The Tory Press? It’s complicated…

The local elections in England provide a fascinating glimpse into the way that newspapers interact with electoral politics.

Take a look at today’s the front pages; “The Savaging of Red Ed” says the Mail. “Surge by UKIP throws Labour into poll crisis” says the Telegraph.

Daily Mail 24 May 2014UKIP’s share of the vote actually fell this year. We can argue about how this is partly due to a feeble UKIP performance in London (London wasn’t polled last year) but even then, this is very surprising. This time the election is held on the same day as the Euro elections. We should have expected UKIP’s vote to have increased substantially under these circumstances.

That was the received electoral wisdom only a few days ago: UKIP are going to cause a stir this time because the election is held on the same day as the Euros. Political insiders were giving each other knowing nods and winks about how the silly commentariat were going to be deceived by strong UKIP showing because of the Euro-election pairing.

Even with blanket media coverage, and this happy Eurosceptic synergy, UKIP wins just 5% of council seats, gets 17% of a 36% turnout, and overall control of nowhere. Yet the reporting of the UKIP ‘surge’ goes on. 6% of the voters turned out for them in a mid-term poll. If – and it is a big ‘if’ – UKIP have an impact in 2015 – it will hurt the Tories a good deal more than Labour. Read John McTernan’s tweets. There is a man who slept very soundly last night while headline writers everywhere lost their damn minds.

It would be very surprising if UKIP don’t do a great deal better when the Euro poll results are announced on Sunday, but the idea that the old parties have been savaged, or that there has been a ‘political earthquake’ [(c) Nick Robinson] – it’s nonsense. UKIP have today established that they may continue to be a protest vote for future Euro elections, but we have now passed peak-UKIP.

It’s not just the official ‘Tory Press’ who are doing this either. Even the two ‘Independent’ titles go with variations on ‘Hurricane Nigel’. Elsewhere, the BBC’s promotion of Farage in name of ‘balance’ along with this pre-rehearsed puffing up of the ‘UKIP surge’ means that they’ve got some explaining to do. Other newspapers have an obvious pre-disposition to selectively support them, but the BBC have allowed themselves to be played here.

This is really a surprisingly poor result for UKIP. A damp squib. Their vote will decline badly between now and the general election. I’d bet on it. That is the story, and it is not being told almost anywhere.

So, why are the press providing a largely fictional reporting of the elections? Why are they pretending that a curve that is declining from a peak is actually a rising line?

The explanation for this has to go beyond simple political misdirection. We’re all familiar with later scenes in Citizen Kane where two self-serving headlines are prepared to cover either electoral eventuality. Clearly, Tory newspapers want to discomfort the Labour Party.

‘Churnalism’ is one explanation, I suppose. Meagre journalistic resources were deployed to write up the expected outcome, and the ocean-liner can’t be turned around quickly enough to cope with an unexpected result. But there’s more than that, isn’t there? “UKIP Surge” may sell more papers perhaps?

Remember when Ken Livingstone first rocked Labour’s boat in challenging Frank Dobson for the Mayoralty? The press ate it up. The old ‘Red Ken’ moniker was mothballed. A plucky outsider was wiping the smug smile off Tony Blair’s boat-race. Control Freakery was being confounded by the little guy! It was a great story, and there appeared to be almost a conspiracy to ignore Ken’s more dubious connections – until it was too late.

Once his electoral success had been nailed on, the press returned in full flow with scare stories about how Trafalgar Square was to be re-dedicated to Bobby Sands and suchlike, but the story they seemed to see the most mileage in was the one where Blair got his toes trodden on and then the governance of London would provide years of entertainment for their readers.

Press bias is clearly not a simple conspiracy theory. It’s complicated and its entertaining, but it’s definitely there – and it surely qualifies as an ‘ideology’. Not a Tory one in England, but one that the Tories are probably a bit happier with than Labour will ever be.

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