspapers act as reinforcers but so also do friends. Both are self selecting which means we read the newspaper whose views tend to reflect our own and we gather with like minded friends.
And surely the gossip on Facebook is simply an extension of the same phenomenon.
Copyright David C Pearson 2010 All rights reserved