It’s the Sun wot didn’t quite win it (and nor did the Times, the Guardian, the Telegraph…)
As I write, there’s only a handful of seats still to come in and we have a hung Parliament.
However murky the outcome politically, the result of Election 2010 (Part I) is to well and truly nail the myth that the media – and in particular the press – have any influence on the outcome of elections whatsoever.
The great excitement when the Sun came out in favour of the Tories, after supporting Blair in the last three elections, the frisson that went through the media when the Guardian plumped for the Lib Dems, it’s all been sound and fury signifying not very much at all.
The great myth of the influential force of the mass media has its birth in the first few decades of last century, with the rise of the popular press (Northcliffe and the Daily Mail in the UK, Pulitzer and Hearst in the US), the phenomenal popularity of radio and film and the associated explosion of advertising and, led by the ideas of Edwards Bernays, PR.
Both Hearst and Lord Beaverbrook unashamedly tried to use their papers to further their political agenda. Hearst is famously – and probably apocryphally – said to have telegraphed his illustrator Frederic Remington during the American-Cuban war: “You furnish the pictures. I’ll furnish the war.” In 1926, Beaverbrook gave a speech in which he said: “When [the power of the press is] skilfully employed at the psychological moment no politician of any party can resist it.”
Both men, though exercising some influence, signally failed in their major political objectives, despite wielding enormous press firepower. Though elected twice to the US House of Representatives, Hearst failed in his bid to become New York mayor, or to become the Democratic presidential nominee. Beaverbrook’s tub-thumping for the British Empire failed to arrest its decline, his smear campaign against Labour on behalf of Churchill in 1945 spectacularly backfired, he couldn’t stop the creation of the United Nations nor Britain joining the European market (though that happened after his death).
The myth reached some kind of apogee with Goebbels and his Big Lie. The Nazis were undoubtedly masters of mass media, but it’s worth noting that their propaganda didn’t really take hold while Weimar Germany was still a democracy – an ailing one, no doubt, but a democracy nonetheless, and Hitler become chancellor when his party was a minority in the Government. The Big Lie only took hold when all opposition had been stiffed, either literally (dead) or effectively (exiled). The Big Lie only works in an otherwise silent room, whether it’s Nazi Germany, Stalin’s Russia or any other totalitarian regime you care to mention. But people are still free to think what they want and, in a functioning democracy, cast their vote in whichever way they want for whatever reason they want.
Which is why the media commentariat here got this election so wrong. The Big Lie here that so many of them leaped upon and branded the great game-changer was the so-called Lib Dem surge on the back of the three live television “debates”. The electoral landscape was being changed by Cleggmania, they said, a prospect that launched a thousand think pieces. The wreckage of these over-hyped expectations can now be seen: the Lib Dems may hold the balance of power, but they increased their vote share by a mere hair’s-breadth and they are still the kid brother of British politics.
That this should come to pass is no surprise: or rather, it is a surprise, but only to the media commentariat. Because it is only the media wing of the political class that believes the media influences where people place their Xes come election day, or has any need to. Believing in this myth justifies their existence, and their salaries.
Brendan O’Neill of Spiked has picked up on this to some extent, saying the election result “signifies a rupture between the influential intellectual wing of the elite and the public”. Part of that rupture is the belief by the “elite” that the media has very much influence at all on which way the electorate goes, a belief unceasingly fostered by the media commentariat, but which any political party embraces at its peril.
Of course, private media outlets such as newspapers and some TV channels are free to take any political line they want. At best, they can ride what they perceive to be a wave of popular feeling and boost their circulation or ratings as well as getting that warm fuzzy feeling of being on the winning side. To an extent, the Sun, which previously supported Labour in the last three elections but are past masters at spotting trends in their readers’ moods, successfully caught that wave, even if it dumped the country a few yards short of where the Sun wanted it to on the electoral shoreline.
The Guardian mistook media hullabaloo over Cleggmania for the real thing, even going to say as to say the Lib Dems “reflect and lead an overwhelming national mood for real change”. But no amount of drum-beating on behalf of the Lib Dems, no matter how sincerely done, could have any influence on the outcome. The people had their say, paying no heed to what they were told to say.Update: I’ve edited out a reference which made it sound as though the Guardian has always supported Labour. It hasn’t, of course. In the 1970s, it backed the break-away SDP, which like the Lib Dems, was posturing itself as the party which “wasn’t like the other two”. Another indication of the Guardian’s unerring aptitude for backing the wrong horse, perhaps?