An academic investigation has caught the UK media trying incredibly hard to keep Jeremy Corbyn out of Number 10. The mainstream TV and newspaper media are pushing the agenda of the Conservative Party within their coverage, according to an investigation from Loughborough University.
The Conservatives are the “most frequently reported” and “most extensively quoted” party, while issues pushed by Labour are “marginalised”, say the report’s authors. In newspapers, for example, the Conservatives received by far the most direct quotation, exceeding Labour by 45%.
One of the most striking findings is how much non-political personality pervades the entire media’s election coverage. Last week, Theresa May made a policy-free appearance on The One Show with her husband Philip May. The BBC hosted the personality-driven chat, despite the sitting Prime Minister refusing to debate her record on TV.
Then, according to the content analysis, the broader media amplified the appearance and sidelined the real issues. And this is precisely the aim of a Conservative Party opting for cosy sofa chats over serious policy debate. The sheer weight of reporting on the sanitised family affair propelled the Conservative leader’s husband into the fifth most covered political figure during the study’s time frame. He received nearly double the coverage of the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon, who leads a party controlling 56 out of the 59 Scottish seats.
The Conservative leader’s husband, a family figure irrelevant to the election, also received nearly as much coverage as Labour’s Shadow Chancellor. John McDonnell was the fourth most covered political figure, reported on in 6.1% of all the election news items analysed.
Theresa May was easily the most prominent, featuring in 32.4% – around a third of all news items analysed. Corbyn received much less coverage across TV and newspaper media, appearing in 21.4%.
The entire media
The investigation looked into both broadcasting and print media. For TV, the academics analysed election items on the main evening broadcasts of all major TV channels from 5-10 May (Channel 4 News at 7, Channel 5 News at 6.30pm, BBC1 News at 10, ITV1 News at 10, Sky News 8-8.30pm). For the press, they analysed the most prominent printed election coverage in nearly all major national newspapers (The Guardian, The I, The Daily Telegraph, The Times, The Financial Times, The Daily Mail, The Daily Express, The Mirror, The Sun, The Star).
Broader Conservative advantage
Across these TV and print outlets, greater attention was given to issues that the Conservative Party wants to define the election. The authors say:
Issues that the Labour opposition have sought to prioritise, such as health and education, have thus far been marginalised.
Other than the election process itself, Brexit is by far the most prominent issue across the entire media featuring in 16.2% of news items. This suits the Conservative strategy. Domestic issues that will actually define post-Brexit Britain, such as healthcare (3.6%) and education (2.8%), have been sidelined.
Throughout the printed press, the Conservative Party received a lot more coverage than Labour. 50% of the news items analysed reported on the Conservatives. 33.6% gave a voice to Labour.
TV broadcasters were more balanced for the two main parties, with 34.7% of items featuring Labour and 35.6% featuring the Conservatives. This may be due to stricter broadcasting regulations during the election period. But the Conservatives still received the most airtime for direct quotes, exceeding that for Labour by 27%.
It’s worth noting that the study only looks into the quantity of coverage. Not the fairness or treatment of the party or politician.
We must keep these highly relevant findings in mind throughout the election campaign. The media is demonstrably biased against the Labour Party due to concentrated billionaire ownership. 70% of our national newspapers are controlled by just three companies.
Hierarchical editorial structure, meanwhile, brings us coverage skewed in favour of the interests of the powerful. Only conversations between real people about real ideas can overcome such institutional bias.
Correction: This article was updated at 11am on 17 May to reflect the fact Theresa May featured in “around a third”, not more than a third, of all news items analysed.
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Featured image via Chatham House