Viewpoint: Under-appreciated in political debate, the media matter more than ever

Dr Neil Gavin is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Politics:

“With the exception of political communication specialist, many in the political and social sciences communities, either explicitly or tacitly, take a position that the media does not really matter – or if it matters, then not all that much. This is undergirded by a strong strand of research suggesting that citizens are not passive playthings of the media, or the partisan press in particular.

They are active, selective and, therefore, unmoved by politically inflected messages. This is the notion that media ‘merely’ or ‘only’ reinforce citizen’s pre-existing political dispositions. But this view has always been challenged as, at best, partial.

Arguably, the ability to maintain or reinforce people’s pre-existing views (or, indeed, their prejudices), is a considerable power. It circumscribes or impedes movement to different political attitudes and behaviours.

And in addition, there is also a growing sense that citizens with views that are not strongly held, may still be vulnerable to more direct persuasion, i.e. where pre-existing inclinations are weakly defined. It is just that it takes considerable methodological sophistication to uncover the processes at play [Brandenburg and Van Egmond (2012)].

It is not outlandish to suggest that, during this election, press messages about the political parties and their platforms (particularly Labour’s) have been dominated by bile, mendacity and omission, stooping to levels normally associated with the wilder excesses of American shock-jock journalism.

This is born largely out of fear. Fear that Miliband’s Labour might change the structure of media ownership, and influence the contours of press regulation. And fear of the policies threatened by Labour, not least on tax avoidance and ‘non-doms’. Attacks on Labour often revolved around ‘Red Ed’, demonising Nicola Sturgeon, questioning the legitimacy of any Labour-SNP accommodation, and offering an apocalyptic vision of future dominated by dangerously radical forces.

In this context, it could be suggested that this has done two very important things. First, it has reinforced the views of citizens with a pre-existing conservative bent, that there was a potent, almost existential, threat from Labour, backed by a radicalised SNP.

And this message will have convinced enough floating voters and timid Ukippers of the same. And with an electoral system where only a few tens of thousands of votes really matter, in a sea of safe constituencies, this has been enough to do the trick.

An astute – some might say cynical – use of a narrowly targeted and aggressively communicated message has been sufficient to frighten enough people into voting Conservative And propelled by our electoral system, this has allowed Cameron to slide back into No 10.

Second, in Scotland, this tactic has played quite differently. There, the national debate is not dominated to the same extent by the excesses visible in England. And the Scottish electorate has been awakened by the referendum debate. Enough voters in Scotland (enough to make a difference), are sufficiently inclined to probe electoral debate with elevated scepticism and increased curiosity.

And nationalists were always going to reject aggressive anti-SNP messages. So, overall, rhetoric tailored for an English audience has not had the same traction. On top of this, being told that a Scots presence at Westminster is tantamount to being illegitimate, is unlikely to have gone down well amongst floating voters north of the border, let alone Labour and SNP ones.

The national debate will, therefore, have reinforced inclinations and predispositions framed in last year’s Referendum campaign. The end product in the polling booth, in Scotland as in England,, has not been complete one-party dominance. But it has given momentum to SNP vote-gathering. And, again, our first-past-the-post system is all that is needed to produce a representational earthquake. The lessons from all this is that, emphatically, the media does ‘matter’.

Meanwhile, in the next parliament the Conservative have the opportunity to re-configure the national debate. The BBC’s position is up for consideration. And it is not beyond the bounds of possibility Cameron will seek to do one of two things. Financially emasculate an organisation which, for all its faults, is something of a brake on the excesses of press.

Or, alternatively, revisit the issue of obligated political impartiality on the airwaves, thus paving the way for the ‘Foxification’ [Cushion and Lewis, (2009)] of British broadcasting. Either approach would suite their short-term political interests, and further cement their political and electoral positions. But both would come at a hefty price, in terms of an ill-informed electorate and an impoverished national debate. The media, from this perspective, will continue to matter.”


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