The power of the press

Tony Blair told the Leveson Inquiry today that the media were powerful, with The Sun and The Daily Mail being the two most powerful newspapers.   The Sun, he said, was important because it was prepared to shift its political allegiance.

This reflects the fact that politicians over-estimate the influence of the media.  Newspapers are rarely responsible for changing people’s opinions (though they can help shape views on issues that are only just emerging).  Readers tend to engage in selective retention: that is, reading and remembering stories that confirm their own views and masking out the rest.

 However, the media are politically significant – because politicians think they are.  Because politicians think the media are important, they pay undue attention to them.   Rupert Murdoch realised this was the case, and obviously exploited it.  For politicians, it was a self-fulfilling prophecy, one for which they are now paying the price.

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About Lord Norton

Professor of Government at Hull University, and Member of the House of Lords
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17 Responses to The power of the press

  1. Croft says:

    I think your argument somewhat ignores publication bias. The Media is predominantly London and a particular section of that and it reports, often as a pack, things that fit their views/prejudices. So the public only hear a bare fraction of the stories in the mainstream press so whatever influence it has is skewed from the start.

    • maudie33 says:

      Croft is totally right in his stance on the press and its bias toward a political view, and the striving to push that view at every opportunity, including the comment columns.

      Although I feel the press should not only have a view, and that they should use their paper to air it, I also feel that unless they are prepared to print the full story, from both sides of the equation, they should be denied the use of a bias without it.

      The average reader does not have the full facts and therefore cannot make a judgment one way or another unless he can be sure he has the full story. I have become sickened by the one sided and in some cases ridiculous use of bias papers have spashed out recently. Most notoriously over Europe. It is laughable they show such ignorance.

      However, they are important for they expose and call to witness those who use their position of power to fill their bank balance at our detriment.

      Leveson yesterday was told by a ‘stray’ man that T.Blair has been paid £6million a year through JPMorgan in order to betray our country, as its Prime Minister, and is a war
      criminal.

    • Lord Norton says:

      Croft: The media certainly tend to hunt as a pack – which rather reflects badly upon them – but one needs to distinguish between reporting what is happening and seeking to influence views on what is happening. Readers can have very clear views on how to assess what is placed before them, as the comments of maudie33 rather illustrate.

      • Croft says:

        “needs to distinguish between reporting what is happening and seeking to influence views on what is happening.”

        It can be the same thing at least insofar as reporting x but not y gives over time an impression of the importance of x over y in the public mind that isn’t necessarily true and distorts the reality of both.

        It’s no good saying it doesn’t have an influence as it clearly does. For instance every year there are humanitarian disasters around the world yet the media pick and choose a handful which gain huge coverage. This generates donations to charities for relief. Yet other countries which may have had greater problems get little or nothing. So it’s not that the report is biased but the decision over what is covered at all that is the bias.

  2. Neil M says:

    I accept that we do tend to buy (or download if you are more technologically literate than me) newspapers that broadly reflect our political views but surely it is the very fact that they do shape views on emerging issues that makes them politically significant. And explains why politicians feel that they need to spend so much time cosying up to them.
    For example, many people had a perception of Gordon Brown as a competent (at the time) Chancellor and hoped he would be a PM more focused on substance than the spin of his predecessor. But to what extent do you think that his failure to manage the media relationship then contributed to the shift in public sentiment (i.e. we didn’t ignore stories that contradicted our original view, we were actually persuaded by the sheer weight of negative press from virtually every quarter) and his ultimate downfall?
    We may claim that we want substance rather than spin but the problem is that substance does not always get rewarded.

  3. ladytizzy says:

    “Newspapers are rarely responsible for changing people’s opinions…”

    Is this always true or simply more true due to our First Past The Post voting system?

  4. franksummers3ba says:

    Here in the USA newspapers are in real decline. The Times-Picayune in New Orleans was one of the old glorious beasts of which there were hundreds and are few now which did a real and full daily with its own resources and has just cut itself into something less….

  5. Lord Norton says:

    Editorial judgement as to what constitutes news is clearly significant, but the point to bear in mind is that newspapers are commercial operations. You are not going to be able to influence opinions if no one is buying your newspaper. Indeed, commercial pressures are now greater than ever before and owners are having to compete in a declining market. Coverage of human interests stories, entertainment and sport is squeezing out coverage of politics. What is covered reflects editorial judgment, but that tends to follow what editors discern is what the readers want. If it isn’t, circulation falls. There is a chicken and egg dimension to it, but newspapers should be seen as constituting followers as much as leaders.

    • Croft says:

      “What is covered reflects editorial judgment, but that tends to follow what editors discern is what the readers want. If it isn’t, circulation falls. ”

      True for commercial organisation but not the behemoth that is the beeb

    • ladytizzy says:

      I don’t believe that Mr Murdoch ever viewed his purchase of British newspapers as commercial acts worthy in themselves alone but rather as an entry into the British establishment from which he would derive the much sought-after attached benefits that others, such as Lord Thomson, ultimately enjoyed. Mr Murdoch’s ancestry and early years in England suggest a certain leaning.

      The incident in the following link might have been the start of where it all went wrong:
      http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-14160709

      • Lord Norton says:

        ladytizzy: I am sure that is true of ‘The Times’, which he largely left to get on with it, without much interference. If one was looking for interference by an owner, Robert Maxwell at the ‘Daily Mirror’ would be the one to consider.

  6. maudie33 says:

    And here is a bit of newspaper information that can and should change the minds of those who voted for the Conservative candidate. The editor of The Telegrah decided to let us know that it really is the Blair creature conducting the orchestra called government, as I suggested some little time ago via the Baroness Ashton fiasco. Funny how these things trickle down to alert the instinct isn’t it?.

    So tell me, Lord Norton, what worth is it for the public to have a vote in this farce of a democracy when you simply cannot get rid of the beast endured unmercifully for years. This man who hung on until his finger nails were bleeding has managed to work himself back in with the current conservative rulers, or, was he ever out. Which can only point to this team not knowing what to do so badly they have to go and hang their cap up to a despied cheat and liar to get a few tips on how to do follow his lead.

    Or, could it be that those at the top are wanting direction on how to receive £6m a year of laundered money via JP Morgan, without creating suspicion leading to an investigation? Only then to listen to how the Leveson barrister was so lenient with this man and at the end of the questioning, Leveson himself decides to also ask this loathesome cree to give him a few tips on how to deal with the press. This is really nauseating. I have never felt so let down by a leader in my entire life. I had believed, above all things, that Cameron was genuine, even if somewhat naive.

    Leveson would be better off asking his side kick Campbell than this joker as he was the man of spin. Blairs main claim to fame was getting others of dubious menatl ability to do the leg work for him and only expect payment years down the line. Campbell’s pay off being realised only now as I write.

    However, can a man who claims to be a Conservative political leader really be taken in by that old shyster? And if he can, isn’t he way out of his depth. I suppose we must look at it as, ‘they are all in it together.’

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/9299467/David-Cameron-and-Tony-Blair-forge-special-relationship.html#

    • Lord Norton says:

      maudie33: Tony Blair did not become Prime Minister because of the media. He became Prime Minister because electors wanted to get rid of a Conservative Government in 1997. The key to electoral success is not the media. It is the state of the economy and how electors view the Government’s handling of it. The media are a conduit and not a cause.

      • maudie33 says:

        Lord Norton, I feel your post is not entirely correct. Tony Blair became Prime Minister because he lied to the public about his motives and his intended policies. He told the country, through the media and newspapers, he was going to relieve them of the misery brought to them by the Thatcher policies carried on by John Major. Thatcher knew JM would adhere to her vision when she selected him as the new leader for her party and this lessened the blow of her demise.

        Blair took office by a landslide victory which he won because the newspapers, et al, had accepted the press releases on face value, as they always do, without any investigation into what Blair really intended for this country. Even the smallest probe into his pollitical stance at the time would have revealed he, his wife and the New Labour party had no intention of following the promised manifesto produced by them. Therefore, Blair and his crew, found it easy to deceive the country as our bastians were foolishly taken up by spin and naivete. Or, could it be laziness?

        So the media is culpable, as Croft wrote above, when they are either unable or unwilling to investigate, ‘without bias,’ into what a potential leader or party is planning. Just as the press in Germany falied in their duty when Hitler was selling his wares to the German people.

        The press and the media in general should be well aware of and certainly in the knowledge of, those who want to lead also plan to hide their true motives in that quest, as to expose it, most likely, would result in a loss of credibility and thereby loss of election.

        The press and media do realise they are our only barrier to becoming a state led by tyrants, and it their absolute duty to give all the information they have, regardless of their own leaning on the matter. As the alternative is too bleak to digest otherwise. That is why it is imperative they remove the bias from their output as an urgency.

      • Lord Norton says:

        maudie33: Whatever Tony Blair said or did in 1997 was marginal to the outcome of the election. It may have affected the size of Labour’s majority, but was not the cause of there being a majority. Electors were primarily voting on a retrospective basis (voting against the Conservative Government) rather than prospectively (voting for a Labour Government). What Blair did in the first term also did not much affect the outcome of the 2001 election: electors were still voting against the Conservatives.

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