Media Influence on Politics

Media influence on politics can be very potent, affecting politicians’ decision-making and having a significant impact on election results.

Traditional media organisations, although declining, still wield considerable political influence.  As described in a Guardian article, Revenge of the tabloids, “now, in Theresa May’s Brexit Britain, they look more powerful than ever”.  Newspapers and television companies exert influence in democratic countries – both by persuading the population to vote for a particular party and by keeping politicians on their toes – but authoritarian countries might not allow criticisms of the government.

Media organisations can select what news they wish to report and can slant their interpretations to suit whatever narrative they want.  They also carry advertisements, which are necessarily brief, and which may be negative.  Many people receive all their news through a limited number of channels which reflect their political viewpoint; everything they read and hear reinforces their existing views; many parrot newspapers rather than thinking for themselves.

Media influence in American elections has been widely noted.  Nancy LeTourneau’s Washington Monthly article, GOP Leadership Has Been Ejected From the Epistemic Bubble, recalled that David Frum, a former speechwriter for George W Bush, had argued that the right-wing media were in danger of dominating the Republican Party’s narrative without being under the control of its leadership.  And Ronald Dworkin, in his book Is Democracy Possible Here?, characterised media domination as a threat to America’s entire political system.

A classic British example of media influence was in the 1992 election, 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; a BBC News Online report, The Sun’s election predictions, 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.”

Peter Kellner, though, wrote an article in Prospect magazine, Media power: a myth, which challenged the paper’s view of events on that occasion.  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.”

It cannot be denied, however, that the media influence politicians – who are very concerned about how they are portrayed.  The subsequent Labour government under Tony Blair was very attentive to the press, and to the Sun newspaper in particular.  An Economist article, The fourth estate gets nasty, referred to “Mr Blair’s almost frenzied courtship of newspaper executives”.

Influential religious media, such as Conservative News and Views and religious radio, also recommend how people should vote.  Politicians who want that support will tilt their policies accordingly.



This page is intended to form part of Edition 4 of the Patterns of Power series of books.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition04/6431.htm.