Is the influence of the right-wing media greatly exaggerated?

The right-wing press loves to talk up its own importance, but is its influence exaggerated? And can courting the wrong media sources prove politically damaging?

Right-Wing Watch

‘It’s The Sun Wot Won It’, was the infamous front page in 1992, when the tabloid claimed credit for the Conservative Party’s general election victory. Five years later, and the moment that appeared to indicate  Tony Blair  was heading for Downing Street was when  the Sun’s front page announced: “The Sun Backs Blair.” In 2016, the newspaper splashed: ‘It’s the Sun Wot Swung It,’ claiming it had ‘led the fight against the EU and had the strongest influence on people voting for Leave.’  

The Murdoch-owned tabloid certainly has an inflated ego and love of talking up its own importance, but is its influence exaggerated? Do the likes of the Sun affect what people think about, not what they think?And can a politician’s courting of such media ultimately prove self-defeating?  

There is evidence which suggests that the impact of the populist media is vastly inflated, and, unfortunately, we don’t have to look too far for discussion involving politicians’ courtship of the wrong type of media. 

Starmer’s ‘Thatcher’ article in the Telegraph 

Last weekend’s article in the Sunday Telegraph by Keir Starmer sparked such discussion. In a bid to woo diehard Conservative voters and consumed by not being ‘complacent’ and taking any votes for granted, the Labour leader did not just pen a piece for the Tory newspaper, but invoked and praised the legacy of Margaret Thatcher.  

Many traditional Labour voters disagree of course with Starmer’s assessment that Thatcher effected ‘meaningful change’ in Britain. And rather than extending the hand of friendship to all Britons, irrespective of who they have supported previously in the ballot box, as Starmer said, the article sparked backlash among members of his own party. 

And it wasn’t just those on the Left who objected to the piece. John McTernan, political secretary to former PM Tony Blair and of the ‘New Labour’ cohort, joined the criticism.  

“The Labour party’s relentless pursuit of Tory switchers is in danger of backfiring badly. Keir Starmer’s praise of Margaret Thatcher in the Sunday Telegraph is a double danger – it wins over no wavering voters but risks losing the goodwill of a wide range of his supporters, old and new,” said McTernan, in an op-ed about Stamer’s precarious foray into ‘enemy territory.’  

Polling suggests that millions of uncertain voters could decide the next UK election. But only time will tell if the Labour leader’s Thatcher-praising piece for a Conservative newspaper will pay off in appealing to those who feel disillusioned by the current Tory government, or backfire by alienating Labour voters who despise Thatcher and felt a queasy sense of unease when reading it.  

But what it does show, is the importance politicians attach to the right-wing press. But is such a perception misconstrued, with the said media sources being less influential than generally regarded?  

Daily Mail readers more likely to vote left-wing parties (yes really!)  

A poll conducted by Survation on behalf of Greenpeace UK, uncovered some interesting findings relating to the news sourcing habits of voters. The survey asked 20,205 respondents earlier this year, who they would vote for if there was a general election tomorrow, and what was their primary news source.

Interestingly, the majority of Daily Mail voters would vote for left-wing and progressive parties, with only 40 percent saying they would vote Tory.  

And this is the best part. MORE Telegraph readers would vote Labour over the Conservatives, 41 percent to 32 percent. Even among Times’ readers, 45 percent would vote Labour and 28 percent Conservative.

The Sun was another shocker, with 46 percent of readers saying they would vote for Starmer’s party compared to 34 percent who would opt for the Conservatives.  

As well as essentially confirming just how ‘Sunakered’ the Tories really are, the findings suggest that A) Starmer may have been wasting his time by trying to woo Telegraph-reading Tory voters, as they are not as ‘Tory’ as him and his team might have thought, thereby doubly shooting himself in the foot by running the risk of alienating his core voters. And B), nobody really takes any notice of the weird rants published in the right-wing press, as readers are more likely to vote left-leaning parties.  

Oh, the irony.  

Restore Trust’s efforts are all in vain 

In fact, the more you think about it, the more it makes sense. Just look at Restore Trust’s failed attempts to wrest control of the National Trust, not just once, or twice, but three times. For a third consecutive year, the right-wing insurgent group failed to secure a place on the National Trust’s council in this year’s elections. That was despite the Telegraph and its titles, fanatical in their opposition to the organisation, throwing their weight being the ‘anti-woke’ campaign.  

It seems, the efforts of the Telegraph, alongside GB News and the Daily Mail, not to mention a few incensed Tufton Street residents, who worked themselves up into a state of apoplexy churning out anti-NT, pro-RT propaganda, were all in vain. Again, suggesting that their readership is not as right-wing, or docilely ‘compliant’ as they may think.  

The failed ‘Red Ed’ campaign 

This one goes back a bit further, but it’s worth mentioning. In the early 2010s, when Ed Miliband was Labour leader, the country’s two leading right-wing newspapers embarked on an ‘othering’ of ‘Red Ed.’  

Ed’s ‘sin’ was it seems his father’s beliefs. The ‘framing’ campaign began with a 2,000-word article by the Daily Mail on September 17, 2013, headlined ‘The man who hated Britain.’ The reason why the newspaper devoted so much ink to a distinguished academic who was largely unknown to the general public and who had been dead for 19 years, was revealed in the article’s sub-heading:

‘‘Red Ed’s pledge to bring back socialism is a homage to his Marxist father. So what did Miliband Senior really believe in? The answer should disturb everyone who loves this country.’ Of course, the Mail did not make reference to Ralph Miliband’s distinguished war service in the Royal Navy, including involvement in the D Day landings.

It triggered a bitter right-wing media tirade against ‘Red Ed and his ‘revolutionary father,’ driven mostly by the Mail but with enthusiastic support of the Sun.  

But as Ivor Gaber, professor of journalism at the university of Sussex, noted in the London School of Economics, despite the ‘ferocity and intensity of the ‘Red Ed’ campaign,’ there was a ‘noticeable lack of success.’ Polls at the time found that people didn’t generally regard Ed Miliband as ‘too left-wing,’ and viewed David Cameron as being further to the right than Miliband was to the left.  

For Gaber, the campaign’s failure to capture the public’s imagination was multifaceted. For one, it was more than 20 years on from the collapse of the Soviet Union, meaning ‘red scare’ clearly no longer had the potency it once had. Secondly, the Mail, while an ‘important and influential paper, in terms of both its readership and its perceived importance among policymakers and opinion-formers’, there were, wrote Gaber ‘countervailing forces’ at play. Namely, TV news, where the ‘Red Ed’ campaign failed to take off, having much larger audiences, and in the Professor’s words, ‘greater credibility than the Daily Mail. Thirdly, the rise of social media, where alternative views and, at times, robust challenges to the political narrative of the mainstream media, was another countervailing force.  

Ten years on, with print media continuing to decline and digital news having gained even greater audience traction, the countervailing forces impeding vicious right-wing campaigns that Gaber spoke of, are likely to be even more potent, thereby quashing to influence of newspapers like the Mail and the Sun even further.  

The last couple of decades have seen Britain’s major newspapers, including the Sun, Daily Mail, Times, and the Telegraph, witness sharp circulation declines. Without offering decent returns, investors are shunning the sector, something the government warned in May 2022, threatens the “future of a pillar of democracy.” Amid the decline of mainstream news outlets, social platforms as a means of consuming news are surging. Recent polling shows that the vast majority of the under 40s now get their news from TikTok and other social platforms.  

Rupert Murdoch’s departure  

And what will the stepping down of Rubert Murdoch as chairman of Fox News and News Corp., ending a seven-decade-plus career which saw him carve out a global media empire, likely to mean British politics?  

Murdoch, or at least his newspapers, have long had a strange hold of UK politicians. Since the 1970s, the newspaper and TV baron, whose News Corp. owns the Times, and the Sun, plus TalkTV and Times Radio, has struck both fear and awe into elite political leaders in London. Perhaps through fear of risking savage media attacks which would render them unable to govern effectively, this ‘fixation’ has crossed the political spectrum, with Tony Blair as desperate to court Murdoch as his successor David Cameron. In the first 14 months of Boris Johnson’s government, Murdoch and his top executives in the UK and US met the PM and other high-level government politicians, 40 times

During the Leveson Inquiry into the culture, practices, and ethics of the British press following the News International phone hacking scandal, Tony Blair, whose relationship with Murdoch was described as ‘unhealthy,’ admitted that he failed to challenge British tabloids over misconduct because he could not afford to lose their support. 

Some argue that Murdoch was a one-off who will not be replaced in a changed media landscape. As Peter Mandelson, former cabinet minister who was instrumental in the courting of the media mogul during New Labour, said: “If Murdoch was starting out again now, I just don’t think he would rise to the influence he was able to build then.”  

While others believe there will be more of the same under Murdoch’s son, Lachlan, who has taken over his father’s role.  

“It’s the son wot won it,” said former Labour deputy leader Tom Watson, when he congratulated Murdoch for “pulling off a seamless transaction within the family’s global media empire.”

This summer, politicians from across the parties rubbed shoulders with members of the media at Rubert and Lachlan’s annual party, including Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer.  

The Labour leader’s attendance suggests that Starmer seeks to convince News Corp. that his party is deserving of endorsement by the group’s newspapers and channels. The newspaper’s infamous ‘The Sun Backs Blair’ frontpage will undoubtedly be in Starmer’s mind.  

For a languishing industry, the press still has an awful of a lot of clout with elite politicians of all stripes, as proven by the cross-party rush to attend Murdoch’s party, and Starmer’s willingness to write for the likes of the Telegraph. The problem is that the newspapers don’t hold equal clout with their readers, as suggested by the Greenpeace poll, and by their nosediving readership. In this sense, Starmer’s Thatcherite-endorsing article in a Tory newspaper could prove not only futile but damaging.  

As McTernan warns, the “most dangerous complacency of all is to take your own voters for granted.”

Right-Wing Media Watch – Boris’s media faithful stand behind their man  

Boris Johnson was in the Covid Inquiry hot seat this week. After a five-hour grilling on Wednesday, during which he admitted he should have ‘twigged much sooner’ about the threat posed in the early days of the pandemic, the former PM faced boos by crowds of bereaved families as he left the Inquiry.  

Interestingly, but perhaps unsurprisingly, none of the Tory nationals (bar the Times which alluded to Johnson’s apology for the ‘utter disaster’ of Covid) devoted their lead stories to Johnson in the dock, opting to focus on Jenrick’s resignation, and Sunak’s growing revolt among right-wing Conservatives over his failed Rwanda flights plan.  

The Daily Star got it about right, assigning its front page to the ‘Pinocchio on the stand.’  

Though away from the front pages and there was plenty of comment from right-wing commentators and columns which jumped to Johnson’s defence.    

GB News, Johnson’s soon-to-be employer, focused on the lead Covid Inquiry lawyer, Hugo Keith, being ‘forced to backtrack’ after making ‘false claims’ while ‘grilling Boris Johnson. Johnson issued a ‘fiery rebuttal,’ wrote GB News to Keith’s ‘misleading statement on the UK’s death rate.’ The report goes on to quote barrister and writer Steven Barrett (an author at the Spectator), who told the right-wing channel that he felt himself getting ‘irritated by the KC.’  

Meanwhile, the Johnson-adoring Express framed their piece on the Inquiry as being an impending triumph for the disgraced former PM. 

‘Boris Johnson to come out fighting at Covid Inquiry grilling: ‘I got the big calls right’ was their headline.  

In its ‘The Sun Says…’ column, the tabloid nonsensically asked: ‘What Prime Minister wouldn’t have made mistake in once-in-a-century catastrophe like Covid?’  

‘WHAT is the point of the second show-trial of Boris Johnson?’ it continued, before answering its own question with an equally random answer… ‘Aside, that is, from providing warm employment for smug lawyers and political anoraks.’ 

‘We get that bereaved families of some Covid victims need closure…’ the report casually continued. And they claim it’s the lawyers being smug!  

The Sun’s Ross Clark went for the same lawyer-bashing angle, claiming ‘What’s the point of Boris attending the Covid show trial? Nosy lawyers just want to read his WhatsApps and trip him up.’  

They’re certainly using the Inquiry as a means of continuing their intimidating assault on ‘lefty lawyers,’ which, as we know, is not only unfounded, unjustified, and downright ridiculous, but risks encouraging division which could have serious repercussions. Following Priti Patel’s lashing out at ‘lefty lawyers’ in 2020, the Law Society warned that lawyers are at risk of physical attack if politicians continue to ‘sling insults’ at them. 

But such warnings, of course, fall of deaf ears with the right-wing press. They are too preoccupied with defending the indefensible to think about any potential repercussions their hate-filled tripe might have on hard-working, honest people. 

Woke Bashing of the Week: Right-wingers in fit over Belgian character trying to bring inclusivity to Christmas  

The festive season never fails to send right-wingers into a frenzy, as they object to anything they deem ‘untraditional’ in an attempt to cook-up their half-baked culture wars. 

This week, the Belgium city of Ghent was in the firing line for employing an African female Santa Claus, who was “going to be draped in the colours of a Palestinian flag and hand out gifts to children at the town hall,”as GB News put it.  

Queen Nikkolah is the creation of artist Laura Nsengiyumva, who wanted to offer an alternative version to Sinterklass and his sidekick, Zwarte Piet – or Black Pete, a black-faced boy with curled-hair and large, painted on red lips. Belgium and the Netherlands celebrate St Nicholas Day on Dec 6, with celebrations involving Sinterklaas and his companion Zwarte Piet. Anti-racism campaigners have called for an end to the tradition in both countries. A protest against Zwarte Piet took place in the Belgian city of Kortrijk last month, calling for more inclusive, child-friendly celebrations.  

Geert Wilders, the far-right ‘Dutch Trump’ politician, promised to bring back the tradition in the manifesto that helped him secure gains in the recent Dutch election. 

Planning on dishing out sweets and treats to children in Ghent and spreading the joy of the festive season in an inclusive celebration, Queen Nikkolah found herself the target of a cultural firestorm.  

Far-right and Conservative politicians objected to the planned event, which 300 people had reportedly signed up to attend. They accused Queen Nikkolah of seeking to use children to push a political agenda while threatening tradition.  

The town’s mayor, Mathias de Clercq, a member of the Flemish conservative liberal party, joined in the noise, telling reporters that “we shouldn’t try to turn him [Sinterklass] into something else.” 

Anneleen Van Bossuyt, a politician with the right-wing populist party N-VA, described the proposed event as “absolutely unacceptable,” referring to it as “woker than woke” on the party’s website. The politician compared it to the proposal to put warnings on Pippi Longstocking books in Ghent’s library amid accusations that the stories contained racial stereotypes.  

Predictably, our right-wing press jumped on the story, leading with Van Bossuyt’s comment.  

‘Woker than woke’ splashed both the Telegraph and GB News, swooning over the character being ‘cancelled’ by Ghent, ‘after de Clerq stepped in.’ 

The reports ignore the explanation that Nsengiyumva provides about the creation of her character, that she saw Queen Nikkolah as an antidote to the Zwarte Piet stereotype, that is a strong, female black character.  

On the uproar she unwittingly created among the far-right, Nsengiyumva said: “It tells you a lot about their agenda, they need some targets and some distractions from real problems.” 

No doubt this is just the start of the right-wingers’ annual moaning that ‘you can’t say Christmas anymore.’  

TalkTV’s Julie Hartley-Brewer, billionaire and former Conservative Party deputy chairman Lord Ashcroft, and right-wing pundit Darren Grimes, whose GB News show was cancelled, have led claims about the nation’s alleged use of ‘festive time’ not ‘Christmas time.”  

Strange really, as I don’t know anyone who has a problem with the word ‘Christmas.’ Another half-baked fantasy by right-wingers desperate to tap into the prejudices of their audiences with dog-whistle talking points.  

Gabrielle Pickard-Whitehead is author of Right-Wing Watch

Comments are closed.