It’s The Sun Wot Lost It

The newspaper industry, and the power of the press barons, is declining. The internet is on the rise and this holds opportunities for the left.

Are we in an age when we might soon read the words “It’s Buzzfeed wot won it”? The time when The Sun newspaper could declare that their influence was crucial in torpedoing a political party’s electoral chances is over.

The newspaper industry, and the power of the press barons, is declining. Instead, websites like The Guardian Online, Mail Online, The Huffington Post, The Independent and Buzzfeed are growing in popularity and influence. This transformation in the media holds opportunities for progressive politics in the UK, because the media people consume is less dominated by right wing interests.

The right wing media has dominated politics for the last 30 years. In 1992 The Sun sold 3,570,562 copies, The Daily Telegraph 1,038,138 and the Daily Express 1,524,786. The Sun’s infamous “If Kinnock wins today will the last person to leave Britain please turn off the lights” was viewed as influential in Labour’s defeat in the 1992 General Election. It led to The Sun smugly claiming that “It’s The Sun wot won it.”

But The Sun isn’t the newspaper it used to be. In 2013 it sold 2,409,811 copies. The Daily Telegraph dropped in circulation to 555,817 readers and The Daily Express has 529,648 readers. The only newspaper that has increased circulation is the Daily Mail. But, overall the newspaper industry generally – and thus the right wing press – is less able to influence politics, because fewer people read it. This partly explains why Ed Miliband was happy to turn his back against The Sun and News International. It was a bold move made more reasonable by the fact that The Sun and Murdoch are far less powerful than they once were.

Instead, the less ordered world of news websites is on the rise. About 40% of the British population now use the internet as a source of news. The overwhelming favourite for online news is the BBC, which has roughly 10.1 million unique users a month. The second most popular is the Daily Mail with 6.5 million unique users. Then the next favourite is the Guardian Online with 5.1 m. A look at the top ten most popular news websites in the UK shows that the most popular sites are broadly neutral websites such as the BBC and Yahoo News. Although the number of broadly left wing news sources (The Guardian, Huffington Post and Independent) is the same as the number of broadly right wing news sources (Mail Online, Telegraph Online and The Sun) in the top ten, there are overall marginally more unique users in the broadly right wing sources. But the difference is far less marked than in the newspaper industry. It is also fair to say that many of the Mail Online’s readers are more interested in its celebrity gossip coverage than its reporting and commentary on current affairs. The internet is levelling the playing field.

This means that UK politicians do not have to be quite as obsessive about whether they get a positive front page in The Sun or The Daily Mail. Instead, they are able to concentrate on more neutral and balanced sources such as the BBC whilst at the same time shoring up positive coverage with favourable media groups like The Guardian and The Huffington Post. Websites like Buzzfeed and the growth of social media also offer whole new opportunities to connect with the audience least likely to vote, but most likely to switch on their laptop, the 18 – 25 demographic. We have seen that smart, energetic and professional online campaigns, such as that orchestrated by Obama in 2008 and 2012, can get young people to vote.

Left wing politicians have often feared being left wing, because they didn’t want to upset the right wing press. This is one of the central arguments of the Blairite wing of the party – we musn’t tack to the left, because the right wing media will eat us alive. But the right wing media is losing its influence. This means there are now real opportunities for left wing political parties to be truer to themselves.

This article was first published on the politics blog Shifting Grounds and can be found here

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.