‘It was the readers wot won it’ The effect of newspapers and social media on politics

Posted on 27 Jul 2017

Last night I attended the excellent London Press Club debate ‘It was the readers wot won it’, It was chaired by Andrew Rawnsley (Observer) and included panellists Amanda Platell (Daily Mail), John Rentoul (Independent), Simon Robinson (Reuters) and Kevin Schofield (Politics Home). The evening started with some great research by YouGov showing that 45% of us still get our news from newspapers. While 47% think that newspapers had an impact on the election, 43% thought that political endorsement by newspapers was damaging.

The survey also polled 18-24 year olds, finding 50% said social media was influential, which is reflected in their most popular places to follow the news: BBC News, The Guardian, Facebook, Buzzfeed, Twitter and Daily Mail respectively. John Rentoul pointed out that younger people are interested in politics, they just engage with it in a different way.

Fewer than one in 10 of those polled said that the media was fair and balanced.

The panel was in agreement that in the most recent election, Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign had been far more successful in its use of social media and digital marketing, with Amanda Platell describing Labour’s social media campaigning as “brilliant” and the Conservatives social media campaign as “old-fashioned and out of touch”. The consensus was however, that it was not the ‘readers wot won it’ but rather ‘the Tories who lost it’.

“When the vote on fox hunting was announced by the Tories, no older political journalist thought anything of it, because it has been standard Conservative policy since Labour brought in the ban”, said John Rentoul. Fox hunting, and the easing on ivory sales (in the Conservative manifesto) both became huge issues online and on social media, particularly among younger ethical voters.

Kevin Schofield observed that, even though the Tories initially focussed on it, “Brexit was not a big issue for the election.” People had already voted about that he said, and this time they wanted to vote about schools, the NHS and austerity.

It was agreed by all that one of the biggest problems with both far-left and far-right websites was that none of them are actually held to account, unlike national newspapers, such as the Daily Mail.

“Far left political websites are very capitalist,” John Rentoul observed. “They all get paid for by clicks. We are the same in that we are employed to write the sort of things that our readers want to read.”

“It is not all about chasing clicks,” said Kevin Schofield. “You need to have standards. What is increasingly happening now though is that there is very much the mentality that you are either with us or against us. Social media makes opinion much more polarised.”

When discussing Donald Trump’s presidency to date, the overall opinion was that you should not call him a liar, but that you can point out where he might not be accurate.

Simon Robinson noted: “At Reuters we would never run a piece about ‘Lies that Donald Trump has said’, as the New York Times does, however we would run his comments and then add a factual position at the end if appropriate.”

“So if he tells us the world is cube-like…” said Andrew Rawnsley,

“Then we would have our piece saying ‘the majority of international scientists believe…’”

While newspapers continue to be relevant and influential, social media is likely to grow in importance as the democratisation of opinion allows more people to hear their own views reflected back, something that newspapers have been successfully doing for years.

By Matthew Longbottom