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August 20, 2007

Newspapers: Opinion Formers or Followers?

One of the tropes of the conversation about the media is that because the press is all right wing then the proper lefty arguments never get an airing. Murdoch and the Mail blindside everyone to the joys of socialism sort of stuff.

However, this does rely on the idea that newspapers attempt to bring their audience around to their way of thinking. What if, in contrast, newspapers reflect, amplify perhaps, the already extant prejudices of their readership? That is, that they're endeavouring to give people what they want, not to change them?

The Guardian is running a series explaining the various papers topeople and certainly, the Professor of Journalism who is writing it, Peter Cole, seems to take the latter view:

They have always invested heavily in journalism and have understood their audience and its prejudices.The two Mail titles, particularly the Daily, have always reflected those prejudices rather than the contemporary world, eschewing the prevailing social, cultural and political values on the basis that there are many people, Mail readers, who do so too.

Those Mail views can be characterised thus: for Britain and against Europe; against welfare (and what it describes as welfare scroungers) and for standing on your own feet; more concerned with punishment than the causes of crime; against public ownership and for the private sector; against liberal values and for traditional values, particularly marriage and family life. It puts achievement above equality of opportunity and self-reliance above dependence.

If this is true (and there's academic research that seems to show the same) then the "right wingness" works the other way around to what is commonly claimed. Rather than the papers making people right wing, the papers are right wing because the people are.

August 20, 2007 in Media | Permalink


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Andrew Neil in the Guardian is also questioning the power and influence of the Tory press:

"Does Britain still boast (if that's the right verb) a Tory press? Certainly Fleet Street still has a preponderance of right-leaning papers. But the old Tory press, once the most politically powerful media in the country, has effectively disappeared. This is one of the reasons why David Cameron is still struggling to make his mark."

It's certainly worth reading on the predicted fate of the red-tops as the result of the increasing competition from the internet.

Posted by: Bob B | Aug 20, 2007 7:42:14 AM

My readers made me do it.

Posted by: Guido Fawkes | Aug 20, 2007 11:06:25 AM

Confirmation bias. People tend to seek out material which is congruent with their own views. Their opinions are reinforced by those view but not made by them.
The idea that the media shape society is, I suspect, only taken seriously by media studies undergrads. You would not expect a bearded vegetarian social worker to become a rabid free marketeer and exponent of the death penalty if he switched from the Guardian to the Daily Mail would you ?
The idea that there is right wing conspiracy in the media is laughable. Most people working in the media are white middle class adherents of liberal left orthodoxy (aka political correctness) and this is reflected in the fact that it is very hard to find genuine "right wing" opinion in any mainstream media. Just look at the reaction to what a decade ago would have been considered uncontoversial proposals around married tax allowances to see how far to the left the centre of gravity has gone.

Posted by: Matt Munro | Aug 20, 2007 1:07:48 PM

That is, that they're endeavouring to give people what they want, not to change them?

That's clearly what happened with Fox News in the States. Murdoch saw a gap in the market for news from a majority perspective, and plugged it.

I suppose that's why the left hate it with such passion: it seems you're only supposed to be biased when you are trying to change people's bad opinions, not when you are just making money.

Posted by: Stephen | Aug 20, 2007 1:41:34 PM

"I suppose that's why the left hate it [Fox News] with such passion"


Please remind us about how well the Republicans did in the Mid-term elections last November and why "George W. Bush now has the worst approval rating of an American president in a generation".

But many thanks for the joke.

Btw I certainly don't regard myself as coming from the "left" - whatever that is supposed to mean.

Posted by: Bob B | Aug 20, 2007 2:32:07 PM

Bob B,

I think you should look at the approval figures for the chambers that the democrats won.

worst ever.

Posted by: AntiCitizenOne | Aug 20, 2007 2:56:33 PM

If you look at the actual circulation of these papers compared to the population, I find it hard to understand why politicians, etc, still find them influential.
As for left or right wing, I don't think the majority of people are that polarised now anyway.

Posted by: Anthony North | Aug 20, 2007 3:56:43 PM

Bob B,

"Please remind us about how well the Republicans did in the Mid-term elections last November.."

I'm not sure what your point is here. I don't believe that Stephen was trying to suggest that Fox's success is due to a large number of Americans being uncritical supporters of George Bush. Is that the way you read it?

Posted by: Alastair | Aug 20, 2007 4:24:04 PM

By many reports from America, in 2003 Fox News was persistently pumping up the case for invading Iraq. The channel became notorious for its belligerent news reporting so much so that its reporting style became an issue in the eventually successful bid Murdoch made this year for Dow Jones and the Wall Street Journal.

On the eve of the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, the American press were reporting c. 70% support in the polls there for a war with Iraq. Since then the polls have swung the other way decisively:

"Support for the decision to go to war in Iraq has fallen to its lowest level since the campaign began in March 2003, according to a USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup Poll released Tuesday." [3 May 2005]

My political memories go back to WW2 and I can't recall another American president since then who was held in lower esteem here than George W Bush, and that includes Nixon.

Bush is regarded as a bad joke - in comedy shows, he is routinely portrayed as the village idiot and audiences always find that hilarious. Of course, some commentators try to twist that into claiming liberal media bias or anti-Americanism but the fact is that Clinton is warmly welcomed whenever he makes a public appearance here and Americans regularly appear on our media without eliciting hostility - if anything, quite the contrary.

Posted by: Bob B | Aug 20, 2007 8:06:24 PM