William Pearson. Voters may not be much influenced by the mass media but politicians certainly are.’ Discuss. The influence of the media is ever-present in British politics. With the decline of consensus, and rise in valence politics post-1970’s, the influence of an overtly partisan press has become more marked, as has its both symbiotic and antagonistic relationship with political parties. The effect of the media on voters is typically examined using three key frameworks; reinforcement theory, agenda setting theory and direct effect theory.
In Britain, both voters and politicians are directly and indirectly influenced by the mass media. However, politicians have been the group most affected by the rise in media coverage, to such a great extent that politicians are no longer free to air their honest opinions. This has had a detrimental effect on political discourse in Britain, and thus upon democracy. Furthermore, the British media is largely owned by a select group of individuals-‘media barons’, which, when combined with the media’s tendency to resist regulation, renders it largely unaccountable.
Despite both voters and politicians being affected, the change in the behaviour of politicians and their parties, especially in candidate selection is the most notable difference in modern politics post-New Labour. I will first explain the theories of media influence and address their relevant to the modern British voter, and judge whether they are an accurate representation of media influence. Secondly, I will examine the effect of omnipresent media coverage upon politicians and political parties, and whether it has fundamentally and irrevocably changed politics. Thirdly I will evaluate the influence the new media environment has had upon the British political landscape. Finally, I will note the extent to which the media has the capacity to command political action, and evaluate whether this occurs.
In order to assess media influence upon UK voters, it is necessary to understand the academic analysis behind the evaluation of media influence upon voting behaviour. Reinforcement theory suggests that the media has no great effect upon voting preference, and the primary role of the media is to reinforce the pre-existing belief of the reader, and is in part derived from the observation of “Selective perception”-wherein individuals internally filter out messages or information that conflicts with their political alignment. Furthermore, the theory suggests that the media is not responsible for dictating the national agenda, rather it reacts and changes in line with the perceived mood of the nation. Supporters of this theory suggest that in order for a media outlet to be economically viable it must have a group of readers whose views align with the editorial line, and should this line shift, then the core readership would disperse as would revenue. Therefore it is unlikely that the political alignment of organisations will shift as it would theoretically damage their revenue and influence.
The second theory is the agenda setting theory which is inclusive of the reinforcement theory, as it “accepts that the media cannot change the way that people think on particular issues”  . However it suggests that the news media is responsible for dictating the important issues of the day. For example, if the right wing press decided to focus their efforts upon presenting law and order as the prevailing issue of the day, the the Conservatives-a party traditionally considered strong in this area, would have the electoral advantage. This is a plausible theory as newspapers have discretion over what they publish, and the amount of coverage granted to each issue.
The third theory is that of direct effects, which is considered dated by modern academics. It posits that the media can have a direct, visible and calculable upon voting behaviour. It suggests that many voters can be “directed towards certain conclusions by means of selected reporting”. Furthermore, it proposes that the press are capable of utilising “value laden terminology”  to shape the debate, and distort issues to the advantage of their political allies. This assumption of almost total naivete upon the part of the voter is largely held to be untrue, as there is little data to support the view that “people switched parties as a result of reading a paper with a particular partisan bias”  . While this theory has broadly fallen out of fashion, there remain demonstrable moment in which intensive media coverage of an issue has provoked such a public response that it has prompted government action, most notably the Dangerous dogs act 1991, which was rushed through parliament in response to press coverage of the pre-existing issue. This ill-conceived legislation was hastily enacted in response to public pressure.
All these frameworks have merit, yet none are comprehensive. Due to the diversity of the British populace all of the theories have voters who they correspond to. Strongly aligned voters typically correlate with the conclusions of reinforcement theory, as their views are less prone to drastic changes, and they are likely to consume media which corresponds with the views. However reinforcement theory as a basis for evaluating voting behaviour has declined in merit proportionally to the decline of strong party loyalty in British politics. In contrast, less aligned voters are more inclined to change their views due to media coverage, and the agenda setting theory and direct effects theory pertains to these “floating voters”, of which there are an increasingly large number post-dealignment. Moreover, the field of explaining media influence on voting behaviour has proven difficult to measure due to a lack of empirical evidence, and the evidence which does exist is widely disputed, in part due to the rapidly changing nature of the British electorate. One of the primary weaknesses presented by the data attempting to analyse media influence is that it has “tended to focus very much on the short term”  at the expense of long-term research. Any analysis of voting, and the media’s influence upon it is further weakened by the inherent difficulties in determining cause and effect in voting behaviour. Despite the weaknesses in the above methods, it’s clear that the influence of the media upon the public, while significant, has been less pronounced than the media’s direct influence upon politicians and Britain’s political climate.
The influence of the media upon politicians is profound in modern Britain. The main change which the rise in media influence has engendered is the increasingly importance of candidates being marketable, rather than having significant political credibility. Politicians increasingly find themselves subject to, and evaluated upon opinion polling, which is itself held to be closely associated with media coverage, with positive coverage resulting in an upturn in the opinion polls  . The nature of the 24 hour news cycle shapes and dictates the political world, and there is increasing pressure upon politicians to be media savvy, and to never say anything which could be misconstrued. This effect has been amplified due to the rise of the internet blog and twitter sphere, in which politicians are analysed and judged on a minute by minute, second by second basis. Politicians are no longer given the opportunity to properly articulate their thought and opinions, due to time pressured and confrontational interviews. The primary consequence of this is that politicians increasingly are forced to rely up sound bites in order to feature on the nightly news, and to gain publicity. Unfortunately, this has led to a situation in which politicians are averse to giving longer, more honest and articulated answers due to the potential weakness these answers pose to their media coverage and thus, public image. Another consequence of the adversarial environmental cultivated by interviewers is that outspoken politicians, who are willing to be open about their views are typically cast as eccentric and unelectable, rather than praised for their honestly. Moreover, the nature of 24-hour news, with its constant need for new headlines and talking points has created a climate in which the executive is highly publicised at the expense of the legislature-as decisive action sells more papers than legislative discussions. Legislative discussions, and reasoned debate and deep analysis of issues are often labelled indecisive, or inconclusive, which stifles the proper functioning of the legislature. This further reinforces a system where the executive is almost entirely predominant over the legislature, a situation considered an aberration by most constitutional scholars.
The rise of TV leadership debates has created an entirely new paradigm in British politics, with identikit leaders parroting sound bites to a disillusioned public. The 24 hour news cycle has contributed to the growth in the number of career politicians, and especially candidates with media backgrounds. This has led the number of politicians with real world experience declining, and the rise of the political class. The rise of TV debates and 24 hour rolling news has increasingly forced parties to ignore or disown prominent and distinguished members in response to the changing media environment. The most recent and notable example of this was the treatment of Sir Menzies Campbell both internally in the Liberal Democrats, and externally by the media. Widely considered a distinguished politician, with years of loyalty and eminent service to the House of Commons and the Liberal democrats, Menzies Campbell faced significant pressure to resign in part due to his age, and the negative effect this had upon public perception of his competence. Despite accusations of ageism from multiple parties, Campbell’s position proved untenable due to the supposed electoral weakness which his age represented. His was the notable cases in which the modern media were primarily focused upon irrelevant personal characteristics, rather than judging a politician upon their political views or achievements.
The media has also had an effect not only upon individual politicians, but upon politics as a whole. Large media companies such as News Corp have, in recent years, acted as powerful pressure groups, who are exceedingly resistant to regulation or oversight. The Leveson inquiry is an apt example of this, as many media outlets have at times decried it’s recommendations for more press regulation and have spun the narrative of the inquiry’s recommendations being contrary to the freedom of the press, even in light of the phone hacking scandal. One of the most damaging results of the 24 hour news cycle, and constant evaluation of governmental performance is that it has encouraged short-termism in government spheres. A policy which doesn’t deliver immediate results, but which would be better in the long term is unlikely to be approved, as without immediate results a policy could be spun as a failure by the opposition or the press. This move towards short-termism is another way in which legislative discussion, analysis and planning is stifled in favour of ‘bold, decisive decision making’, as this portrays the government in a more favourable light, potentially at the expense of the national interest. In summary, I would suggest that the media has fundamentally altered the nature of British politics. It has changed candidate selection, the political and social make-up of the house of commons, governmental behaviour, and with the growth of the internet, blogging and social media, this trend seems unlikely to be averted.
While the effect which the media can have upon politicians is profound, the media can also have a significant impact upon legislation, and while it is rare, a media outcry can affect policy. The most notable case in which this has happened is the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991. It was enacted in response to sensationalist newspaper reports during 1990/91 which painted the problem of dogs attacking small children as a new and terrifying phenomenon. The resulting media furore led to the governmental pushing ill-conceived legislation through the house. The absurdity of the act in it’s initial form was highlighted when a dog named “Woofie” was almost put down for barking at a postman. The act has since been modified on multiple occasions, and is typically held to be a classic example of the media’s potential power over government, and the potential problems which can ensue.
In conclusion, media influence on voter behaviour is highly variable, and all three theories have merits and weaknesses, with Reinforcement theory and the Agenda setting theory being the most relevant to modern Britain, while empirical data is limited and inconclusive, however, it is certain that the media has less direct influence upon voters than it does upon politicians. The changing nature of the British media has led to politicians being so constricted in their media appearances that it has negatively affected British politics, and those politicians who dare to express themselves are castigated and marginalised. The prominence of 24 hour news, and the rise of TV debates had led to the rise of a new political class primarily comprised of career politicians, or those who have transitioned from politics directly from media-linked jobs, due to their ability to manipulate the media rather than their political beliefs, their character or significant contributions to their party or the nation. The rise of social media has further contributed to the “Age of Contempt” and the short-termism which it has engendered. While the media has an effect upon voters, it has been far less pronounced than upon politicians. The rise of this new media climate has had a broadly negative effect upon political life. This is exacerbated by the unaccountability of media barons, and their ability to act as self-interested pressure groups to resist regulation. While the “age of contempt is preferable to a time of excessive deference”, the political culture is has created may be just as damaging in the long term.