The Power of the Media                               

(This is a current extract from the Patterns of Power Repository.  An archived copy of this page is held at http://www.patternsofpower.org/edition02/6431.htm)

The media exert influence in democratic countries, both by persuading the population to vote for a particular party and by keeping politicians on their toes.  One classic example of mainstream media influence was the British election in 1992, when the Conservative victory was contrary to the findings of opinion polls.  The Sun newspaper claimed to have brought about the last-minute change of public opinion and, after the election, triumphantly ran the headline "It Was the Sun Wot Won It”.[1]  The paper's view of events on that occasion has been challenged,[2] but it cannot be denied that politicians are very concerned about how they are portrayed in the media; the subsequent Labour government under Tony Blair was very attentive to the media – and to the Sun newspaper in particular.[3]

In some authoritarian countries the mainstream media are shackled, but the Internet has provided alternative means of communication.  The Malaysian election in March 2008 offered an example of the power of the Internet; Reuters reported on the impact of YouTube:

Malaysia's weak opposition was up against a hostile mainstream media and restrictive campaign rules, but it can chalk up much of its stunning success in Saturday's election to the power of cyberspace”.[4]

Even in a country with freedom of the press, the Internet is an important additional channel; it was credited with playing an important part in America’s 2008 election, for example.[5]

© PatternsofPower.org, 2014                                                 

[1] A BBC News Online report, The Sun's election predictions, appeared on Monday 2 April 2001.  It included the following quotation:

“The Sun spent all of the 1980s and a large portion of the 1990s attacking Labour.

Its criticism was particularly vitriolic about the former Labour leader Neil Kinnock who it constantly attacked while pouring praise on the then prime minister Margaret Thatcher.

In 1992, when John Major was running against Mr Kinnock, the Sun's front page on the day of the poll proclaimed: "if Labour wins today will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights".

The next day, in typically self-congratulatory form, it claimed it was "The Sun wot won it" for the Tories.”

This article was available in May 2014 at http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/1255657.stm.

[2] Peter Kellner wrote an article entitled Media power: a myth, which was published in the August 2011 edition of Prospect magazine; he quoted a study which had concluded:

“Neither the Sun nor any other of the pro-Conservative tabloid newspapers were responsible for John Major’s unexpected victory.”

This article was available in May 2014 at http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/2011/07/power-of-the-sun-newspaper-murdoch-overrated/.

[3] The Economist, on 10 March 2005, published an article entitled The fourth estate gets nasty, in which it referred to “Mr Blair’s almost frenzied courtship of newspaper executives”.  This article was available in May 2014 at http://www.economist.com/node/3749532.

[4] Bill Tarrant’s report appeared on 9 March 2008, and was available in May 2014 from http://www.reuters.com/article/2008/03/09/us-malaysia-election-cyberspace-idUSKLR6139420080309.

[5] An article on 5 November 2008 in Information Week, entitled Obama Election Ushering In First Internet Presidency, suggested that the Internet would be “the king of all political media”.  The article was available in May 2014 at http://www.informationweek.com/news/government/212000815.