The media have an effect on political attitudes

The argument that the media have an effect on political attitudes and opinions is certainly a contentious one. Although it would be virtually impossible to support a hypothesis that the media has no effect on British politics, it is also very hard to quantify the direct effect that it does have. First I am going to discuss the power of the media. To define this I think that the key word is 'influence', whether over the reader (in terms of how influential it is on their thoughts, attitudes and actions) or the government

(In terms of influencing the fortunes of the party in office or opposition and the policies). Also one must decide who benefits from the power, whether it is the proprietor, the reader in terms of agenda-setting or, if one does feel that the government controls the media, it must personally benefit from the power. It seems obvious that in many ways the media is very powerful, one of the most highly publicised ways being electoral behaviour. Ownership of many of the newspapers is highly concentrated.

57% of dailies and 66% of Sunday papers are owned by two companies and because so many newspaper owners have multinational and diverse interests the sustaining of "unprofitable newspapers by cross-subsidization for political reasons" (Dunleavy; 1998) can occur. Obviously the Capitalist nature of the owners means that most of them vote Conservative anyway and therefore most of the newspapers have a highly partisan bias towards the Conservatives. The 'newspaper barons'

experience with the printing unions in the 1980's is also an explanation of this. The 1980 and 1982 Employment Acts restricted closed shops and picketing highly benefiting owners such as Murdoch and Shah in gaining control of the printing unions, as well as the advent of electronic publishing. The decline of the unions had a dual effect of removing a crucial check on the power of the bosses as well as providing guaranteed support for Mrs Thatcher throughout the 1980s and transferring it, albeit with reservations, to Major in 1992.

Both in 1987 and 1992 tabloids such as the Sun repeatedly portrayed Labour in a very negative light as "Marxist" with a "fantasy defence policy" and a "windbag leader"(Dunleavy;1998) in 1987, and "nightmare on Kinnock Street" and "untrustworthy Kinnock"(Dunleavy; 1998) in 1992. The press in elections focus on less important issues in great detail, especially personalities and scandals and this often obscures policies and affects the chances of smaller parties like the Liberal Democrats who lose out on coverage.

There is much evidence about where the electorate gather their political information from, with surveys showing that television is most peoples' primary source of political information (60% to 70%) with the press coming in at a distant second on 25% to 30% (Jones & Kavanagh,1998). There are many possible reasons for this, with the sheer number of television sets and an almost universal access to them being the most probable.

Another reason for the dependence on the television rather than the print media for political information is the perceived bias of newspapers and the perceived neutrality of television news. It is universally acknowledged that newspapers show a certain amount of political bias, although the bias is more obvious in some newspapers than others, with the obvious example of an openly biased newspaper being the once strong pro-Conservative party line of The Sun, and now radically switching to favour Labour.

It is not just the tabloids who are biased, however, for it would be difficult to argue that The Telegraph is any less pro-Conservative than some of the tabloids, it is just that the bias is not as openly exhibited in the broadsheets than in the tabloids, but it is there nonetheless. The pertinent question when examining the role of newspapers in British politics is whether they influence voters or not, and if so, to what extent.

There are three main theories about the issue of press bias, of which the first one is reinforcement theory, which states that a person is more likely to read a newspaper with a similar political outlook to themselves, so the newspaper re-inforces their political views instead of totally shaping them. This theory "claims that the media do not create or mould public opinion, but merely reflect or reinforce it" (Budge & McKay,1998). Audiences (or readers), according to reinforcement theory, prefer to select the messages that appeal to them, and so market forces ensure that the media barons supply this to them.

Surely people decide what they want to read and then buy a newspaper to reflect that ? Surely the reason that so many papers are of such a low standard and concerned only with personalities and sex scandals is because most people read papers to be entertained and that they watch television news to be informed? One could also argue that it is very patronising to assume that everyone believes all that they hear and read and that there is no concerted action between the government and the newspapers to shape the thoughts of the population.

Also the newspapers are just as keen to 'expose' scandals concerning Conservative figures in government, if not more so, and the newspapers were not exactly fulsome in their support for Major. The logical result of this theory is a fairly toothless media, but not enough evidence exists to either prove or disprove this. The second major theory about press bias is agenda-setting theory, which states that the media help to set the political agenda, so while the media does not control what people think, it does influence what they think about.

This theory agrees with reinforcement theory up to a point, in that it does not subscribe to the view that the media influences what people think, but it does stress the fact that the media have a significant amount of power in being able to set the agenda in politics. It must be remembered, however, that the newspapers still have a responsibility to their readership, so the agenda they set must be what their readership wants to read about, as their power of setting the agenda will disappear as their readership does.

Again, there is not enough evidence to either conclusively prove or disprove this, but the available evidence points to it being more likely than unlikely, with the spate of ministerial and junior ministerial resignations after newspaper revelations about them suggesting the validity of this theory. The final major theory about press bias is that the press does have an influence on voting behaviour and political attitudes.

According to this theory, if someone reads, for example, a newspaper that is biased in favour of the Conservative party, they would be more inclined to vote Conservative than someone who reads a newspaper which supports the Labour party. It is difficult to produce enough evidence to conclusively prove this theory, but "recent research finds that the papers have a significant impact on voting behaviour even after political attitudes and party identification are taken into account… even those who identify with a given party and believe in its policies are more likely to vote for another party if…

they regularly read a paper which supports the other party" (Budge & McKay,1998). This theory, therefore, seems the most likely of the three theories, as there is more evidence pointing towards its validity than there is for the other two major theories. The one thing that must be born in mind, however, is that there is less evidence concerning reinforcement theory (either for or against) than the other two, and it is possible that all three theories may be accurate to a certain extent, as the current available evidence is inconclusive.

Television and radio, by contrast, are perceived as being neutral, and therefore a much more reliable source of political information than newspapers. They are different from newspapers in two major areas, the first being that, in theory, anyone can publish a newspaper, but due to the scarcity of frequencies available, they are regarded as public property and are regulated by the government. The second point, which stems from the first one, is that because television and radio frequencies are seen as public property, any radio and television stations must serve the public interest.

Indeed, television and radio are required by law to maintain a proper balance between the political parties and to be impartial. This approach seems to have succeeded, for the evidence shows that about two-thirds of the electorate believe that television news is unbiased, compared to a third who believe the same about newspapers. A third of the electorate think that the newspapers do show a political bias, compared to only ten per cent who believe the same about television (all statistics from Budge & McKay,1998) so the evidence does seem to be clear on this matter.

To conclude I feel that it is beyond doubt that the media and broadcasting have a large amount of power and influence on our lives. The crucial question is though, who benefits from this power? The newspaper tycoons gain influence and have the opportunity to put their views across and to an extent the citizens of the country have some control as consumers. However I feel that the government can gain most from this situation by filtering information. In terms of accountability also, the BBC and other regulatory

bodies are supposed to actually be accountable to Parliament (and therefore the citizens) but in reality are open to government manipulation in worrying ways. The media does indeed have influence over policy makers and can help to dictate government decisions. The level of this influence is however difficult to quantify and falls short of absolute power. The media, unlike the Houses of Parliaments and the Crown, have no rights under the terms of the British Constitution. If the media was ignored, it's significance would be zero.


* Jones, B., Gray, A., Kavanagh, D., Moran, M., Norton, P., Seldon, A. (1998) Politics UK (Prentice Hall)

* Budge, I., Mckay, D., Newton, K (1998) The new British Politics (Addison Wesley Longman)

* Dunleavy P., et al; Developments in British Politics; 2000, Palgrave

* S. Bowler and D. M. Farrell, Electoral Strategies and Political Marketing (1992)

* BBC News; 'The Campaign in Front Pages', 8 June 2001

* A. McSmith; 'Press Bias on EU Confuses Public, Claims Kinnock', The Daily Telegraph, 20 October 2000

1,737 words.

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