Constitutional coups and the decline of media influence

On OpenDemocracy’s OurKingdom blog, Oliver Huitson draws attention to the way in which the right-wing media has shifted the focus of its attacks in recent days: from ad hominem assaults on Ed Miliband, to warning about the danger of SNP influence on a possible minority Labour administration.

Then something changed. The negative campaign wasn’t working. Labour’s polling was holding well and time was running short. Miliband’s personal ratings had actually improved, off the back of his appearances in the Paxman interview and the debates. And so began the ‘SNP phase’ of the campaign.

From around April 12th onwards, the new villain was Nicola Sturgeon … The message runs essentially as follows: Sturgeon will dominate a weak Miliband in a coalition, the SNP will destroy the country. It’s “the worst constitutional crisis since the abdication”, ran the Mail’s front page. 

It’s rich that the Conservatives and the media outlets that support them are complaining about Scottish influence over parliament.  Last year they were all campaigning to keep Scotland as part of the United Kingdom.  And a few years ago they were also ridiculing the idea of the AV system of voting as a replacement for First Past The Post.  The scenario we now face was entirely predictable during both those referendum campaigns.  Disproportionate influence of one party is the entire point of FPTP, which is why Conservatives campaigned to keep it. They thought it would grant them more power than AV; they thought it would be their party and not the SNP that took advantage of the loopholes in that system.

The bleating about the SNP also exposes those who are doing it as fair weather unionists.  They are happy to impose Conservative policies on a region that has emphatically rejected the party, as has happened after 2010.  But just as English votes can affect Scottish policy, so Scottish votes might sway English policy after 7th May.  That is a feature of the Union, not a bug.  

And in any case, a true patriot would simply say that we’re all British and delve no further. What’s wrong with a party from the North of the United Kingdom, that makes a strong showing in elections to the United Kingdom Parliament, having a strong influence over that parliament? 

The declining influence of the media

Huitson’s piece also endorses something I have felt throughout this campaign, which is that the media’s influence over elections is on the wane.  There are alternative sources of news now: blogs, social media, single issue campaign groups, and the outputs of the parties and candidates themselves.  The bigger media players simply cannot steer the narrative as they might have been able to do in previous elections.  

I think it is the newspapers themselves that are to blame for this decline, because of the blatant and brazen manner in which they have attempted to undermine politicians.  We voters had them sussed back in 2010 when Nick Clegg has a surge in popularity.  The right-wing media attempted to smear him, including publishing a so-called exposé that insinuated he was some kind of Nazi sympathiser (by taking a years old quote quite out of context).  But the smears backfired. The electorate guffawed at this desperate attempt to skew the vote, and made Clegg the King-maker.

Recall also the controversy in 2013 when the Daily Mail tried to claim that Ralph Miliband (and by association his son) was a dangerous Communist who ‘hated Britian’.  Miliband fought back and the Daily Mail persuaded no-one.

The actions of Rupert Murdoch are becoming increasingly desperate.  He has even chastised his editors for not attacking Ed Miliband enough!  Perhaps they know something that their boss has yet to realise—that brazen personal attacks do not change public opinion and actually reduce trust in the paper that makes them.

After the election, I do not doubt that the right-wing media will seek to propagate the meme that Miliband has no right to form a government.  However, I do not think that this will shift public opinion enough to stop Labour forming a minority government with the help of the SNP, Plaid Cmryu and the Greens (if together there are enough MPs to do this, of course).  

But what is less certain is how Prime Minister Miliband will fare over the course of a five year parliament.  Media attacks are less credible in the short term when an election needs to be swung one way or the other… But what about the long term effect?

5 thoughts on “Constitutional coups and the decline of media influence”

  1. It was always a bit wrong that an unelected media should ever have been able to influence a general election. No wonder they all wanted a ‘free press’…

    1. Clarice: Yes. A free media and freedom of speech is meaningless if only one view is heard. That’s why media pluralism is so important. It’s interesting that the diversity is coming not through more competing newspaper but through social media.

  2. Yet another interesting and thoughtful post Rob. But you ask what’s wrong with the SNP having a strong influence over Parliament . Nothing, apart from the fact that they don’t want to be part of the UK which I do feel is a problem,

    1. Thanks, Grannie Rose. I guess the reason I am not too worried is that the SNP had their referendum and they lost. And because their focus on Scotland is hardly a secret, I think any bribery or perception that they are holding the country to ransom (or even, extracting concession disproportionate to their needs) would be met with very short shrift by public opinion. Threatening Miliband would probably increase his popularity. Sturgeon has to play a long and clever game, pushing just the right amount and no more.

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