Three Way Gunfight in the Last Chance Saloon
Last weekend Britain's best selling paper, the Sun, finally told the truth about the British general election. Urging its favoured candidate for prime minister to steel himself against adverse polls and a torrid week of coverage, the Sun Says column retweeted by the tabloid's political editor Tom Newton Dunn, told David Cameron to ignore “left wing social media.”
Sun editorials regularly rail against 'Twitter mobs' while its new SunNation blog, taken out of the company paywall, seems to have failed to pick up any online momentum, and gets a sad handful of retweets, mainly from fellow employees of News UK.
But why does the newspaper which has consistently backed the winning prime minister for the last 36 years sound so panicked? Is it the threat of a tougher complaints system under a threatened Miliband government? Or something deeper in the system of the modern media?
Certainly, Fleet Street has rarely represented the political inclinations of the public. If it had, there would have been landslide victories for the Conservative Party in every election since the Second World War. The current position, with 66% of the press voting Tory compared with public opinion polls suggesting half of that, is par for the course.
In Lance Price’s recent book, Where the Power Lies, the former BBC journalist and Blair press spokesman explores the origins of the Press Baron mentality. Lords Beaverbrook, Northcliffe, and Rothermere make our media magnates look relatively tame. Each one a potential British Berlusconi, they became government ministers, believed they could make or break prime ministers, and even formed their own political party.
While most the media landscape of the last 100 years has undergone several revolutions of ownership and style, the British press seems frozen like a mammoth in Siberian tundra. Both in terms of top down editorial control (if not production) and concentration of ownership, it’s barely changed in a century. If anything, the press has regressed.
Fewer owners control more, and do not brook editorial independence. The Sun,The Times, the Daily Mail, the Daily Express and the Daily Telegraph are controlled by a handful of billionaires, all of whom would be hit by Labour tax proposals.
The Telegraph and Mail campaigns are particularly vitriolic, especially after Miliband made a political issue of tax avoidance and 'non doms', a tax loophole unique to the UK which owners Lord Rothermere and the Barclay twins happily avail themselves.
Rupert Murdoch is still the biggest proprietor in the UK, owning both the mass market Sun and the supposedly independent paper of record, The Times.
Bad blood between Miliband and the News UK papers goes back to the closure of News of the World in July 2011 after the revelation it had hacked the phone of the murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler. In defiance of exhortations from former friends at the newspaper group, Miliband called for the resignation of the then CEO, Rebekah Brooks. He still makes The “standing up to Murdoch” a defining moment of his leadership.
Unlike Nick Davies and other commentators, I don’t think Rupert Murdoch cares as much about money as he does political clout (though the two are rarely exclusive) and his regular interventions in political debates on Twitter make me think Murdoch is more of a politician manqué. He has often said the the Sun is the most accurate reflection of his own beliefs. In which case, the animosity between him and Miliband feels personal.
I’ll be writing more later about the online attack dogs of the right wing press, most particularly Paul Staines, the man behind the Guido Fawkes website, who was pictured recently drinking with Tory strategist Lynton Crosby and a hedge fund Tory donor. But while personalised tabloid attacks on Labour politicians ramp over the next few weeks, the broadsheets often seem completely in step with timetabled announcements of Conservative central office, even to the point of twisting manifesto promises into faits accompli.
All in all – and we’re only two weeks in - this election is more personalised and partisan than any in my memory (which goes back to first voting in 1979). Part of the personal animus stems from a crucial breakdown of trust between the Labour Party and the press two years ago. Aides who worked on the Royal Charter to implement Leveson tell me they’ve been excommunicated by former friends in the press.
It’s not all about press self regulation though. The Mirror Group have signed up to the industry’s IPSO regulator, but are still historically close to Labour. Yet the feelings of betrayal, and Monday's manifesto pledges of tougher sanctions on press abuses and examination of the concentrated ownership of the media (or ‘muzzling the free press” as some would have it) has certainly made the election coverage more defensive, or indeed desperate…
And that is perhaps the more important factor. Desperation.
The desperation in the newspaper world comes from radically falling sales (the Sun has halved it’s circulation since it claimed to have “won it” for the Conservatives in the close election of 1992). Though the Mail Online is one of the top news websites in the world, many of the political staff in Fleet Street don’t quite grasp the dynamics of social media where they are forced to engage in reasoned debate.
The number of Fleet Street venerables I’ve seen losing their temper when questioned online confirms to me some of the evidence of the phone hacking and related trials: it’s a very hierarchical world, sometimes verging on the bullying, in which the individual voice of the editor, and sometimes the proprietor, has the final say.
More acutely, the industrial model of newsprint – press a lever and millions of copies of your ideas and arguments arrive on doorsteps – is fast fading. To communicate your views in the peer to peer world of Twitter or Facebook, you have to be able to defend them, cajole, persuade and amuse assailants and interlocutors.
It’s a mixed blessing, as I’ll also point out in the weeks ahead. The monopolies of the digital age could dwarf anything we’ve seen in print or other mass media, and as John Lanchester points out in the London Review of Books, the almost flat-lined opinion polls could well be due to the ‘echo chamber’ and confirmation bias of online forums.
But for journalists, social media also makes you face the facts. Automatic rebuttals and corrections; new links, data, visualisations, humour, fierce rhetoric and memorable phrases come at you from innumerable directions. And, unlike the news rooms of Fleet St, where even the most liberal journalists pay deference to fame, age and rank, Twitter doesn’t care who you are if you present the killer phrase or fact. Information is crowd sourced, and crowd dispersed. Authority is won or lost phrase by fact, not conferred by masthead or publisher.
So the newspapers are fighting a war on three fronts. They are still trying to prove, in this the closest of elections, that they can sway the swing voter, and determine the course of the country for the next five years. They are also trying to ensure that whoever runs the country after the election is more friendly to their interests, and more tolerant of what they call the “robustness” of a raucous free press. But they’re also trying, Canute-like, to defend themselves against a growing tide of social media, in which ‘free speech’ is seen to be a dialogue, rather than the one way megaphone of the mass media.
So keep on watching this space as I try to cover that triangular battle for the next four weeks.